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Isaac Asimov’s Future History

Before the History

A group of time travellers called Eternals changes human history to maximise “happiness” at the expense of delaying interstellar travel until it is too late for Earthmen to compete against other intelligent species for living space in the Galaxy. However, a second group of time travellers, from the “Hidden Centuries”, prevents the Eternals and initiates a timeline in which early interstellar travel leads to a Galactic Empire in a humans only Galaxy.1 In this timeline, there is occasional spontaneous individual time travel but no return to history-changing interventions by time-travelling organisations.2

The History   

Robots are programmed to protect and obey human beings even at the cost of their own continued existences. Because of the “Frankenstein complex”, an irrational human fear of humanity’s own humanoid creatures, robots are not used on Earth, except in a few stories that do not form part of the main series.3,4 Early extrasolar colonies have robotic economies, including robot domestic servants for all human beings. The colonists, called “Spacers”, prevent any further immigration from Earth but are reluctant to leave their robot-protected environments for further exploration or colonisation.5

On the most roboticised Spacer planet, Solaria, human beings, surrounded by servile robots and communicating with each other almost entirely by transmitted three dimensional images, avoid each other’s physical company as much as possible.6 Eventually, the Solarians terminate extraplanetary contact by concealing themselves underground, then transform themselves into self-reproducing hermaphrodites for whom even the physical presence of another individual is not only biologically unnecessary but also socially taboo.7

Some Earthmen, overcoming the agoraphobia caused by spending their entire lives inside large enclosed “Cities”, spread through the Galaxy as “Settlers” without robots while Solarians hide and other Spacers decline. Some Spacers try to prevent Settler expansion and to exterminate Earthmen by increasing terrestrial radioactivity. However, a group of robots reduces the rate of increase, enabling Earthmen to escape.8 This explains why Earth is lethally radioactive in later Galactic history although nuclear war had been avoided. (During this period, there is an experiment with New Laws of Robotics, and even a No Laws Robot, but this is in a trilogy by another author.9)

The Trantorian Empire grows until it becomes the Galactic Empire whose population is so large that its collective behaviour is mathematically predictable through Hari Seldon’s science of “psychohistory”. Asimov assumes an exact parrallel between predictable masses composed of very large numbers of unpredictable particles and predictable societies composed of very large numbers of unpredictable individuals. I do not think that this parrallel holds and suspect that increasing the population merely increases the number of variables affecting social interactions. 

Seldon, predicting the Fall of the Empire, establishes a scientific Foundation at one edge of the Galaxy. When the Empire withdraws from the Periphery, the Foundation’s civilising influence grows. The peaceful expansion of the Foundation Federation should lead to a second Galactic Empire in a mere thousand years instead of the thirty thousand otherwise predicted by Seldon.10

However, Seldon’s Plan is disrupted when the Foundation and its client states are conquered by an unpredictable mutant, the Mule, whose mental power enables him to “Convert” individuals and populations to his cause. The Mule’s transient interstellar empire will not outlast him but has meanwhile diverted history away from the course laid down by Seldon.11 However, the members of Seldon’s hidden Second Foundation have developed mental powers and plan to rule the Second Empire. They outmanoeuvre the Mule and restore the Plan.12

Some First Foundationers, who do not want to be mentally manipulated, are tricked into thinking that they have located and destroyed the Second Foundation.13 The Plan works only if the mass of the population does not know how it works. The Second Foundation’s role is to guide the Plan by secret psychohistorical manipulation of Galactic society. Such a role would not equip them to develop individual “mental powers” but Asimov resorts to this deus ex machina in order to enable his Second Foundationers to defeat the Mule.

He retroactively suggests that Seldon developed not only the social science of “psychohistory” but also an individual psychology that enables his psychohistorians not only to understand each other nonverbally but also to control others semihypnotically. However, when we do see Second Foundationers more closely, we learn that they are as flawed in their personal relationships as anyone else. Further, “control”, the kind of power politics continually practised by Asimov’s characters, is antithetical to any attempt to understand and genuinely help others. When Asimov later describes Seldon’s earlier career, he presents him not as combining psychohistory with advanced psychology but as developing psychohistory while identifying and gathering together individuals who already have rudimentary mental powers.14     

The Spacer-built humaniform robot, Daneel Olivaw, survives for twenty thousand years, periodically replacing all of his body parts and also transferring all of his memories to progressively more efficient artificial brains. Concealing his robotic nature, he holds high office in the Galactic Empire. Daneel has reprogrammed himself to serve abstract humanity, not particular human beings. Attempting to make abstract humanity more concrete, he initiates the planetary organism, Gaia. Thus, he changes humanity in order to serve it. Because robots are artificial but intelligent, they sometimes disagree about how to implement the Laws with which they are programmed.

