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Paul Krugman and the Issac Asimov "Foundation" novels - a story of youth and inspiration

Paul Krugman talks about how the Issac Asimoc Foundation novels influenced him in his youth, and why that led him to economics.


Yet if the Foundation books are a tale of prophecy fulfilled, it's a very bourgeois version of prophecy. This is no tale of the secret heir coming into his heritage, of the invincible swordsman winning the day with his prowess. Asimov clearly despises both aristocracy and militarism; his heroes, such as they are, are unpretentious and a bit uncouth, with nothing martial about them. "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent," declares Mayor Salvor Hardin.


But wait: Foundation isn't about the triumph of the middle class, either. We never get to see the promised Second Empire, which may be just as well, because it probably wouldn't be very likeable. Clearly, it's not going to be a democracy – it's going to be a mathematicized version of Plato's Republic, in which the Guardians derive their virtue from the axioms of psychohistory. What this means for the books is that while a relatively bourgeois society may be the winner in each of the duels, Asimov is neither endorsing that society nor giving it a special long-run destiny. What this means for the storytelling is that the struggles don't have to be and aren't structured as a conventional tale of good guys versus villains, and the novels have that unexpected cynicism. The Foundation may start out a lot nicer than its barbarous neighbours, but it evolves over time into a corrupt oligarchy – and that's all part of the plan. And because the story arc is about the fulfilment of the Seldon Plan, not the triumph of the men in white hats, Asimov is also free to make some of his villains not especially villainous. Bel Riose, the imperial general who menaces the Foundation, is more appealing than the plutocrats running the place at the time. Even the Mule, who endangers the whole plan, is a surprisingly sympathetic character.


Which brings us to the Mule, the deus ex mutagen who drives the swerve in the plot halfway through the series. When I first read Foundation all those years ago, I resented the Mule's appearance, which interrupts the smooth tale of psychohistorical inevitability. On a reread, however, I see that Asimov knew what he was doing – and not just because another book and a half of Seldon Crises would have gotten very stale.


The Mule is a mutant whose ability to control others' emotions lets him conquer the Foundation and threaten the whole Seldon Plan. To contain the menace, the Second Foundation – a hidden group of psychohistorians, the secret keepers of the Plan – must emerge from hiding. So far, this sounds like any of a hundred tales of the struggle between good and evil. But Foundation isn't that kind of series. The problem, you see, isn't how to defeat the Mule and ensure the triumph of truth, justice, and the Foundation way. It is, instead, to get the Plan back on track – and that requires making sure that nobody understands the Plan!


So the Mule (who, as I said, isn't an entirely unsympathetic character) must be defeated, but the defeat must be subtle – no dramatic space battles, no victory parade, in fact no obvious defeat at all. 

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