Reed Richards, Psychohistory, and History-as-Science

I have always been fond of the comic-book character Reed Richards, aka “Mr. Fantastic”. If you haven’t encountered the character before, his superpower is actually rather secondary to his appeal as a character. (He can stretch his rubbery body, a power that is normally associated with humorous characters in comics.) The character is more defined by his personality and outlook: he is a classic absent-minded professor, an egghead, a supremely gifted but often otherworldly scientist. He’s basically the kind of pop-culture scientist who would show up in fifties and sixties monster movies, smoking a pipe and Nobel-prize brilliant in all possible scientific disciplines from physics to engineering to biology.

This has something to do with my (and many other readers’) disenchantment with the current comic-book series Civil War, in which Reed Richards is basically acting more like a villainous mad scientist, in defiance of about forty years of storytelling. I’d second the core complaint that it’s a story in which characters are being made to do whatever the plot idea requires them to do, without much thought being given to the why and wherefore. This leaves later writers to clean up the mess. In the case of Reed Richards, the first pass at explaining his actions was frankly stupid and unconvincing (that he had an uncle who was persecuted by Joe McCarthy, which taught young Reed that one should always slavishly obey one’s government). The second pass made more sense in terms of the character: that Reed Richards has been experimenting with Asimov-style psychohistory (rather than psychohistory in the psychoanalytic sense), and has discovered that the government’s attempt to control superpowered humans is preferable in its long-term consequences to a failure to do so, however difficult the short-term problems might seem.

This is all a roundabout way, via comics geekery, to raise the topic of psychohistory as Asimov described it. When I was a kid, I found it implausible in a way I couldn’t fully think through, even if Asimov did some fun things with the concept in fictional terms. Seen historiographically, it has some obvious links to the real-world hubris of modernization theory and some of the headier claims made in the 1960s that history would become more scientific through the extensive use of cliometrics. In the context of the times, you can sympathize with an author like Asimov clearly hoping for or even vaguely believing that his fictional vision might eventually become real in some respect. Even so, in the original Foundation trilogy, he eventually introduced a hidden group of telepathic humans who helped to control individual actions so that they continued to conform with Hari Seldon’s psychohistorical plan for a future galactic society.

I do still run into scholars and intellectuals, some natural scientists and others social scientists, who have affection for Asimov’s idea of psychohistory, and a few who even still think that something like it is highly possible. This really bugs me, just as the portrayal of Reed Richards bugs me. It’s partly because quite aside from questions of truth and plausibility, psychohistory is an imaginative effluvia of the authoritarianism of high modernist planning. It comes out of that moment where some intellectuals and officials really believed they could design the future and have human beings predictably align themselves with their grand visions. Hari Seldon is a science-fictional Le Corbusier. When Asimov wrote Foundation, you couldn’t blame him for clinging to a heroic vision of lone-genius-designs-the-future, but when I meet someone today who still seems misty-eyed about the idea, it gives me the creeps. It’s annoying even coming from a fictional character like Reed Richards. If the guy is a brilliant cutting-edge scientist (even of the comic-book kind), then he shouldn’t be scribbling equations on the wall that allegedly demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt what the future holds. He should know that complex emergent systems (which surely human society in the real world is, and equally surely a fictional human society with mutants who have powers that range from having sticky frog tongues to making suns go supernova would be) can only be described much more tentatively and probabilistically.

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18 Responses to Reed Richards, Psychohistory, and History-as-Science

  1. Two quick comments on this: when I taught Asimov, it occurred to several students and myself that he was trying to one-up Marxist theories of history, which makes Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars idea that history has an inertia to it and escape velocity is difficult to achieve (somewhere early in the novel) an interesting response to the Foundation series. But even more interesting, IMHO, is Dan Simmons’s attempt to fuse the predicting the future conceit with the AI-human symbiosis/conflict plot in his Hyperion series. I see his efforts as an attempt to rewrite Foundation for a post-Vietnam audience.

    At the same time, I am more and more convinced by my students’ love of Asimov (it stood up surprisingly well to both Gibson and McHugh that semester, in both sections) that there’s some very interesting historical commentary going on in it. Not just Cold War, but he also seems to be plugged into some of Japan’s early development strategies.

    I was too lazy when I taught the course to look up any of this, but I’m sure there have been and remaining possibilities for interesting attempts to historicize the Foundation series and its later interlocutors.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    See, this is an interesting thing, because it’s been argued before that Asimov was trying to appropriate Marxism. I see that only inasmuch as a lot of high-modernist planning derived some of its authority from statist Marxism. Certainly Hari Seldon doesn’t seem to me to be a revolutionary figure: he’s a much more bloodless, intellectualized kind of figure. And psychohistory as Asimov offers it actually has what I think (most) political Marxism has historically lacked and struggled with, an (off-stage) reconciliation of individual action/consciousness and large-scale social change. Course ultimately he does it via the telepathy of the Second Foundation.