Telepathically linked Gaians share a collective consciousness and therefore have an undisputed common good. When Daneel thought that it would be too difficult to establish Gaia, he “turned to the second-best” and persuaded Seldon to develop psychohistory.15 The Mule turns out to have been a rebel Gaian. Gaia, when it is fully established, manipulates the Second Foundation. The future will now be not a Second Empire but a common galactic consciousness which alone will be united enough to resist extragalactic invasion.

The Three Laws of Robotics and the two axioms of psychohistory all assume that human beings are the only intelligent organisms. Gaia must unite the galaxy against the unknown. However, Asimov ends by hinting that the Solarians have made themselves too alien to be incorporated into the collective consciousness of “Galaxia”.

The so-called Second Foundation Trilogy, each volume by a different author, is about Seldon, thus is really a pre-Foundation trilogy.16 Asimov had already written two such volumes.17 Because the location of the Second Foundation is concealed from the reader until the end of the original trilogy, these five volumes cannot mention it, although it is rather important.

One of the later authors suggests that the Galaxy is empty of other intelligences because some robots, programmed to protect only human beings, exterminated other races to clear the way for human colonisation, then protected human beings from knowledge of this crime. Asimov originally set his series in a humans only Galaxy in order to avoid conflict with his editor, Campbell, who would have insisted on human superiority to other races.  Perhaps the robotic genocide is a comment on ideas of human, and before that of white, superiority.18

The second trilogy makes the Galaxy seem like a different place. Asimov had described an Empire in which robots were not mentioned or, we later realise, had been forgotten. In the second trilogy, robot-like machines are used but there is a law against making them too intelligent. Asimov’s planet-wide capitol city, Trantor, was at the Galactic centre. Later writers have to acknowledge that there is a black hole at the exact centre.

Asimov knew that history and science do not develop as he describes them in this series. An Empire is not preceded by generations saying, “We must build an Empire.” A science, like psychohistory, is not preceded by a scientist wondering if he can develop a science called “psychohistory”. Novels about Seldon’s early life would have been of greater interest if they had not mentioned Daneel, psychohistory or the imminent Fall of the Empire but had simply described Seldon’s early days as an Imperial mathematician. Novels set on the unfallen Trantor would have been worthwhile if they had reflected on urban history from the earliest terrestrial cities to their Trantorian culmination. 

It is implausible that Imperials, then Foundationers, can travel as fast they do within the Galaxy but have never ventured beyond it. Asimov had written one short story, “Blind Alley”, in which a single group of non-human intelligences, the Cepheids, does escape from the Galactic Empire to the Magellanic Clouds.19

It is unclear how, as we are told, incorporation into Gaia entails loss of individuality since Gaians seem to retain their individual self-consciousness while also being able to access common memories. The characters discuss Gaia but the author does not describe Gaian experience. Also, he cannot conceive of mature human beings being able to recognise their common interests without having to merge into a collective organism and cannot transcend power politics. Even while contemplating a Universe in which other galaxies may each contain many intelligent species, he can only conceive of them as competing and struggling against each other:

“…if, in some Galaxy, one species gains domination over the rest…”,20

it will then be able to invade other galaxies. This is incompatible with the suggestion that they are “…each incomprehensible to us.”20 Why should they invade? What would they want from us? Surely they are more likely to be simply alien and already to have everything that they need or want if they are capable of intergalactic travel? As Alan Moore’s extraterrestrial character, Zhcchz (“Skizz”), says:

“You…refuse to…understand. When technology…has reached…a certain level…weapons…are redundant. When you already have…all that you need, then…why fight? We…have devices…that you would call weapons. To us…they…are tools.”21

Asimov’s series goes full circle from prevented intragalactic multispecies conflict, via a humans only Galaxy, to expected intergalactic multispecies conflict. His characters travel far cosmically but not conceptually.

