If you were born near Rome shortly before 400 AD, and somehow knew what was coming, would it change your life much? Assuming enough money and freedom to have some choice in the matter, would you set sail for Byzantium, or join with the Ostrogoths, or try to get in on the predecessors of Venice? Or just buy a vineyard, read some Virgil or Augustine, and wait?
The long decline of empire is hard enough to suss out retrospectively, let alone prospectively. We are told by sincere and learned historians that for all the enormous decline in population, the lights in the oil lamps that went out, the vast theaters that emptied, the aqueducts that failed, the steaming public baths that crumbled, the brick houses that gave way to wattle huts and the smoke of burning peat, perhaps things didn’t change so much. And no doubt they didn’t, in some places and times; the Roman Senate after all persisted until the late 6th century, long after the Western Empire’s apparent collapse and much longer after the end of the Republic.
The question remains: if you know (or think you know) what will come, does it make any difference to what happens, or even to your role in what happens? Those of us of an optimistic or stubborn turn of mind are often in the position of peering at the rush of news and events, and like a boy standing alongside a creek and tossing in a twig or a leaf, both watching and willing their little bark to make its way down the current to an unseen, larger river and the sea. This is the position of most parents, who must concede the inefficacy of their interventions to guide the twig down the stream- that instead will be guided by the unpredictable turbulence of the current and its own, intrinsic twiggy size and shape and density; but still we stand by the side of the stream, yelling and waving our arms, as it falters and spins and runs aground and then is released back into the flow, passes out of sight. So it is with the present, endlessly careening off into the future.
In my youth, these questions- of the knowability of the future and our capacity to influence it- were associated in my mind with Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series of science fiction novels. A Galactic Empire, aged, sclerotic and decrepit, is beginning to fall apart, and a new type of social scientist, Hari Seldon the psychohistorian, predicts its downfall using a kind of statistical mechanics of human behavior. Not content just to blackpill, Seldon offers a path to softening the fall of empire and abbreviating the dark ages to follow. A group of physical scientists will travel to the outer rim of the Galaxy and, good monks of science, preserve the knowledge of the collapsing civilization in an Encyclopedia Galactica. Seldon dies and his emissaries start their Foundation, and, nearly lost amid the chaos of the faltering imperial order, encounter one crisis after another, in which not the knowledge of the encyclopedia but their adaptability, humanism, and trust in science allow them to prevail, just as Seldon predicted- at least until the later books in the series, when new dangers undreamt of by psychohistory arise. From time to time, a holographic ghost of Seldon appears and, like a newspaper pundit or pseudonymous twitter account, complements himself for predicting the Foundation’s actions and victories centuries in advance, even when he gets it quite wrong and something entirely different has taken place.
The books began in 1942 as a set of short stories written (no doubt in a matter of days if not hours) by the 21-year-old Asimov for the paid-by-the-word Astounding Magazine. Asimov, who claimed with only moderate exaggeration to have written over 400 books, was a sometime gifted writer of explanatory text; his children’s history of the Roman Republic has stuck with me for 35 years; his writing occasionally rises to lyricism in recounting the discovery of Xenon Tetrafluoride and other moments of scientific revelation. His fiction, though, is usually a barely-ornamented set of schematic scenarios and conversations with little action and an absolute minimum of visual description or atmosphere. The protagonists in the early Foundation stories are uniformly male; mostly arrogant, intellectual, and cynical guys who sit around airless rooms and spaceships smoking cigars and arguing with each other. One suspects these stories are a good match for the Jewish New York surroundings Asimov grew up in, sitting around his relatives’ subway newsstand reading magazines and listening to his uncles argue, or to the vociferous subterranean cafeterias of City College, where he went before transferring to Columbia.
Like that dirty, noisy, argumentative midcentury New York, the scenarios of Asimov’s early stories, for all their literary limits, were extraordinarily influential: not just Foundation’s Galactic Empire and world-spanning cities and blasters and hyperspace and mind-controlling not-quite-Jedis, but the Robot series, which presaged much of our last seventy years of fascination and anxieties around human-acting, potentially human-supplanting machines. The Foundation sequels and prequels he added when enticed by a lot of money in the 1980s were less influential and self-contained. Still, in their computer-neural interfaces and world-spanning megaorganisms, they remained singularly reflective of their time while doing what science fiction seemed then uniquely capable of doing- pointing the way not just to any old future, but to a hopeful one.
That hope was key; sure the Galactic Empire was falling (inspired by young Asimov’s recent reading of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall), but rational, optimistic, wise-cracking Hari Seldon and his gang were there to bullshit and brainstorm a better future. Like Asimov’s later gee whiz science articles for Omni magazine- or like Carl Sagan and his Cosmos TV series or Marvin Minsky and his big plans for artificial intelligence, to take the two people Asimov conceded to have bigger brains than his own- the Foundation’s scientists and traders experience the universe as a unfolding of endlessly expanding possibilities, not fixed limits. Asimov imagines two main antagonists arrayed against the Foundation’s limitless techne: first the ignorant feudal forms of the decaying Empire, and then the secretive, shadowy workings of the Second Foundation, manipulating minds through hidden persuasion, rather than matter through natural science.