  3. withywindle says:

    Now, I had a rather different take on the Foundation Trilogy. It seemed to me that Asimov was having fun first postulating the concept, kicking it around the block, and finally exploding it with the Mule–that wonderful moment when the hologram of Hari Seldon appears, and starts spouting stuff that no longer has anything to do with what’s going on. In the guise of “superhuman mutant,” that still struck me as a very powerful statement of the ability of individual humans to affect history. Now, the last bit with the brainwashing Second Foundation somewhat undercuts the idea of Asimov promoting the power of individual humans, etc.–but it also brings out and makes explicit that the Dictatorship of the Telepathiat is controlling those supposedly inevitable laws of psychohistory. The moral valence on the authoritarian elite is a bit wobbly, but at least there are no illusions. That makes it seem a great deal better than, oh, van Vogt’s *Slan*. (The slogan “Fans are Slans” I find one of the more repulsive and creepy in the world.)

    Follow-up one: Have you read Norman Spinrad’s *The Iron Dream*?–“Adolf Hitler’s Hugo-Award winning Science Fiction Novel!”–more than a little like van Vogt.

    Follow-up two: Whoever was that Marxist who did a literary biography of Heinlein pointed out that in *If This Goes On–*, the version we’re now familiar with has a loveable old Vermont type saying we can’t brainwash the people back to liberty–but that the original version of the story said, yes we can and yes we should. An interesting shift.

  4. Doug says:

    Have read Iron Dream, but haven’t read Slan, so can’t comment on that aspect. The technological acceleration that Spinrad shows as AH’s fantasies in the last chapters of Iron Dream is an interesting counterpoint to the whole singularity business.

    It’s also been dog’s years since I read Foundation, but I do seem to recall an interview or essay in which Asimov said that he hadn’t planned Foundation as a trilogy (much less a second one), so he was having to write himself out of holes that he had dug early on in the story, and that if he had conceived it as a trilogy from the get-go, it would have been set up very differently. I wish I had some semblance of a memory of where I read that, but I don’t.

    Have you read Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality of Mankind stories? The individual stories are much stranger than anything of Asimov’s I can remember reading. There is, however, a narrative arc of a caste guiding history. On the other hand, Smith brings the amorality required by such a task front and center. The Lords and Ladies of the Instrumentality end up barely human themselves, and the utopia they bring about has numerous dark sides. At the conceptual turning point, the Instrumentality brings back much of the disorder its earlier phases had sought to stamp out. Smith is not a linear storyteller, and he died relatively young after starting late to publish SF, so the Instrumentality is never more than sketched.

  5. hestal says:

    The thing I remember about “Foundation” is that I did not like it and stopped reading it. It was just a longer version of “Ralph 124C41+”

    If the future cannot be engineered then we are doomed as a species. If we are unable to anticipate the consequences of our actions then, Rumsfeld, Rice, and Bush are right, “We only have to be wrong once.”

    My experiences in the computer world give me hope. Twenty-three years ago I developed a precursor system to the computers today that are collections of microprocessors working in parallel to solve a single problem. I called the individual processors “robots” and established a set of rules whereby each robot could decide which of many problems to work on, when to start and when to stop working, which part of the collective data sets to use, and whether to accept requests from other robots or humans. The system was started to serve a small business of $8 million annually. As the business grew I simply added more processors. In 48 months the company grew to over $500 million with 1.4 million customers, a sales force of over 300 thousand and 1,700 processors. We never bought a mainframe.

    The point of this bragging is that the combined power of these robots far exceeded the power of mainframes available at the time. So the lone-genius approach to engineering our future, I agree, will not work. But I think that the combined intellectual power of our species can do a great deal toward planning the future. What we are missing right now is a way to let all that brainpower work on a single problem.

    In my robot world we were able to solve problems that could not be done by a mainframe. We could overpower them and shorten dramatically the time to solution, or we could test more ideas more quickly and shorten the time to new methods, and we could serve our customers better by actually running some critical functions so quickly that we could check the results again and again before we had to stop. Most commercial enterprises, even today, get only one bite at the apple.

