Psycho History Killer


Snappy title but…

As anyone who wanders around this tiny corner of cyberspace (remember when it was called that!) knows I worry about things like time travel and thermodynamics.  This all means that whilst I enjoy my sci-fi, I have to suspend a lot of belief to do so. One case that brings this together well is the brilliant (yet badly flawed) Foundation Series by the equally brilliant (and probably not at all flawed) Isaac Asimov. Yes we are back in old school classic twentieth century science fiction territory. The same flaw also exists in the great yet trashy Lensmen series by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith. There’s a name I haven’t conjured with for years! I even touch on another doctor at the end!

Remind me…

Well, in case you’ve forgotten (or not read) them, there are three great books written by Isaac Asimov in the 50s and kept as a trilogy until the late 70s / 80s when he merged them (with initially mixed success) with his Robot and Elijah Bailey stories (the latter filmed as the fun but entirely different I Robot.). Read wiki for full details.

In these the great mathematician Hari Seldon came up with a way to forecast human history and predicted the fall of Galactic Civilisation and that the oncoming dark ages could be reduced by setting up a super library (wikipedia!) on the small world of Foundation.

The books then chart history proceeding and the series of prophetic pronouncements pre-recorded by Seldon timed to match the resolution of major issues that the Foundation faces. All jolly good stuff.

What’s the problem?

Essentially the problem is that most of the situations in the books pivot on unique events rather than social trends. An example being the discovery of a wrecked spacecraft passing on some technology to a group who then exploit it to turn events in their favour.

Asimov himself seems to rail against the books – the middle book pivots around the fact that the prophecies fail when faced with a psionic mutant (the Mule) who builds an empire that shouldn’t happen and then embarks on a quest for the fabled Second Foundation the home of the legendary mathematics of Hari Seldon.

In the third book the Second Foundation is explored further. Later in the 80s even the Second Foundation are led to complain that history is still following the Seldon Plan despite the odds of that outcome being miniscule and there are concerns that there may be a third Foundation or even some other power. I won’t spoil it but the whole set are really worth a read (and where are my copies?)

Why can’t it work though?

Well, as I said in my thermodynamics piece (here) thermodynamics does give classical results (simple equations) as the statistical treatment of billions of billions of molecules of gas does give an overall behaviour. What it doesn’t do it tell you how any one molecule will  behave in isolation.

There is a sense in which a large population (or the stock exchange or other systems) will behave in a roughly predictable way but only so far. Look at general election voting for a recent UK example.

To drag things down to the contemporary and the real world, look at all the trouble in North Africa and the Middle East – a skilled informed observer might predict the trend of social unrest / marches / riots / attempted revolution and so forth, but could never tell you the specifics of who, how and precisely when. This is why psychohistory can not work.

This is also why in Doctor Who the web of time can only exist in broad terms, and needed the Celestial Intervention Agency to protect the outcomes for the Time Lords.

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About Tony Jones
Big Finish writer, reviewer and blogger, I'm interested in science fiction and Doctor Who. I review for CultBox, The Doctor Who Companion and others. I am also Audio Drama editor for Starburst Magazine, and write the occasional piece for Vortex, the BSFA critical magazine.

One Response to Psycho History Killer

  1. Pingback: Us and Them « Reality Checkpoint

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