Isaac Asimov loved history and used many important lessons from the past in writing his stories, including his greatest epic Foundation. Historian TCA Achintya joins Seldon Crisis to share his unique perspective from his expertise as a scholar of the Brit
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Joel: Welcome back to Seldon Crisis for the 20th and final episode of 2021! I hope you are all enjoying Happy Holidays so far and have stayed as healthy as you can in these trying times. We’ve got a lot of good stuff coming up on the podcast in the new year, including the beginning of Season 3 as we dive into the third volume of Asimov’s epic with Second Foundation, The Search by the Mule in just a couple of weeks.
Today we have another special guest; a historian of the British Empire with a deep fascination and appreciation of Asimov and Foundation by the name of TCA Achintya. His focus is on the history of law and legal practice at a global scale in the 18th and 19th centuries and his doctoral work looks very specifically at the lives of lawyers in the 19th century British Empire, but more broadly he works on ideas of power and life at an imperial scale. Welcome Achintya, to Seldon Crisis!
Achintya: Hi! Glad to be here! Not sure I can really top that introduction so… hello again. Joel: I first encountered you on the r/asimov subreddit a while back and was immediately struck by your passion for the books and your penetrating analysis of some of the core topics Asimov brought up. Can you tell me how you discovered his works and what they mean to you? Achintya: So, I can't really tell you from where I remember Asimov. I’ve been reading him since I was a child. I think what I do remember my earliest memories of his work are the Susan Calvin robot stories - the short stories he’d write, I think from I Robot - possibly the first one. But for me, Foundation's always been particularly special because of the way it engages with questions of human history and sweeps of human culture. I think it’s from that book that I sort of concluded that Asimov is a historian at one level, and he grapples with many of the conundrums that historians engage with. So his work really does speak to everybody who’s really interested in humanity from a historical perspective. Joel: I think that’s one of the main reasons that I resonated with him too, as soon as I started reading him. That sense of deep time, forwards and backwards. I read his histories of the Old and New Testaments not too long ago, and just loved his no-nonsense approach to explaining what was going on in the Near East at the time they were written and how some actual events did correlate with the stories to varying degrees. I could always trust Asimov to have a very rational approach to something like that, but also have the sheer passion to attempt it - the audacity.
Do you have any favorite Asimov novels besides Foundation that have inspired you? Other Sci Fi writers you like? Achintya: So, there’s The Ugly Little Boy and there’s Nightfall. I know neither of them are originally novels, they were short stories but then they got expanded them into novels, and they’ve always appealed because of the way Asimov steps outside of his comfort zone with those stories. He’s really writing about things that I don’t think he ever visits again with some of his other work, which I mean he often got tropes, if you think about for instance his supercomputer stories. And they really grapple with questions of the human experience that makes them really great reads and they make you question your personal assumptions about how the world works, which is an important part of my research - trying to question what you’re doing at every stage. In terms of other authors, Michael Crichton’s been a huge favorite of mine, especially the Jurassic Park novels and his whole thing of chaos theory and science and how to understand society and scientific endeavor.
Joel: The Ugly Little Boy, I don’t know if you know, Asimov claimed was his favorite story.
Achintya: I didn’t know that. I think Asimov struggles with human connection at times, and I think The Ugly Little Boy is his best human story.
Joel: - with the opposite sex?
Achintya: Yes, but The Ugly Little Boy is very good humanistically - in that there are very real people in that story in the way that Susan Calvin never comes across as - admittedly she’s not meant to. The whole point is she’s somewhat robotic herself, but a lot of his characters sort of feel like tropes, whereas The Ugly Little Boy is just something else.
Joel: I was thinking about how Michael Crichton talks about chaos theory and how life will find a way and that kind of thing in Jurassic Park. And I’ve been thinking about chaos theory lately and how it applies to a core premise in Foundation which is psychohistory. So I’m kind of curious what you think of the likelihood of something like psychohistory being developed because I’ve heard some people say that ideas of chaos theory that hadn’t been around when Asimov was writing and would tend to undermine any possibility of making accurate, mathematically based predictions of future history. Any thoughts on that?
