Review of “Forward the Foundation” by Isaac Asimov

Well, that was surprisingly reactionary.

This book picks up right where the last one left off. Plot wise, not much actually happens. We now have a basic understanding of what Hari Seldon’s plan for the foundation actually is. As best we can tell, Seldin has devised a method for storing as much human knowledge as possible to minimize the fallout from the collapse of society.

What’s most interesting about this book, since it’s not particularly plot-drive, is Asimov’s description of civilizational decay. His description is very reactionary.

You’re, of course, considered a nut for thinking that our current civilization is in decline. Many of those who do think our civilization is in decline, think that our civilization will end with a bang. Your humble blogger, however, is a member of the few nuts that think our civilization is in a slow, relatively comfortable, but nevertheless inexorable decay.

This is the sort of decay that Asimov describes in this book. He may opt for a bang that shatters civilization in a later book, but not yet.

His decline is characterized by an Empire that’s getting larger and more costly, but that is unable to exert any kind of good governance. It’s anarcho-tyranny in fictional form. It’s also characterized by buildings that aren’t regularly repaired, litter, petty crime, red tape, and thinking small. In sum, stuff like this and this.

It’s the sort of decline, that if you notice it today, you’re considered cranky or hopelessly reactionary. These sorts of things don’t really matter on a societal scale, you’re told. Yet these sorts of things are the real symptoms of societal decay.

We know these symptoms, we see them all around us and we’re told not to pay attention.


17 Responses to Review of “Forward the Foundation” by Isaac Asimov

  1. asdf says:

    Do not take this as a refutation so much as a thought exercise.

    Decay implies that at time X something is “good” and at time Y > X it is less “good”.

    However, in order to make that statement you need to have some concept of what is “the good”. GDP, happiness surveys, religiosity, military strength, artistic accomplishment, fertility, inclusiveness, whatever. Without some concept of what is good how can you argue things are getting less good.

    So, what is “the good” on which we will judge society and thus be able to determine if it is in decay?

    • James says:

      My ultimate choice is “pleasure – pain”.

      However, as far as common usage goes, there is no single, definite criterion. Wealth, rate of technological and scientific progress, comfort, security, art, military strength, civility and other things all contribute to most people’s assessment of a society. If most of these indexes are decreasing, people describe a society as “decaying”.

      Is this the book in which Asimov describes a decadent planet, where everyone wears colourful clothes? That sounds like the West.

      There should be a measure of reality in the Foundation series, because Asimov based it on Gibbon’s history of Rome.

      • asdf says:

        When I watch Honey Boo Boo I get the distinct impression that the participants are experiencing pleasure from their hedonism. And they have certainly turned the pain way down by avoiding any kind of struggle or self control.

        And yet if I had to figure out a symbol for societal decay I’d go straight there. There is more to life then pleasure – pain.

        *Note: This would be true whether they lived their lives based on welfare or low level service jobs. So for our purposes let us forgo considering that aspect, it really is a tangent off the main point.

    • Foseti says:

      I don’t think it’s all that complicated in this case. Cleanliness is better than dirtiness, well-maintained buildings are better than ones falling apart, safe streets are better than crime-ridden ones, predictable and consistent travel times between points A and B are better than chaos, etc.

      • asdf says:

        On the outside many totalitarian governments secure those things, but we don’t really consider them good societies.

      • Foseti says:

        That’s true, but without those things it’s hard to argue that the minimum standards of good government are met.

      • asdf says:

        Necessary but insufficient seems accurate enough.

        If we go past that though I wonder what metric we use.

  2. Tschafer says:

    “Civic Virtue” is a pretty nebulous concept, but that, or something like it, seems to be the unspoken metric here.

  3. It’s said that Asimov was inspired by Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall” so I guess it was foregone that the narrative he came up with is ‘declinist’.

    To the extent his descriptions resemble the thinking of actual ‘reactionary’ declinists I wouldn’t exactly count it to the latters’ credit. The premise of ‘Foundation’ (I haven’t read it in 10+ years) is that a ‘science of history’ can be worked out, thereby allowing for (highly accurate, at least until the…but oops I don’t want to spoil the series for you) predictions of future societal dynamics.

    Fun books and all but ‘psychohistory’ itself is an unrealistic, inhuman, if not stupid premise. It’s no surprise that young Pauly Krugman loved this tale and was inspired by it to become an economist, or whatever it is he thinks he is today. But non-Krugmanites, and especially ‘reactionaries’, should probably look elsewhere for vindication of the merits of their thinking. This is especially clear if you take into account where the series ended up in the (inferior) later sequels from the ’80s.

    • Toddy cat says:

      I enjoyed the Foundation series way back when, but I agree, anything that inspired Paul Krugman has to be looked at askance.

      • Master Dogen says:

        I realize this is probably just a jocular comment. But for the record: I don’t let Nazis ruin my appreciation of Wagner or Nietzsche, and I refuse to let that worm Krugman ruin my appreciation of anything. Askance, pshaw.

    • Master Dogen says:

      The difference is that for Asimov “psychohistory” is indeed just a premise, a plot device for a ripping good sci-fi series. The most interesting details and plot twists of the Foundation series don’t try to *argue for* psychohistory (especially not in the core Foundation books). Asimov simply posits it as a reality in his fictional universe and then asks, “Given the truth of psychohistory, what are the interesting and unexpected ways that this science would influence the future direction of the galaxy?” They are very simplistic books in that sense, and not very philosophically complex at all. He doesn’t suggest we implement psychohistory and thereby change human history. He simply recognizes the reliable patterns of human history and then introduces a novel disrupting force and pursues its consequences.

      Something like this: Recognizably familiar human nature + outlandish future-tech science achievement = cool story.

      Someone like Krugman is doing something completely different. He WANTS to be a psychohistorian. He’s not just musing on it, he’s trying to make a fictional plot device into an actual means of molding the world. There’s a world (galaxy?) of difference.

      • Agreed, ‘psychohistory’ is just a premise, and a fine one for a space opera. I guess what I’m trying to point out is just that if real-life declinist/reactionaries see echoes of themselves in Hari Seldon and echoes of the US’s “decline” in the foreordained fate of Trantor, something is wrong, since those things are constructs that spring from a cheesy and unrealistic sci-fi conceit.

    • Zimriel says:

      “Psychohistorical Crisis” is one critique of Asimov’s Second Foundation.

  4. Zimriel says:

    The Foundation series at base is a series of short-stories, thinly masking essays on political-theory.

    When Asimov was writing the first batch – which we’d read as up to the halfway mark of Foundation and Empire – Asimov was young. For America, at that time, even the skies posed no limit.

    “Forward the Foundation” is Foundation as written by an older man in an older America.

  5. […] Foseti: A plea for common sense; Review of “Forward the Foundation” by Isaac Asimov […]

  6. Tom White says:

    That book was the worst of the Foundation series. Every book about the Foundation Asimov wrote after Second Foundation went progressively down hill.

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