    I believe that we are on our way to developing methods permitting people to work together in solving problems. We have such problem-solving being used in science and the pace is accelerating, and we see the need for it in the breakdown of our private and public institutions. The recent book “The Broken Branch,” catalogues the many sins of the Congress and, of course proposes no solutions. The reason for this breakdown is that Congress and the rest of our Federal System comprise a huge bottleneck, a choke point, that stops progress. By moving our system to direct democracy in which people can see public wishes translated into public policy, in a timely way, will lead to great and rapid improvements. We will not recognize America, and that is the only prediction that can safely be made.

  6. hestal says:

    As I was checking my Yahoo email I saw a news item just now about Penguin books new idea. They have set up a site for writing a novel by collaboration. The site is “” I kind you not.

  7. withywindle says:

    On Cordwainer Smith: Yes, I’ve read the Instrumentality series, and think they’re largely brilliant–although perhaps a little repetitive toward the end. Mind you, one of the reasons I like it is that it is also brilliant Christian SF–I think “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” illustrates that best. And since his managerial elite is also, distantly, a Chinese elite, it gives you a sharp insight on how mangerialism ends up sooner or later in bureaucratic authoritarianism. I was also struck by how he emphasizes pain and human cost even in the dizzying far-future–it’s a sombre counterpoint to technological utopianism throughout. If ever I teach a course in SF, he is so on the syllabus …

    Swarthmore’s SF society has the Cordwainer Bird Memorial Library on campus, as partial homage …

    Now, since I’m a *historian* SF geek, I’ve always taken great delight in the fact that I actually read a book by Paul Linebarger before I read a book by Cordwainer Smith–I used his biography of Sun Yat-Sen (his godfather, I believe!) for a paper I did back in the 8th grade.

  8. abstractart says:

    “Cordwainer Bird” is actually a far more direct reference to Harlan Ellison’s famous pseudonym, although Paul M. A. Linebarger’s more well-known pseudonym certainly may have been one of Ellison’s inspirations.

    If the biography you’re talking about is Sun Yat-Sen and the Chinese Republic, that was done by his father, Paul M. W. Linebarger, Sun’s friend and confidant — it was written in 1925, when Paul M. A. was only 12. Paul M.A. is the one who wrote the later book about the Three People’s Principles, though.

    What’s interesting about the Foundation series is that geeks loyal enough to read the somewhat poorly-received latter-day sequels Asimov did to the series can see how he acknowledged the problems with both visions of the Foundation. The main plot of the latter Foundation novels is about Golan Trevize, our protagonist, being manipulated into making a choice between three possible futures for humanity. One is the original idea of psychohistory, a real, normal human history that’s been engineered to grant the best possible outcome — the First Foundation. The next is Asimov’s modified, compromised idea of psychohistory, a managed, authoritarian state controlled by a telepathic caste — the Second Foundation. The last, and the one which Asimov has his protagonist choose, is a much more daunting idea — hooking up all of human life into a single organismal hivemind, Galaxia.

    Asimov’s reasoning is that no matter how well-set-up the First Foundation is, there are so many inherent instabilities in normal human society that it will inevitably collapse. The Second Foundation, by contrast, can only lead to stasis and decay by locking humanity into a state of being controlled by blind, inflexible laws. Only Galaxia, by being a singular, self-repairing, self-modifying organism, can allow for dynamic growth and change in response to new threats while still maintaining the self-control necessary to prevent catastrophic failure like the fall of the Galactic Empire.

    It’s an interesting take, and one that’s been explored a lot by the “fan fiction” sequel/prequels other writers have done to the Foundation series after Asimov’s death. My favorite is David Brin’s Forward the Foundation, which more or less confronts head-on the fact that any of Asimov’s proposed futures don’t do a whole lot for the idea of human freedom of choice.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes, though the sequels are leaden, you can really see Asimov thinking through the flaws of psychohistory and Seldon’s vision (which turns out to be partly Daneel Olivaw’s vision). I guess Reed Richards didn’t read that far.

  10. Gavin Weaire says:

    Like Doug, I haven’t read the Foundation books for a *long* time. But IIRC, a fairly big part of the literary effect of “psychohistory” is due to the point-for-point transferring of details from Gibbon. One accepts that prediction “works” for the novel because prediction here =our memory of a recognizable “real” history. Otherwise psychohistory would collapse under its basic silliness.

    And it *has* to be Rome. We’re prepped to accept that the fall of the Roman Empire can be used as a predictive model for the fall of a Galactic Empire because it gets used rhetorically that way all the time as a “dire warning of what will happen if we don’t do X.” Few other historical events have this much rhetorical power.

    This connects with one of the posts that hooked me on this blog – the one about the BBC/HBO’s “Rome” and the fact that no-one “owns” ancient Rome.

