Fictional predictions – Asimov’s psychohistory

Predictions, predictions…  Following on from William Gibson reiterating that it is no part of the job of science fiction writers to predict, despite the culture’s persistence in casting them in that role, it is interesting, perhaps, to take another look at one famous story in which prediction is the order of the day – but as something which is possible in the fictional world. Just because we cannot predict the future, only tell stories about possible futures, that sad (or heartening) fact does not stop you telling stories in which the future is predictable.

The most famous of these in classic science fiction is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, written between 1942 and 1952. (He produced more Foundation novels toward the end of his life, and the sequence has since been continued by others).

The trilogy portrays the fall of a galactic empire – one with innumerable fictional descendents. But the key to the books is the science of “psychohistory”, developed by Hari Seldon – who may have looked like this.

Cover illustration featuring Hari Seldon from ...

Image via Wikipedia

Seldon’s Foundations (yes, there are two: one open, one covert) are set up to guide action toward a revival of empire, using his foreknowledge of events.

How did Asimov, whose own scientific training was in biochemistry, depict psychohistory?  Pretty vaguely. It is supposed to be statistically based, on the principle that individuals are unpredictable but the behaviour of masses of people can be calculated – the insurance industry relies on the same idea, and it has been explored in other contexts in Philip Ball’s excellent Critical Mass. But the mathematical breakthroughs which allow Seldon to take the principle further are not really described.

And when you read closely, the results are a mite contradictory. Psychohistory is only supposed to yield probabilities, but they turn out to be amazingly exact – an impression reinforced by Seldon turning up on archived video at various points and, rather annoyingly,  telling people what is about to happen.  There is also a strong sense that his science offers a way of reading laws of history, which have inevitable outcomes. In which case it is less clear why the Foundation needs to intervene. The whole thing is a good yarn, partly because  Seldon’s Plan knits together a narrative which spans centuries, while other characters die off.  But the attempt to figure psychohistory as a science seems less and less convincing as time passes. Seldon is Nostradamus with knobs on.

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One Comment on “Fictional predictions – Asimov’s psychohistory”

  1. detonacciones Says:

    Indeed, something like Asimov’s psychohistory may have recently become a reality “here on Earth”: I have found a group that claims to have derived a system of seven psychohistorical equations, using a new mathematics that their founder, “Karl Seldon”, discovered, and that allegedly reconstruct humanity’s past on this planet, and that ‘pre-construct’ its future. See —

    http://www.dialectics.org/dialectics/Welcome.html

    http://www.dialectics.org/dialectics/Aoristoss_Blog/Entries/2012/5/19_The_F.E.D._Psychohistorical_Equations.html

    — and which give the locations of their offices as “Stars’ End, NY” and “Terminious, CA.”


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