Achintya: I’m not much of a scientist, you know. But, the thing is, Asimov always struggled with psychohistory himself as a concept, almost as soon as he started writing it. He realized that the fundamental irrationality of the human experience makes it very difficult to predict things and makes humanity very difficult to control for. He starts with this presumption of, what if we could reduce humanity down to atoms, but then, very quickly on he has to put these rules in place to deal with the fact that humans aren’t rational. Humans, by the very fact that we aren’t scientific phenomena we act irrationally. So he has to come up with these rules of humanity can’t know about it, he has to create the entire Second Foundation with superpowers so that humanity can be mind controlled at one level. So I’m not sure psychohistory is really feasible as a concept. A lot of scientific concepts with quantum mechanics have showed the limits of our predictive ability. There’s a limit to what mathematics can do for us - at some point there are just too many variables to account for. I think humanity is by definition too many variables.
Joel: I kind of think the same but I’m also aware that we only so far have a few billions of humans to work with and if we were in the situation of having quintillions then maybe that could change the way it could work and maybe you could develop more patterns for prediction, but there are probably still a lot of things that would torpedo it in practice.
Let’s bring it back to your specialty. What specific points in human history do you think Asimov drew from in creating Foundation?
Achintya: I know the obvious answer is the Roman Empire. Asimov's Empire at least openly draws on the Roman Empire and its Byzantine successor. We do know that Asimov was drawn to that because of the primary actors he has like Belisarius, the general that Bel Riose was based on. But to me a lot of the Foundation seems to draw on Empires in general. Maybe it’s because of my work, but so much of Asimov's work seems inspired by the British Empire and a lot of other world empires. And with the Foundation, and the weird mix of religion and science and trade out of Terminus, I can't help but feel like Asimov's drawing on the United States, and its own neoliberal empire. There's some fairly sharp critiques of the 20th century world hidden away in the Foundation novels, especially when it relates to the Foundation's own burgeoning empire.
Joel: That makes me ask, what critiques do you have in mind? Are there any that stand out?
Achintya: So for instance, this whole problem of the merchant princes. Asimov sets up the merchant princes as a historical phenomena but he goes on to say they’re going to eventually reach the limits of their ability to shape events and they can very quickly create what are effectively oligarchies. During the story of the Mule, Terminus has been captured by capitalist oligarchies and the mayors have become almost dynastic. I think the mayor at the time is Indbur III, with the implication that there are multiple mayors of the same dynasty. It’s a fairly anticapitalistic critique if you think about it, how capitalism will lead to oligarchies and anti-competitive practices. If you think of it in the context of the sixties and seventies it’s sort of a critique of a critique of the American free trade at all costs model which was a point of practically propaganda in the context of the anti-Soviet world that American politics was often geared towards.
Joel: There’s a particular segment of the Mule, at the very end of The General, where Lathan Devers and Sennet Forell - the trader supposedly descended from Hober Mallow - are discussing the economic situation at hand and Devers almost seems to be siding with the plutocrats which struck me as kind of odd and out of character. He seems like the type to be in support of the common man, but he worries about them coming after his hard-earned profits instead. We find out later, in the Mule, that Devers supposedly died in the slave mines along with Toran’s grandfather, but it’s never explained exactly why - one of Asimov’s cryptic references that could form the heart of a great unwritten novel.
So, do you have any historical analogies to The Mule that you would think of?
Achintya: Yeah, I’ve got a few. I think what’s important to remember about the Mule is that he is, socially speaking, a disruptor. A sharp, unanticipated shock to the system who basically throws it all off the rails. In terms of history there are people who are analogues to him are people like Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan- you know the people who sort of fundamentally shape the world in such a way that the world they leave behind is unrecognizable from what they had found. And the shock of their disruptions echoes for generations - not just generations but sometimes millennia. But the Mule is also comparable to historical phenomena, like not just people. The best example I have is the Black Death. It’s a completely unforeseen disruption to the foundations of society that comes out of nowhere. What's interesting about Asimov in all of this is, he’s very squeamish about death in the story. The Mule is a harbinger of enormous change, and yet Asimov shies away from discussing these things and you’re left with a story that is remarkably anesthetized – very clean, and yet his later novels talk about how deep-seated that change was I always thought the Mule was interesting in how Asimov shies away from making him a religious figure. You sort of think about the way the Mule engenders these feelings of deep love and devotionalism, and that’s often been tied in with founders of religions and cults, but Asimov seemed to be very clear in wanting him to be purely political and economic and focusing on him as a conqueror rather than on the implications of him converting minds. But the reason I’m mentioning it is the Mule is very close to religious leaders and the impact that such people can have on society. If you think about, say, someone like Martin Luther and the amount of changes he causes with Christianity. Asimov often involved religion in his stories but he seems to avoid seeing the Mule in religious terms.
