I have been making my way through Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. Admittedly, as of this post, I have only read two out of the three books, but that’s not going to stop me from drawing some crazy connection between immersive storytelling and his vision of the future.
NOTE: this article assumes that you haven’t read these books, or that you’re due for a quick backgrounder if you have. If you are one of the former, and you don’t want to ruin your experience of reading the winner of the one-time Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series,” then you should turn back now.
A LITTLE BACKGROUND
Isaac Asimov thinks big. Real big. The Foundation Trilogy takes place in the distant future. There are 25 million inhabited planets, and the galactic population is in the quadrillions. I’m not even sure how many zeroes that is, but it’s a lot. In other words, there really isn’t a useful point of reference or comparison for the scope that he envisions. The basic gist of the Trilogy is that amazingly this entire universe is governed under the structure of a single Empire. A new discipline called “psychohistory” has been developed that applies mathematical principles to project the likelihood of future events, largely based on the way large groups of people behave. So psychohistory isn’t going to tell you what your great-great-granddaughter will eat for breakfast 80 years from now, but it will probably do a good job of outlining the macroeconomic trends and political context of the world she lives in. In theory, psychohistory can be used to develop projections that span tens of thousands of years. Remember, Asimov thinks big.
Controversially, Hari Seldon, the most famed psychohistorian, proclaims that the aforementioned Empire will actually collapse sometime in the next 100 years, and will be followed by 30,000 years of barbarism, until it will ultimately be replaced by a Second Empire. However, he posits that certain actions can be taken now that will reduce the expected duration of the Dark Ages to as short as 1,000 years. The people in power get upset, and they essentially exile him and his team to the outer bounds of the universe, where they create an entity known as The Foundation. From this protected point, he enacts what is to be known as “The Seldon Plan.” The balance of Foundation, the first book in the trilogy, consists of vignettes that illustrate how his plan has anticipated certain “crises” that occur long after his death, and how he has set things in motion such that the likelihood of withstanding these crises is actually quite high. In fact, a pre-recorded hologram of Seldon plays at pre-determined times where he basically congratulates the people of the future for surviving the most recent crisis and advises them to buckle up for the next one. No, I’m not leading up to some elaborate tie-in to Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.
Reading stories about how Hari Seldon is always right is only entertaining up to a point. In Foundation and Empire, the second book, things start to get interesting. The Seldon Plan is virtually guaranteed to succeed, provided that there are no massively disruptive developments in technology or politics. And as mentioned, due to its extremely large scale, it is virtually impossible for a single person to influence the Plan’s outcome. However, something DOES occur that the Plan did not contemplate, and it is in the form of a single person, known only as The Mule, who happens to be a genetic mutant. Mutations, being inherently specifically unpredictable, cannot be accounted for by the Plan. However, it remains a possibility, however remote, that a mutation could result in something of cosmic significance, even if embodied by an individual. And that’s what happens. The Empire is effectively in shambles, and the Dark Ages have begun, but The Mule begins to aggregate power at an alarming rate. He is effectively unstoppable, even bringing the Foundation itself to its knees with relatively little effort. What terrible, irresistible power can a single individual possess that can operate unchecked on a virtually unlimited scale? It’s a great thought experiment to leave you with, because the answer to that question is where things get interesting.
To be continued.Follow @thememelab