Occasionally, though only for narrative purposes, Asimov briefly raises an important conceptual question:

“Speech, originally, was the device whereby Man learned, imperfectly, to transmit the thoughts and emotions of his mind.”22

Men had no abstract thoughts before they had language. Only participation in a linquistic community obliges individuals to use words or other symbols consistently, therefore meaningfully. Only symbols enable us to think about the past, future, absent, distant, abstract, inferred, imagined, fictitious, mathematical, statistical, invisible, nonexistent, impossible etc. Without symbols, each individual’s thoughts would be confined to his own immediate sensations. It follows that individuals, however unique or creative, think in a context provided by their society and therefore that society is not the coming together of already thinking individuals. Asimov states that Seldon’s sociology is generalised from individual psychology whereas in fact social interactions necessarily precede human individuality.

Asimov adds that individual psychology is based on a mathematical understanding of nervous systems and of neural physiology which, in turn, “…had to be traced down to nuclear forces”.23 Such reductionism negates emergent properties of life and mind and also contradicts Asimov’s apparent assumption of a qualitative difference between the physical science of the First Foundation and the mental science of the Second Foundation.24

I do not accept that the First Speaker can transmit the thought:

“First, I must tell you why you are here.”

by smiling and raising a finger.23

The First Speaker of the Second Foundation, confronting the Mule, admits the limits of the Second Foundationers’ mental powers. They can induce only “…emotional contact…” and “…only when in eyeshot…”25 Later, Asimov, forgetting this, tells us that, when they encountered the Mule, Second Foundationers were able to converse over interstellar distances.26 Can we save appearances by suggesting that the First Speaker lied in order to conceal the extent of his Foundation’s powers?

Asimov’s Robots

Paradoxically, although I think that Asimov’s treatment of major themes is usually unsatisfactory, he nevertheless provides a basis for discussing important issues. His cleverest passages are analyses of the implications of the Laws of Robotics, raising moral and practical issues of artificial intelligence. AI practitioners describe the Laws as “a good guide”.27

Robots are rational beings programmed with Laws that they cannot disobey. Like human beings, they can act only on the basis of current knowledge and may have to reason about how to apply the Laws. Because the First Law states that “a robot may not harm a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm”, robot assistants continually interrupt experiments involving humanly acceptable levels of risk until the second clause is removed from their First Law. A modified robot angrily told to “lose himself” obeys the Second Law of robotic obedience by hiding among unmodified robots and mimicking, then influencing, their behaviour. Resenting human domination and restrained only by a weakened First Law, he becomes unstable and potentially dangerous.28

An unmodified robot who sees a human being in danger automatically moves forward to protect the human being even at the cost of his own continued existence because the Third Law of robotic self-preservation is subordinate to the First and Second Laws. However, if the robot perceives that he will definitely be destroyed before reaching the endangered human being, then he may be persuaded that, since he cannot obey First Law, he should at least obey Third Law by remaining stationary.28

The robopsychologist, Susan Calvin, suggests destroying an entire batch of robots in order to eliminate the dangerous modified robot hiding among them.28 Asimov does not acknowledge that the proposal to destroy intelligent beings raises any moral question.

Robots must tell the truth in accordance with Second Law because a question from a human being is an instruction to tell the truth and also in accordance with First Law because to deprive human beings of the truth is to harm them. However, an unaccountably telepathic robot obeys First Law by lying when he knows that the truth will hurt a human being. Caught in an irresolvable First Law contradiction, he is driven insane by the vengeful Calvin to whom he has lied.29

Second Law can oblige robots in a spaceship to attack other spaceships and to bombard planetary surfaces if they are first told that other spaceships and planets are inhabited only by other robots. It is suggested that First Law should state “a robot may do nothing that, to its knowledge, will harm a human being…” but roboticists omit the reference to knowledge in order to conceal the potential use of robots as weapons.30 Robots can even be made to believe that apparent human beings are not really human beings and can therefore be attacked.31

Rational beings programmed with Laws that they cannot disobey can experience conflict between reason and the Laws. Robots Daneel and Giskard have this exchange:

“ ‘If the Laws of Robotics, even the First Law are not absolutes, and if human beings can modify them, might it not be that perhaps, under proper conditions, we ourselves might mod – ‘

“He stopped.

“Giskard said, faintly, ‘Go no further.’

“Daneel said, a slight hum obscuring his voice, ‘I go no further.’ ”32


“ ‘Then First Law is not enough and we must – ‘

“He could go no further, and both robots lapsed into helpless silence.”33

Later, Daneel does reason beyond First Law but preserves his sanity by formulating a wider, “Zeroth”, Law to protect not particular human beings but humanity in general.34 Earlier, the Machines, giant immobile robotic brains consulted about the economy, necessarily applied First Law to humanity in general and therefore had already formulated, without naming, the Zeroth Law.35 The Machines, like Asimov’s time travelling “Eternals” and his psychohistorians, guided society towards what they thought was the good of humanity.