Joel: I’m taken by that squeamishness comment, because I found the Mule almost endearing, and here he is a universe conquering demon in a way, and you would think there must be large genocides happening and tremndous human casualties and such things on the planets he conquers but you don’t hear any description of those details. I think that helps the reader to feel that he’s OK, that maybe he’s conquering the whole galaxy, but he’s not that bad, especially with the head fake with Magnifico, because the whole time you’re really feeling for him until Magnifico reveals who he really is. That’s an intriguing aspect of Asimov’s writing and I’m wondering if some of that squeamishness in regard to the Mule is intended so you could gravitate towards seeing him as a likable figure in some sense. Maybe it goes against it because you don’t feel the horror as much when you don’t see the evidence of it actually being horrible. Recall the lunchroom discussion on Haven shortly after the fall of the Foundation on Terminus when everybody was getting more and more depressed and anxious. The cynical girl named Hella reflected on how “I think it’d be kind of cool if the Mule took over” and I’m thinking - she has a point, and Pritcher makes a similar one about how the Mule’s agenda will result in achieving what Seldon wanted to do in a much shorter time. It’s a hard argument to counter because you don’t see the cost in human casualties.
Achintya: Especially considering that the Foundation does seem to have human casualties a lot, in that there are wars, and ships destroyed…
Joel: And the Mule seems to find a way to do it cleanly, and neatly, and it’s not a big deal. Of course he is a totalitarian dictator, but he almost strike me as like one of these enlightened conquerors like Cyrus the Great, and to some extent even Alexander who bring a higher level of civilization to the barbaric peoples they conquer - or even Julius Caesar with the Gauls to some degree.
But we could talk about the Mule for an hour I’m sure, so let’s move on. I’m curious what you think of Asimov’s future history and whether you think it’s reasonable at all, and if not, why not?
Achintya: The problem with history is that looking back makes it difficult to be certain looking ahead. In broad strokes, I think Asimov's future history is quite reasonable. I'd say the parts that I find most unbelievable is how calm Asimov's future humanity tends to be. Though he tells a story of turmoil and political upheaval, nonetheless Asimov's galaxy is remarkably tranquil when you consider how chaotic and violent humanity tends to be. I find it hard to believe that a civilization spread across thousands of planets wasn't engaged in almost constant conflict. Even at the height of the empire, surely large parts of the empire should have been constantly bubbling with insurgencies, revolts, inter-planet conflicts and the like. He does allude to it a little in how much the military is built up and so forth, but even in the depths of his imperial collapse, one gets the impression that life was just going on through much of the galaxy. But in general I feel that the way the empire is structured is fundamentally viable in most aspects and has always felt like one of the most believable aspects of the story - contrasted with something like Star Wars, where I feel that I don’t understand how Star Wars works - as fun as it is, but Asimov’s always very believable from a social point of view.
Joel: Well - he was basing it on real empires that had existed so you can see why it follows similar patterns - the Roman and British empires and some of the details he’d studied.
I read something the other day on a video comment thread exploring the question of whether or not a galactic empire would be possible. One of the interesting comments made was that communication and travel would take so long as to make control of distant star systems a practical impossibility. My guest in the last episode, Stephen Webb pointed out that, if Anacreon were situated roughly as far away from Trantor as our star system is to our galactic center, it would take roughly 50,000 years for a message to go one way between the two. He raised the hypothetical question by the Emperor to the Anacreons: “how are things out there?” The answer, “not good, we need some help”, then after a couple more exchanges “ok - I’ll send some troops”, etc. It could take half a millenium to get anything done.