Indeed, if Asimov’s vision was prescient it was less in the ability of applied science endlessly to evade imperial decay (a proposition many who watched 2019’s Apollo 11 documentary must doubt) than the evolution of a third culture independent of the two described by CP Snow as science and the arts. This third culture takes on the forms of science, and the social sciences as practiced are some of its main tools, but its purposes are not to understand the world , but to change it. While Hari Seldon claims initially the guidance of mathematical psychohistory only provides a rough roadmap to the thousand-year future history of the Foundation, he institutes a hidden, managerial elite to interfere and perfect the flawed unfolding of that history. Like Paul Krugman, whose path into economics was guided by his reading of Foundation and his admiration for Seldon’s statistical mechanics of human behavior, Seldon finds you can’t just trust the equations and expect to stay aloof from how they unfold. (Sooner or later you start trusting your op-eds more than your math.)
Where Asimov went wrong in predicting a culture of social scientists predicated on changing history through their manipulation of the public was perhaps mainly in matter of scale. Seldon’s Second Foundation stays manageably small and compact and mostly effective, while our hidden persuaders have multiplied in number, noise, and agendas until they not only become unbearably obtrusive (and no longer hidden) but seemingly not terribly effective as well.
In another, not-so-distant galaxy, the Foundation books would have faded easily from consciousness, lingering mainly in the patchy memories of childhood readings by Boomer and Gen X men. Most of the books’ most marketable facets were made use of decades ago, in Star Wars or Dune or Hitchhiker’s Guide. Not so long ago, the director James Cameron was asked about the Foundation series as intellectual property and replied “eh, that’s a hard one,” put off likely not just by the 1,000 year scale but by the paucity of human drama aside from their intellectual and metahistorical interest. In our galaxy, though, the endlessly replicating content services’ hunger for the narrative spice of unexploited intellectual property, and Apple TV’s new streaming service took it up as one of its first scripted programs, with high production values and a planned multi (or even ten) season scope.
The first season of the show mixes an A plot loosely based on the books (although revised to comply with contemporary race-essentialist and feminist mores) with a B plot exploring the imperial center at the time of the Foundation’s early years. The B plot, with a series of cloned emperors at various stage of life’s development, feels the more authentically Asimovian, even if the storyline is almost wholly the show-runners. It is interested in the limits to individuality, loyalty, and choice imposed by the possibility of cloning and genetic technology, in a way the writer would have enjoyed, and in how those questions might interface with the running of a vast absolutist state. The A plot, meanwhile, based on the early Foundation stories themselves, feels like an exercise first in Hollywood self-indulgence- lots of actresses grimacing between poorly choreographed fight scenes, with the occasional TV-14 rated sex scene thrown in- and second a kind of Oedipal antagonism with its progenitors, at the level of values and ideas as much as incident. The books’ premise of psychohistory working on the operations of mass psychology and collective social movements is almost entirely thrown out, to make the Foundation’s prospects depend instead on the idiosyncrasies of individuals and their “specialness.” Various schematic racial caricatures appear with painfully direct allegories for liberal sympathies- one world of black-skinned climate refugees from storms and rising seas; one world of warlike Middle Easterners, unjustly accused of a terrorist attack and eager to take part in suicidal retribution; one world of Eastern European hackers. A pair of black female protagonists are given untold semi-magical gifts, and plot armor not just against the violent incidents they are thrown into, but against time itself, shuttling across decades in suspended animation so they can be there for the next act. A few memorable lines from the books- such as “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent” are repurposed as pointless irony, since obviously violence directed against the powerful and guilty is righteous and true; the father who tells his daughter this pearl of wisdom soon throws his life away for her in selfless and seemingly pointless sacrifice, and she is soon revealed to be not his biological daughter at all.
This patricidal impulse has a certain literal flavor as well. Robyn Asimov, Isaac’s daughter, is one of the executive producers’ of the show, and she has written coolly before about her father’s compulsive egotism and sexual self-indulgence, that doomed her parents marriage; one suspects that insofar as she exerts influence over the show, it may be well to redirect the series episodes in opposition to the books’ and her father’s ethos as to keep them loyal to it. (Her brother, David Asimov, was arrested a few years after his father’s death, as a major purveyor of child pornography.) If our immediate culture has a parent, it might well be the Jewish-inflected, humanist, intellectual, and masculine egotism that ruled science and popular culture from around the time of the first Foundation stories to roughly the time of Harvey Weinstein’s arrest and Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide. That this culture so quickly lost its hold and gave way to something new- neither a First Foundation of natural science and technological triumphalism, nor a Second Foundation of social science and hidden persuaders, but something cruder and more relentless- may have to do in part with the broad strokes of psychohistory, the products of mass technocultural churn, which indeed passed rapidly through something like the First Foundation to the Second Foundation to the Third in the changing character of the internet in its first few decades, as the population of users expanded and transformed. But this metamorphosis in our culture, and the rapid abandonment of the skills of man and techne that allowed it such unprecedented power, is also a kind of failed patrimony, a simple failure perhaps due to the simplest of failings; fathers who may like Isaac Asimov have shared more than enough words, but still couldn’t guide their little rafts down time’s winding and unpredictable stream.