Asimov’s psychohistories, Hegel’s histories

[If science fiction is viewed as history in reverse (or as alternate history), what does it reveal about the way history is written and understood?]

The first female character in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation appears in the final third of the book. Licia, wife of the Korellian republic’s leader, is a young woman whose “face was pale and coldly formed” and whose “voice was tart”. She taunts and threatens her husband, invoking her father’s power: “My father would pulverize your toy nation to meteoric dust.” She makes another brief, and similarly insignificant, appearance thirty or so pages later, which marks the end of female presence in this novel that spans a hundred and fifty “Foundation years.”

Rereading a classic can be revealing. I remembered little from my first reading twenty years ago, and on this occasion reading Foundation was like entering a video-game world of men with their politics and guns and trading ships. The sense of place, a vital element for imagining a world vastly different from our own, was all but missing, and the only cultural references included a “vegan” cigar, a two-century old wine, and a game of solitaire. Technology, too, seemed old-fashioned for a world fifty-thousand years in the future: calculators, elevators, public “visiphones” to make calls, “spy beams” to snoop on conversations, “air tubes” between ships, alchemical “transmuters” to convert iron into gold, atomic weapons, identification through a photo-bearing passport, and an encyclopedia containing all human knowledge. The novel was first published in 1953, and the last six decades have turned this view of a future world into an anachronistic vision. A sobering thought, it suggests that predicting the arc of technological progress is harder than we think it is. With our imaginations influenced by extant or emerging technologies, can we conjure up anything that wouldn’t pale half a century later?

Where the imagination scores – and this is the book’s strength – is in the concepts it proposes. The idea of ‘psychohistorians’ who use statistics to predict the future of large societies feels dangerously close to a science, and has influenced some recent thinkers, including Paul Krugman, who cites psychohistory as a motivation for taking up economics, a science of prediction closest to psychohistory in Krugman’s view. (He couldn’t, unfortunately, predict the 2008 financial crisis.) Science as religion is another thought-provoking idea, and while in history faith has usually followed trade, here religion (of science, and the technology it produces) is first used as a foreign policy tool to dominate neighbouring worlds, and trade arrives on the scene later.

Decline of an old order, birth of a new one – underlying this theme of the Foundation saga is the notion that historic forces, rather than individuals, drive civilizations forward (or backward):

Hari Seldon, when he planned our course of future history, did not count on brilliant heroics but on the broad sweep of economics and sociology. So the solutions of the various crises must be achieved by the forces that become available to us at the time.

During the first two crises in Foundation, religion is the major force; in the third it is trade. And yet, at each turning point – a “Seldon crisis” – there is an individual in charge, a hero who uses these forces to overcome the crisis. These elements have a striking parallel to Hegel’s philosophy of history, its theory that identifies two similar elements that move humanity towards freedom: great nation-states (like Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome) that embody the “Volksgeist – Spirit of a People”; and “world historic individuals” (heroes like Alexander, Julius Caesar, Napoleon) who unwittingly act as agents of historical change by serving the goals of a force – “the Absolute” – beyond them.

Without this Hegelian background, the use of heroes to affect change at key turning points almost contradicts the idea of broad historic forces. It may, in a novel like Foundation, just be a convenient narrative device to use character – the hero – to enliven the story, eliminating the need for long descriptions of forces that plotted history. But this understanding – of the use of heroes within a science fiction narrative – leads to other questions about history.

If science fiction is viewed as history in reverse (or as alternate history), what does it reveal about the way history is written and understood? The use of individuals as heroes in science fiction parallels heroes we see all through history. These historical heroes have come down to us through narratives – in verse or in prose, not unlike the narratives of science fiction, with their setting, characters, and conflicts – and the importance credited to these figures by the narratives, in contrast to the importance given to other social, political, economic, or environmental forces, appear out of proportion. Asimov’s Foundation was inspired by Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and instead of looking for traces of the latter in the former, it is perhaps more worthwhile to do the opposite and ask: how much does our understanding of Roman history, with its focus on individuals who built and ran the empire, owe to our tendency to use humans at the center of our narratives and of our world views? The decline of the Roman empire is put down to various factors, internal and external to the empire, but the rise is attributed mainly to those heroes who we’ve grown to worship: is this a coincidence, is it a common historic phenomenon, or is this reading the result of man’s fundamentally individualistic nature? How would an account of Roman history described through the forces that drove its rise and downfall, with humans as secondary characters, look? Has something of this nature been written? Is such an account possible at all, or has the prevailing view blinkered our vision so much that any such alternative amounts to sacrilege?

And most importantly: can such an alternate account change our view of history, and, consequently, of ourselves?

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