The reason I bring this up with you is, in your studies of the British Empire, how much did the challenges of communication and travel cause similar issues, but obviously on a much reduced scale?
Achintya: That’s actually a fascinating element of imperial history. Practically every empire in history has to grapple with the problems of communication. And every large empire worked out solutions to try and address the long lag that affected their ability to react. The Mongols for instance would famously set up the Yam system, which in many ways has influenced postal networks today. And grappling with the conundrum of reducing communication lag is how a huge chunk of modern technology actually evolved. The global internet for instance to this day traces the network of international telegraph cables that the British Empire laid down. And that itself was a major intercontinental project that the British embarked on, largely to help reduce the lag of communications. The railways, and specifically the development of major national railway infrastructure was similarly funded on a similar premise. All aimed at reducing time it took for people and information to flow.
Joel: You’ll recall that the first story in Foundation and Empire, The General, explored the question of how much history is driven by extraordinary individuals, that is, the Great Man theory of history, versus the idea that sociological forces bring such individuals to prominence inevitably. Do you have any thoughts on how this idea has been explored pertaining to our history and to Asimov’s treatment of similar ideas?
Achintya: The original Great Man theory in the 19th century postulated that human history was fundamentally influenced by "heroes" who were innately blessed with qualities of leadership and influence. That was always controversial, mostly because of the idea of innateness. But the deeper debate, and the one that Asimov himself grapples with, is whether human society is fundamentally shaped by the actions of individuals, or historical forces. The conceit of humanity, that Asimov seemingly argues against with Psychohistory, is that human history is shaped more by great sociological sweeps and social inertias than by the actions of individuals. If anything, the individuals who seem to shape history are merely convenient actors, taking advantage of the greater historical forces converging. They ultimately had little to no actual agency in shaping outcomes.
But I think the more Asimov wrote Foundation, the more he realized there was something paradoxical about this claim. If we look at the early novels, even though it seems that historical necessity is the real protagonist, it can still be argued that had it not been for the agency of specific people, Seldon's psychohistorical predictions could have failed. Asimov then leans into this paradox more with Foundation and Empire. The first story is the apotheosis of Psychohistory. All the human actors in it have no agency at all. Things are predestined to a remarkable degree. And yet, the very next story turns that lesson on its head. All the weight of historical necessity is swept aside by a single human endowed with unique, even innate, skills. And finally in Second Foundation, psychohistory is reduced to almost a meme, a convenient tool while humans in the form of foundationeers and second foundationeers are revealed to be the real masters of human destiny. So which is it? Do individuals have agency over history? Do collectives of humanity? Or is it all at the feet of great impersonal sweeps. I don't believe Asimov had a clear answer. Its a conundrum he cannot resolve, and he continues to explore it in different ways in his later novels, but never leaves the reader with a clean solution.
Joel: Can you describe any typical “great men” in human history and speculate on how events may have played out if they had never existed?
Achintya: This is always a hard question to answer, and a surprisingly popular one I find. Not just great men. But alternative history in general. "How might things have gone differently" if someone or something had been different. The truth is, it’s easy to identify people who have played an outsized role on history as we understand it. Alexander, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Henry VIII. And it’s easy to postulate that our modern world would look very different had they not lived, or had their lives gone differently. But in my experience speculation about how exactly the world would have looked different often tells us more about ourselves, than it does about history. Two different people could come up with wildly different perspectives based on who they are as people. And that's an important lesson for historians, amateur and professional. History is not an objective science. What we think of the historical record is a deeply subject story, and one that could be retold in many different ways based on the people telling the story.
Joel: What do you think of the AppleTV adaptation of Foundation?
