Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Worlds of If

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As I prepare for my upcoming presentation this weekend at the Grappling With the Futures conference, I’ve been thinking a lot about the evolution of psychohistory, the fictional science that figures prominently in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. When it comes to describing how psychohistory is actually supposed to work in practice, however, the original stories aren’t much help. At first, the definition of the field might seem clear enough. If you initially encountered the trilogy in book form, it’s right there in the text, in an entry from the Encyclopedia Galactica:

Psychohistory: …Gal Dornick, using nonmathematical concepts, has defined psychohistory to be that branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli…Implicit in all these definitions is the assumption that the human conglomerate being dealt with is sufficiently large for valid statistical treatment.

This seems fairly straightforward. But it wasn’t added to the series until the hardcover edition published by Gnome Press in 1951, for which Asimov wrote a new opening chapter called “The Psychohistorians.” When the novelette “Foundation” originally appeared in the May 1942 issue of Astounding, the word “psychohistory” was used only once. We’re informed that Hari Seldon is “the greatest psychologist of all time,” and that he has the ability “to unravel human emotions sufficiently to be able to predict broadly the historical sweep of the future” using “simple psychological technique.” But we aren’t told how—just what. Psychohistory isn’t a method here, but a claim about results.

It’s also possible that Asimov himself had only a vague idea about it. As I’ve noted elsewhere, psychohistory seems to have been largely the brainchild of John W. Campbell, who was more interested in what it could do than in how it would work. The year before, in the nonfiction article “The Science of Whithering,” L. Sprague de Camp had written in the magazine:

If there were such a science, what would it be like? It would have a body of observable facts, and would overlap with history, anthropology, sociology, economics, vital statistics, and perhaps one or two other sciences. Students of the science should be able to observe uniformities among these facts, deduce laws from these uniformities, and from the laws make predictions that are later borne out by observation.

And the method didn’t even need to be scientific. At the time, Campbell was also editing the fantasy magazine Unknown, and on May 6, 1942, he told one of his most valued contributors, Anthony Boucher, that he was considering a standalone issue devoted to prophecy: “The philosophy of prophecy, the record, through the past, of the various classes of prophecy, and the problems of the prophet.” He continued:

Second, there would be the main section consisting of prophecy. This would be devoted to several different types of prophecy concerning the present world situation and, specifically, the war. Who’ll win (and if the prophets have the sense God gave little green apples, the answer to that one’s going to be easy for them to figure out) and, more important, how, by what route, by licking who first, and when. When will Japan be knocked out? When will Italy fold? When’s Hitler going down to defeat?

This last statement is remarkably revealing. What Campbell wanted were predictions, specifically ones related to the war. As Hitler rewrote the map of Europe, the anxiety to knew what would come next—which is one to which I think we can all relate these days—became overwhelming, and the source didn’t matter, as long as it was “borne out by observation.” At this moment of global crisis, Campbell was willing to seek answers from astrology, numerology, and the prophecies of Nostradamus. (The prophecy issue, notably, never appeared, thanks largely to what Campbell characterized as an inability to find “competent fanatics”: “Nobody with any reputation or ability in the fields I wanted was willing to name names and date dates.” The italics are mine.) Psychohistory was simply a way to express these impulses in language that would feel at home in a science fiction magazine. Even Asimov, who never seems to have been altogether comfortable with Campbell’s ideas, was driven by much the same motivation. Decades later, he had a revealing exchange about the origins of the Foundation series in an interview with James Gunn:

Asimov: Mind you, this was also a time when I’d been living through the Hitler era in the 1930s, where no matter what anyone did, Hitler kept winning victories, and the only way that I could possibly find life bearable at the time was to convince myself that no matter what he did, he was doomed to defeat in the end. That he couldn’t win.
Gunn: Psychohistory is against it.
Asimov: That’s right…I suppose that was my literary response to my own feelings, which have no basis, I suppose, except that it made me feel better.

It was a longing that expressed itself equally well as psychohistory or prophecy, and it was about to assume its most convincing form. Not surprisingly, the science fiction magazines of the period often published stories that presented alternative outcomes for the war, including some that ended with victory for the Axis. Anthony Boucher justified this in a letter to Campbell that was published in Astounding in June 1943:

We are not, thank God, prophets. We don’t write what we feel sure is going to happen, but what, under certain circumstances, might happen…Now we aren’t expecting an Axis victory, any more than we are expecting worldwide tidal waves or planetary collisions or the invasion of little green men from Alpha Centauri. These disasters are all, with varying probabilities, present in one or more of the possible Worlds-of-If. And the more we write about ingenious ruses by which the Axis secures victory…the less apt those ruses are to succeed, and the more certain we can be that my sons and your daughter will inherit, in deepest truth, the best of all Possible Worlds.

Science fiction, in other words, was a way of generating models of potential outcomes and working through their implications. The real psychohistorians were the science fiction writers and fans, and psychohistory was a veiled way for the genre to talk about itself and its claims for foreseeing the future. Campbell might have been content to leave it there—but he was unable to leave well enough alone. In 1950, the year before the Foundation series appeared in hardcover, another author wrote: “The social organisms which we call states and nations behave and react in every respect as though they were individual organisms…The social organism behaves in a manner which can be graphed on the tone scale.” It was L. Ron Hubbard, who called the concept “political dianetics.” And he and Campbell were about to start a foundation of their own.

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