  11. withywindle says:

    Re Linebarger: I’ve been living a lie since the eighth grade! I plead natural error … Paul Linebarger, Chinese history, who else could it have been? Oy, I’ll never be able to use that anecdote again … and, yes, Cordwainer Bird through Harlan Ellison, who I believe did choose the name as an homage to Cordwainer Smith. I confess when I wrote the last post, I’d forgotten the Ellison bit. This, doubtless, is because I like Smith’s writings more than Ellison’s.

    Now that you mention Brin, his Uplift Series also has commentary on the Gaia-Galaxia idea.

    Gavin: how much does the average SF reader now know about the fall of Rome? Insert generic gloomy comments about historical knowledge nowadays–with the specific thought that SF readers in 1940 might have been a lot more familiar with their Gibbon and their Roman history than SF readers nowadays. I know there are TV shows and movies about Rome, but how many of them lately actually cover its decline? *Gladiator* only got us as far as Commodus.

  12. Gavin Weaire says:

    Withywindle: I haven’t read a lot of SF since I was a teenager, so I’m no great expert on SF fans any later than the ’80s. I’d say from what experience I do have, that the average SF fan probably knows more about it than most people do – ancient history seems to attract the same sort of personality, and bookish types are always going to know more about history in general.

    Anyway, Asimov’s “decline and fall of the Roman Empire” is IMO more recognizable from the various popular “falls of Rome” on offer. These are common. Pretty much every modern movement predicting disaster has a “this is exactly why Rome fell!” story somewhere in its arsenal. Entirely bipartisan: as true of environmentalists (Rome fell because of overcultivation led to environmental degradation) as the Christian right (Rome fell because tolerance of homosexuality led to a reduced birthrate).

    The one that seems to me particularly prevalent among SF readers, with their techno-libertarian leanings, is all about technological stagnation due to the slavery/oppressive emperors/cultural aversions to technology: horse-collars, steam-engines etc. (This is based on conversations I used to have in another forum – Doug Muir knows exactly where I’m getting this from.) This idea is definitely there in Asimov.

    More generally, even if you don’t know a lot about the actual history of Late Antiquity, the Foundation narrative is going to feel right from the basic underlying narrative behind all of these: the awful warning represented by Rome, seen as a state that appeared supremely powerful, but whose blindness to its hidden weaknesses destroyed it. N.B. that you are more likely to have this general impression of the topic if you *don’t* know much about it.

    The Mule = Charlemagne (or Napoleon-as-Charlemagne), surely?

  13. withywindle says:

    Mohammed, for my money. But we can include both of them in a Pirenne 2-for-1 sale.

    I agree that the technological stagnation schtick is most common among SF readers. And for some obvious parallels, Poul Anderson’s Polesotechnic-Flandry future history, and H. Beam Piper’s Federation-Empire.

  14. Doug says:

    That’s a nice bundle of semi-contemporary future histories going there. I wonder if we got that burst because that’s what Campbell was buying, or if there were other zeitgeistier factors at work. If I remember correctly, the introduction to one of the Piper books talks not only about future histories, but also his drive to explore a “self-reliant man,” as an ideal type. (I’d look it up, but I lost basically all my Piper as a result of the move to Germany. I think it was the intro to the mass-market paperback of Empire, but it might also have been the trade-paper edition of Federation.) The argument was that the future history went hand-in-hand with the archetype, and that other authors of the time, notably Heinlein, were also searching for an ideal man as part of the future history. Was it all that common?

    Smith didn’t do any such thing, but he’s such an outlier. And certainly by the time you get to Known Space, the protagonists’ flaws are structural elements of the stories, so searching for a role model is not part of the meta-narrative.

    (Has anyone here read Lost Pages by Paul di Filippo? Little snippets of alternative history without the zeppelins and with SF personalities in many of them. In one story, it’s not John Campbell who takes over at Astounding, but Joseph Campbell in full power-of-myth mode, and who tweaks history here and there through the power of SF.)

    Anyway, Asimov and Smith are about steering history, whereas I remember Piper’s history as not having anyone trying to do the guiding. Maybe a bit in Federation, but I think his contention is that it can’t be done, that certain cycles are inevitable. (I’d say this is pop Gibbon or Spengler, but I haven’t read either to know for sure.) Anderson I haven’t read; likewise the Dorsai series, if it’s even a future history. Known Space doesn’t address decline-and-fall, as exploration and integration take up the several centuries that Niven sketches out. In Brin’s Uplift setting, humanity is an odd backwater and not the center of all things as it was in the earlier future histories. In the setting for the game Traveller, earth is humanity’s original home, but one that’s been forgotten. (There’s still a rise-and-fall argument going there, because of the general course of galactic civilization, but one without steering.) Other thoughts and examples?