Achintya: I like the ordering of these questions here because in some ways, my answer about Great Men ties into what I think the show is exploring. For myself, I've quite enjoyed the show. I know it has outraged many book purists for its numerous deviations from the "canon" of Asimov's novels. But insofar as the Foundation (and all of Asimov's writing) is philosophy explored through the medium of fiction, I think the show's done some interesting things. They've engaged with philosophical musings of their own, through the prism of Asimov's story. And they're dealing with questions of agency and subjectivity in ways that I think are quite consistent with Asimov himself. I think my favorite elements of the show have been the way they grapple with the idea of Seldon being an unreliable narrator and actor himself. It’s a concept Asimov explored in the Foundation novels, but much later in his story. And I can appreciate a show that tries to live up to the ideals of philosophical musing that was Asimov's writing. I think the plotting itself could use some work, but I've quite enjoyed it for what it is, and I'm looking forward to next season.
Joel: I’ve mentioned on the podcast before that I’ve really enjoyed the show, despite inevitable flaws in story development that always come with trying to bring a project like this to life in a new and richer medium. One thing that I realized in anticipation of the show is that, if it tried to track to closely to the books it would be a little too predictable for my tastes. One of the best aspects of Asimov’s storytelling is the surprises he reveals, and if you know the whole story in detail as I do, you’re hardly going to find many occasions for surprise. I’ve embraced the show as being a very different creation, and it’s held a great many great surprises for me thus far, so I find it a strong story worthy of my attention, regardless of the deviations from the original - or perhaps because of them.
I hope you’ll pardon my next question being about one my favorite topics – my podcast. How did you come across it and do you have any favorite episodes so far?
Achintya: I came across it on Reddit, through you actually. I found some of your comments about Asimov's writing extremely enlightening, and I simply followed your profile and comments to your podcast, which I must say is really well conceptualized. I'm not much of a podcast person myself, and I must confess, I read your podcast transcript more than I listen. But I absolutely love the way you've gone about it. I think my favorite episode was your essay The Dead Hand and the Living Will, but I've also loved your mini episode on the show too.
Joel: I’m really glad to hear that about the transcripts. My day job, which I haven’t really talked about on the podcast, is as an accessibility engineer for a healthcare company. One of the foundational principles is that people should have access to content in whatever format they need or want. I don’t have a hearing disability myself, but often find myself wanting to refer to a transcript after listening to a podcast episode. It’s distressing enough for me when I find out there isn’t one, and realize that people who can’t listen at all are just being shut out completely. That’s why I make sure to go to the trouble to produce one and post it.
So what comes next for you? What are your career aspirations as a historian? Any specific projects in mind?
Achintya: I'm always nervous about this one, because of how uncertain the job market is in academia. Ideally I'd love to simply settle somewhere and teach, letting me do research on the side. Teaching history is my real passion, and while I love writing, I'm not as good at writing for an audience. I love research for its own sake, but I really prefer communicating history through the classroom than through some book or article. My current project is my doctoral thesis really. I'm working on understanding lawyering in the British Empire through the 19th century. In many ways its a project deeply shaped by the sorts of beats that is the world of the Foundation. I'm interested in people as individuals. But those individuals are the gateway to understanding broader sweeps for me. How did ordinary people understand the law in the Empire? How did law bind people across vast spaces and enormous geographic and cultural gulfs? How have different legal systems today been shaped by the actions of legal practitioners as a class of people? My research is all about looking for a Salvor Hardin or Hober Mallow in the world of Empire, and through them, make sense of the great world they inhabited.
Joel: Thanks so much Achintya, for sharing your historical perspective on Asimov and Foundation. It seems appropriate to discuss history as we end another calendar year here on Earth in the 21st century. I hope things turn out well for you professionally and that you make the contributions to your field to which you aspire, and I hope you continue to find time to listen to Seldon Crisis. It’s been great having you on and I wish you a Happy New Year and many more to come!
Achintya: Been a genuine honor to have come, and be part of a great program!
Joel: And now I’d like to thank all of my listeners for all the downloads and the wonderful feedback throughout the past nine months since the first episode way back in April. You’ve all made this so much fun and I look forward to plenty of interactions with all of you in the years to come. Please keep reaching out to me via email at email@example.com and via Twitter at my handle of joelgmckinnon. It’s always a joy to hear from listeners.
Have a happy new year and join me again in a couple weeks as I get back into storytelling mode with the first episode focusing on Second Foundation, the Search by the Mule, here on Seldon Crisis!