Asimov's Foundation - niece needs help

My neice the budding engineer is taking a Sci-Fi course for her Humanities req at college. She’s doing fine with most of it, but she just read Foundation, and it went completely over her head. It’s been 30 years since my Asimov period, and I don’t remember much of Foundation. In fact, the more I read about it, the more I think I didn’t reaad that, although I know and remember the Robot series.

Here’s her question:

She’s not asking for my (or you) to write her paper, just something that will make it click for her. Can anyone help?


Um, St. Germain? Asimov writes at maybe a 7th-grade level. Seriously, the Foundation Trilogy was originally published as pulp fiction back in the 50’s. If it is going over your niece’s head, she didn’t read it. Sorry, but that is my hypothesis.

You can look at Foundation as an argument both for and against “History is defined by trends” vs. “History is defined by Great Men/Persons” - psychohistory lays out the trends in the form of statistical large-number patterns, and the heros along the way both fit into those trends and push the Foundation along, and act as Great Men, establishing turning points in the Foundation’s acquisition of power and influence…and the Mule, although a mutant, would be the epitome of a Great Man perturbing the flow of history…

But she should read the books.

Agreed. But I must nitpick: The Mule does not appear in Foundation. He’s the antagonist in the second book, Foundation and Empire.

Of course, Hari Selden also perturbs the course of history. Had there been a previous psychohistorian who tried to predict the course of history, Selden would have thrown those predictions off. Of course, one of the laws of psychohistory is that it only works on populations that don’t understand it.

Working from my vague recollections of reading the book around 8 years ago, a “hero” in the Seldonian sense would be an individual who, as the result of social patterns beyond his ken, becomes the instrument of a sweeping but inevitable social change. Psychohistory isn’t sophisticated enough to predict invidual behaviors - but by carefully examining and controlling the starting conditions, Seldon was able to force the Foundation down a path which, at certain points in its history, would lead to only one specific possible course for the nation to take, such as the policital coup against the encyclopedists in Part 2, or its religious dominance of the neighboring states in Part 3. The “hero” is a person who happens to be living in the right place, at the right time, who becomes the executor of this change.

I was commenting on the Trilogy overall. I previously owned a first edition, first state set of the Trilogy, so I am pretty familiar with it :wink:

Asimov’s Foundation series is more like “History as Statistical Mechanics” (as opposed to Leo Tolstoy’s view in War and Peace – "History as Calculus (with people as the differentials)). Asimov himself claimed that it was based on Gibbons’ “Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire”.
The individual stories that make up the book has protagonists, but not “heroes” in the usual sense. Seldon himself forces them into roles they either have to take, or else give up.

You may realize he wrote juvies, but teachers are great for getting the bug up their asses that there is always some deep inner meaning in fiction. Thus they make demands for asinine papers demonstrating some deep inner meaning that just plain isn’t there.

Wordman -Well, my neice is nobody’s dummy, and almost pathological about doing homework, so I’m sure she probably read it. She’s a Sophomore at Rose-Hulman, an engineering college, so she’s also a numbers person, not a literary one. I think that’s why this has her stymied - everything has always come easily to her, but she just doesn’t get this book. She may be having more of a problem with the literary concept of hero, as opposed to the popular culture concept of a hero as someone who has exceed today’s norms (“Our hero has won the county pie eating contest!”).

Thanks for the replies so far!


Asimov really only has one type of protagonist, the quick tempered, single-minded, intellectual jerk who knows he’s right even when nobody else believes in him, because he’s the only one smart enough to recognize the truth, which is obvious in hindsight after the protagonist explains it, and I think that describes both Hardin and Mallow.

That’s how I saw it. The question asked of the students didn’t make sense. It sounded like psycho-babble to me. Maybe the teacher never read the book.

First, it was originally written in the '40s. The stories were collected in book form as three novels in the early '50s.

To answer the question, I think that the heroes are those who act for the good of humanity as a whole and its eventual destiny. Those who oppose them (I’m not sure I’d call them villains) were those who thought locally, and who were concerned with building up power for their system. The power the Foundation achieved through its new religion was to benefit the future, not for their own advancement.

Cool; you certainly know the situation better than I ever could.

As for the question:

What is “good”? I.e., Are the for central male characters “heros” and if so, what are they doing that makes them heroic?

“Examine qualities of a hero in a world dominated by p-history” - i.e., a restatement of the same question: if you believe that Asimov is casting the four male leads as heroes, and they exist in a world of p-history, what are they doing that is heroic?

Seems straightforward enough, yes?

One thing that might be confusing is that Asimov often does not have villains. The “I Robot” stories have robots causing problems due to some unexpected consequence of the three laws, and are not villains in the traditional sense. That is true in Foundation also, where the villain might be more the historical forces dissolving the Empire than any individual person.

As much as I resent helping anybody with their homework (and I share the suspicion that she just didn’t read it because it’s written on a pretty simple level with very basic language and spare plotting. Asomov didn’t deal in complex subtext - or ANY subtext), what your niece needs to focus on is what these prortagonists are protecting with their actions. What is it that they themselves see as necessary and “good,” and what sort of methods do they employ to protect it? What is the ultimate, long term goal of their entire settlement on Terminus?

By “a world dominated by psychohistory,” I’m assuming the instructor is referring only to the planet Terminus, since it’s the only planet in the galaxy to employ that science as part of its governance (or to really even know of it at all after a certain point), so she needs to think about what that science tells them (essentially it tells them the broad outlines of the future), and in particular to focus on what the “Seldon Crises” are, and how they inspire the “heroes” to act.

I suddenly have the urge to go read that again.

I guess you could argue if the hero is someone like Hari Seldon (who saw what was coming and got the ball rolling), or Salvor Hardin (the person who realized what was going on and put all the peices together).

In the last few parts of the book didn’t psychohistory kind of given away into Scientism? Maybe the prof. didn’t read it.

The question is about specific chapters of the book dealing with “Seldon Crises,” which are definitely psychohistory.

I think what "Based on the four cenral male characters in parts 2-5, examine the qualities of a “hero” in a world dominated by psychohistory” means is, given that psychohistory is predeterminative, there’s no room for free agency. The classic hero is able, through his actions, to save his people or stop the bad guy or whatever. But in the world Asimov made, the actions of the individual doesn’t matter. Everything that happens is inevitable. The crisis comes because of grand historical processes, and it resolves according to grand historical processes. So how does an individual hero matter?

Oh, sure - write the darn thing for her… :D;)

I would disagree with, or at least modify one assertion - p-history is about probabilities; it allows for free will both in the collapsing of possibilities through specific events (e.g., choosing one of the potential futures through action), or through the advent of an unforseeable perturbation, e.g., The Mule. Doesn’t change your fundamental question about a hero’s role in that world…

Local victories matter on a local scale, but I guess in the grander scheme of things, nothing really new would be introduced.

Selden did not try to predict individual history, but the much more macro-scale history of societies. In other words, even if you killed Hitler, WW2 would still have happened.