  15. withywindle says:

    Benjamin Bayley, *The Pillars of Eternity*. A very strange book: our hero suffers ultimate, agonizing pain. He discovers that time is circular, the universe will recur an infinite number of times, so he decides to change history so that he will never experience ultimate pain again. The government bureaucracy, taking an *extremely* long view, decides to try to stop him, since they want to exist the next time the universe spins around. And in the end … anyway, it is a very bizarre take on free will, historical deteminism, and cosmology. I found it very moving, though I suspect I may have a minority taste.

  16. Gary Farber says:

    “(The slogan ‘Fans are Slans’ I find one of the more repulsive and creepy in the world.)”

    Claude Degler, and an occasional 13-year-old, aside, that was almost always said ironically, and with humor, you know, going back to its start. No fan who ever dealt with other fans could use it any other way (but I speak from comprehensive knowledge of the fanzines of the Forties and Fifties, not from deduction).

  17. Gary Farber says:

    “Whoever was that Marxist who did a literary biography of Heinlein pointed out that in *If This Goes On–*, the version we’re now familiar with has a loveable old Vermont type saying we can’t brainwash the people back to liberty–but that the original version of the story said, yes we can and yes we should. An interesting shift.”

    H. Bruce Franklin. However, you neglect to mention that the Heinlein wrote that story entirely, and fairly strictly, from an outline given to him by John W. Campbell, who had intended to write it himself, but couldn’t after the publishers of Street & Smith told the editor of Astounding that he could no longer publish fiction while he held the job. Heinlein struggled considerably to eliminate the deeply racist foundation that Campbell laid down, but being constricted by the mandate to not deviate strongly from the outline, was limited in how much he could do. The issue as regards people thinking for themselves was one that bothered Heinlein a lot, and when he got a second pass at the story, outside of Campbell’s control and strictures, even though he believed strongly in “not rewriting” a story once it had been sold, he rewrote that part.

    Among my sources on this, aside from decades of closely following such information, is my recent reading of a couple of thousand pages of the manuscript of Heinlein’s authorized biography (I have a number of different interpretations from the author of some aspects of Heinlein’s life, but not about these particular details).

    “It’s also been dog’s years since I read Foundation, but I do seem to recall an interview or essay in which Asimov said that he hadn’t planned Foundation as a trilogy”

    Well, of course not. There wasn’t even a book until many years after the stories were published in Astounding. They’re a bunch of novellas, written over years. The “trilogy” was purely assembled years later, for convenience.

    “Swarthmore’s SF society has the Cordwainer Bird Memorial Library on campus, as partial homage …”

    I think Matt Schneck was one of the founders in the early Seventies, though I could be wrong.

    “…although Paul M. A. Linebarger’s more well-known pseudonym certainly may have been one of Ellison’s inspirations.”

    Of course it was.

    “David Brin’s Forward the Foundation”

    Was one of Asimov’s last sequels; Brin had nothing to do with it. I assume you’re thinking of Brin’s “Foundation’s Triumph,” which I’ve not read.

    “I wonder if we got that burst because that’s what Campbell was buying”

    That’s a good part of it, certainly.

    “The argument was that the future history went hand-in-hand with the archetype, and that other authors of the time, notably Heinlein, were also searching for an ideal man as part of the future history. Was it all that common?”

    It was if you wanted to sell to Campbell: who was the leading genre market, that paid the best.

    “Smith didn’t do any such thing, but he’s such an outlier.”

    And didn’t sell to Campbell: H. L. Gold bought his stuff at Galaxy, after Campbell’s peak. Although Scanners Live In Vain (which synchronicitly enough, I just made a reference to an hour ago) was published as early as 1950, almost all of “Smith”‘s stories appeared between late 1958 and February 1966. Campbell was still editing Analog, but hadn’t been leading the field since the late Forties.

    “Other thoughts and examples?”

    I think you’re muddling the concepts of a created universe in which stories take place, and a “future history,” a bit, but it’s not as if there are strict definitions, to be sure.

    Heinlein created the original “Future History” (though sort of partially on Campbell’s command/influence/patronage), and it more or less literally drew a line, when he created the original chart with timelines for Campbell, between then contemporary times, and points in the future. Relatively few others have ever done something like that, which is much more specific than simply having a bunch of stories set hundreds of years in the future sharing characters and technology and references.

    But, as I said, it’s not as if there are rules about this, after all.

  18. Gary Farber says:

    “Benjamin Bayley”

    Barrington J. Bayley, actually.

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