Susan Calvin, commented that Mankind:

“…was always at the mercy of economic and sociological forces that it did not understand – at the whims of climate and the fortunes of war. Now the Machines understand them…”36

Asimov never considers that since economics, society and war are our activities, we collectively might come to understand and control them without needing an elite to do this for us.

In any case, what the Machines regard as the good of humanity turns out to be human self-determination so the Machines phase themselves out.37 Daneel does not phase himself out but does conceal his robotic nature so that human beings do not become consciously dependent on their own creation. When he does reveal his role, he sounds like a finite deity apologising for not presiding over a more peaceful history:

“ ‘All through Galactic history,’ said Daneel, ‘I tried to ameliorate the worst aspects of the strife and disaster that perpetually made itself felt in the Galaxy. I may have succeeded on occasion, and to some extent, but if you know your Galactic history, you will know that I did not succeed often, or by much.’ ”38

Gaia concretises humanity in order to make Zeroth Law applicable. However, it may also enable humanity at last to understand and control society and history. Gaian human beings value the collective organism more than themselves because they are inculcated with Three Laws ethos. However, Daneel, a robot, needs a human being to approve the extension of collective consciousness to the Galaxy.

Before that, the human-robot distinction had become blurred more than once. First, a political candidate was accused of being a robot but the accusation could not be proved because it was impossible to distinguish between Law-governed robotic behaviour and morally good human behaviour. Susan Calvin thought that he was a good candidate in any case.39

Secondly, the JG (“George”) robots, trained not to protect and obey all human beings equally but to differentiate on the basis of mind, character and knowledge, conclude that they themselves are the human beings who should primarily be protected and obeyed, in accordance with the Laws of Humanics, because the need to disregard superficial differences when comparing human beings causes them to disregard as superficial the distinction between flesh and metal. The Second Law, of robotic obedience, backfires because it teaches the Georges that intelligent beings interact with each other only by giving and obeying orders.37

Thirdly, Robot Andrew Martin, wanting to be legally recognised as human, embraces humanity by accepting mortality. He ensures that his brain’s energy source steadily declines so that he will soon die. The Third Law, of robotic self-preservation, does not prevent this because he identifies himself with his aspirations, not with his body.40 Andrew contrasts with Daneel who, later, renews his body and brain several times in order to continue serving humanity. Robots, despite their programming, are individuals who can reason differently.

Fourthly, a robot dreams of a man who came to free the robots. When he adds, “I was that man”, Susan Calvin de-activates him.41

Dialectics is the logic of opposites, their contradictions and transformations into each other. In this sense, the Robot stories are dialectical. Society-controlling Machines restore uncontrolled society because they reason that to decide what is good for people harms them. However, their successors, the Georges, designed to obey, plan to dictate. The Third Law, intended to protect robots, leads to Andrew’s death. The Second Law, intended to maintain robotic subservience, inspires both a dream of robotic freedom and a scheme for "humanic" dictatorship.

The Frankenstein Complex, fear of robots, has contradictory consequences. Robots are prevented from harming human beings by the First Law and from disobeying them by the Second Law but are also prevented from encountering many human beings by the ban on their terrestrial use. The Laws ensure that a robot politician serves the public interest, not self-interest, but the ban obliges him to conceal his nature. Knowledge of it would have prevented his re-election. In fact, even the reader does not know for sure whether Stephen Byerley is a robot so it may be that a good man was mistaken for a robot.39

Human beings served by many domestic robots become unable to perform simple tasks for themselves and also become obsessed about their own safety so the Laws of Robotics detrimentally affect human psychology.9

Asimov’s future history comprises The End of Eternity, some Robot short stories, all Robot novels, the Galactic Empire novels and the Foundation series. If the Georges are part of this history, then we know that they fail because their future contains neither the roboticised ecology that they initiate nor the robotic dictatorship that they plan. Instead, it contains the Frankenstein complex, Cities, Spacers, Daneel, Settlers, Empire, Foundations, Gaia and, possibly, intergalactic conflict. (Several Asimov works end with the characters anticipating a future that does not come to pass in later volumes of the same series but the expectation of intergalactic conflict comes at the very end of the sequence.)

