Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Foundation vs. Robot: Reflections on Science and Story

After recently returning to the Foundation novels I have found myself thinking about the parallels between these and Asimov's other most famous sequence, his Robot stories and novels. In particular there is the way they both concern the explicability of behavior in rational terms--indeed, quantifiable terms (psychohistory, robopsychology working from the Three Laws of Robotics)--and the possibility of experts using the knowledge of the relevant principles (psychohistorians like Hari Seldon and his successor, robopsychologists like Susan Calvin) to channel the behavior of their objects of their interest (human masses, robots) in a constructive direction (the resurrection of civilization, the rendering of robots more reliable tools).

In making plots of this theme the Robot stories tend to hew more closely to the framework of the "tale of ratiocination"--the "scientific" detective story. Thus do they tend to feature a protagonist confronted with anomalous behavior on the part of robots, requiring explanation and modification, a process the readers get to follow along, the same as they do any other fictional process of "detection."

By contrast in the Foundation stories the problem has already been solved to a significant degree (initially by Seldon, later by successors of his), even if we do not always know it (especially as we observe the development of some crisis, remember that Seldon dealt in probabilities rather than certainties, and how, past a certain point, we become clearer on how his work was not the completed "plan" it earlier seemed), and by the end of the piece we find out what the solution previously arrived at by the Movers of Events happened to be.

I personally thought the approach less satisfactory in the Foundation stories than in the Robot stories. This seems at least in part a matter of the foundations from which those who reasoned out the problem and its solution. In the Robot tales the protagonist generally dealt with a single machine behaving oddly--not a galaxy of humans--with the mystery typically reducible to the interaction of a mere three laws with their environment. The simplicity permitted a certain explicitness--those three Laws laid out for the reader early on, in "Runaround," where reasoning things out from them one character remarked that the life-and-death crisis they were in was as tidily clear "as a syllogism," and so did it often go. By contrast the reader of the Foundation novels had nothing but hints of what psychohistory contained--and the promise that Seldon had worked out a syllogism from premises no one ever showed us. Even so, the differing approach did afford the Foundation sequence a greater variety of scenario and structure, and in the end it did produce a saga whose interest has certainly endured.

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