Why Foundation? Why Now?

What Asimov's old story of a far future galactic empire tells us about our present day.

I was a huge science fiction nerd as a kid. I read Asimov's Foundation trilogy, of course. Multiple times. I'm a fan. So when Apple TV launched their Foundation series based on the novels, it wasn't a hard sell for me to fork over $4.95 a month.

As I watched the first four episodes, I found myself asking: Why now? Foundation is what, 70, 80 years old? Battlestar Galactica, for example, was about America coming to terms with 9/11. (Don't believe me? Go back and watch the first few episodes.)

Just as our individual dreams at night reflect our subconscious worries and anxieties, the stories we tell--popular stories--speak to subconscious worries or anxieties felt by a mass population.

So what does Foundation tell us about our present moment?

Foundation is about the fall of an Empire. A great empire, the greatest that ever existed. And the American Empire--likewise in reality the greatest empire to ever exist--is rotten and hollow and decaying. We can all smell it. Sense it. Know it's happening, even if we can't put our finger on it, or refuse to articulate this brutal truth.

The parallels between the terrorist attack that destroys Trantor's space tower and 9/11 are too obvious to be ignored. The new Foundation series is like Battlestar Galactica, chapter two. The series screenwriters and directors are clearly provoking a discussion about the decline of American power, and what comes after.

Psychohistory sounds a lot like machine learning, doesn't it? And the mind control that comes later on, in The Second Foundation, sounds an awful lot like nation-state disinformation, with enough of a "magic" twist to pass through our Freudian dream filters without provoking outrage.

What many don't know about Foundation is that psychohistory is not a fanciful invention from the delightful mind of Isaac Asimov, but is based on the work of influential historian Oswald Spengler, and his work "The Decline of the West". (A dense book at the best of times, I struggled to work through ten pages a day. It took me a year and half to read both volumes.) Now long forgotten, Spengler's deep reflection on what he calls the "morphology of history"--how civilizations tend to pass through very similar phases of youth, maturity, and decline--was enormously influential after the Great War, and Asimov would certainly have read the book.

The ideas that mathematics can precisely predict the future of empires, or that mind control exists, are of course both fictional exaggerations. But the broad strokes of history repeat themselves throughout the millenia, and The Decline of the West identifies with startling brilliance those seemingly organic phases of the human macro-organism.

All this is to say--watch Foundation. But watch it with a second pair of eyes. And ask yourself--why this story? Why now? Stories are latent dreams, repressed truths we can only confront through our dream filter, per Freud. What is the manifest dream, the hidden truth about ourselves, that this popular fiction is struggling to acknowledge today?

Because, like Hari Seldon, we too can see the inevitable decline of a corrupt empire, and wonder what comes next.