Psychohistory

Tagged: Theme

A much-loved item of sf Terminology, coined in Isaac Asimov's very popular sequence Foundation (May 1942-January 1950 Astounding; fixups 1951-1953); it should not be confused with the identical term sometimes used by historians, which refers to the study of the relation of psychological motives to historical process. The attractive but purely Imaginary Science of Asimovian psychohistory supposes that the behaviour of humans in the mass – and thus future History – can be predicted by purely statistical means, but "... a further necessary assumption is that the human conglomerate be itself unaware of psychohistoric analysis in order that its reactions be truly random". It is upon this condition that the meta-plot of the trilogy depends. Donald Kingsbury enjoyably challenges this and other assumptions in Psychohistorical Crisis (2001), an unauthorized – and so slightly disguised with cosmetic name-changes – Sequel by Other Hands to the original Asimov trilogy. Asimov's own strong scepticism about the workability of psychohistory may well have been among the influences that led him to write further Foundation sequels in which the predicted working-out of history is, anticlimactically, shown to be overseen by a hidden conspiracy of mind-controlling Robots (see Secret Masters).

Even in the initial trilogy, to vary the predictability of wins for his titular Foundation, Asimov introduces a Psi-Powered Mutant called the Mule whose ability to control human emotions is a wildcard factor that disrupts the psychohistorically orchestrated programme for the glorious future (known as Seldon's Plan). This pattern is inverted in Gordon R Dickson's The Genetic General (May-July 1959 Astounding as "Dorsai!"; cut 1960 dos; text restored vt Dorsai! 1976), whose Villain uses the psychohistory-like theories of a rogue social Scientist to further his plan for galactic conquest, only to be defeated by the titular hero's special talent as "an intuitional Superman".

In Mary Gentle's 1610: A Sundial in a Grave (2003), the astrologer Robert Fludd uses psychohistory-like Mathematics – a technique supposedly originated by Giordano Bruno – to foresee planetary Disaster in the twenty-second century; he attempts to reshape England's political future in readiness for this. Rod Rees's The Demi-Monde: Spring (2012) features Steampunk psychohistory using Babbage Engines to make predictions which – because the Virtual Reality setting is computerized and deterministic – are at least in theory reliable. [DRL/PN]

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