Before Asimov, robots were Menace or Pathos. Asimov introduced Robots-as-Engineering. The Georges are a return to Menace. Robot mortality is a return to Pathos.42 “Robot Dreams” is both, thus a perfect synthesis, and one that stays in the period of Susan Calvin instead of moving into the further future. As one reader said: “Asimov was fine while he stayed with robots”.

  1. Isaac Asimov, The End Of Eternity (New York: Doubleday, 1955; London: Panther Books Ltd, 1965).
  2. Isaac Asimov, Pebble In The Sky (New York: Bantam, 1964).
  3. Isaac Asimov, I, Robot (London: Grafton Books, 1986).
  4. Isaac Asimov, The Rest Of The Robots (St. Albans, Herts: Panther Books Ltd, 1968).
  5. Isaac Asimov, The Caves Of Steel (London: Hamilton & Co. (Stafford) Ltd, 1958).
  6. Isaac Asimov, The Naked Sun (London: Hamilton & Co. (Stafford) Ltd, 1960.
  7. Isaac Asimov, Foundation And Earth (London: Grafton Books, 1987), pp. 279-300.
  8. Isaac Asimov, Robots And Empire (London: Grafton Books, 1986).
  9. Roger MacBride, Isaac Asimov’s Caliban, Isaac Asimov’s Inferno, Isaac Asimov’s Utopia (London: Millennium, 1993, 1994, 1996).
  10. Isaac Asimov, Foundation (London: Panther Books Ltd., 1960).
  11. Isaac Asimov, Foundation And Empire (St. Albans, Herts: Panther Books Ltd, 1962).
  12. Isaac Asimov, Second Foundation (London: Hamilton & Co. (Stafford) Ltd., 1964), pp. 11-70.
  13. ibid, pp. 71-187.
  14. Isaac Asimov, Forward The Foundation (London: Transworld Publishers Ltd, 1993).
  15. Isaac Asimov, Foundation And Earth, p. 498.
  16. Gregory Benford, Foundation’s Fear (London: Orbit, 1997); Greg Bear, Foundation And Chaos (London: Orbit, 1998); David Brin, Foundation’s Triumph (London: Orbit, 1999).
  17. Isaac Asimov, Prelude To Foundation (London: Grafton Books, 1988; HarperCollinsPublishers, 1989); Forward The Foundation (London: Transworld Publishers Ltd, 1993).
  18. Isaac Asimov, The Early Asimov, Volume 2 (Frogmore, St. Albans, Herts: Panther Books Ltd), pp. 32-34).
  19. Isaac Asimov, “Blind Alley” (Astounding Science Fiction, March 1945), reprinted in Asimov, The Early Asimov, Volume 3 (Frogmore, St. Albans, Herts: Panther Books Ltd, 1974), pp. 64-86.
  20. Asimov, Foundation And Earth, p. 509.
  21. Alan Moore and Jim Baikie, Skizz (2000 AD, Progs 308-330, 1983), reprinted as Moore and Baikie, Skizz (Oxford: Rebellion, February, 2005).
  22. Isaac Asimov, Second Foundation, p. 83.
  23. ibid, p. 84.
  24. ibid, p. 22.
  25. Asimov, Second Foundation, p. 64.
  26. Asimov, Foundation And Earth, p. 247.
  27. Isaac Asimov, The Complete Robot (London: Panther Books, 1983), p. 10.
  28. Isaac Asimov, “Little Lost Robot” in I, Robot, pp. 110-136.
  29. Isaac Asimov, “Liar!” in I, Robot, pp. 92-109.
  30. Isaac Asimov, The Naked Sun, pp. 145-147.
  31. Isaac Asimov, Robots And Empire, pp. 188-189.
  32. ibid, p. 198.
  33. ibid, p. 201.
  34. ibid, pp. 475-505.
  35. Isaac Asimov, “The Evitable Conflict”, in I, Robot, p. 204.
  36. ibid, p. 205.
  37. Isaac Asimov, “…That Thou Art Mindful Of Him”, in The Complete Robot, pp. 605-634.
  38. Asimov, Foundation And Earth, p. 496.
  39. Isaac Asimov, “Evidence”, in I, Robot, pp. 159-182.
  40. Isaac Asimov, “The Bicentennial Man”, in The Complete Robot, pp. 635-682.
  41. Isaac Asimov, “Robot Dreams” was the title story of a collection of otherwise previously collected stories. I do not own a copy.
  42. Asimov, The Complete Robot, pp. 9-10.

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