In 1942, fresh from reading Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 22 year-old Isaac Asimov published the first short story in what would become the most famous and influential science fiction series of his or your lifetime – the Foundation Trilogy. In these books, Asimov invented the fictional science of psychohistory, a combination of history, sociology and mathematics that could make accurate predictions about the behavior of crowds.
The scientists who developed psychohistory called themselves the Foundation, and they wrote down their research and principles on a giant screen called the Prime Radiant. The Radiant displayed the Plan, a path forward that recognized how we humans are hard-wired and soft-wired to respond to Narrative and other invisible social interactions in estimatable ways. It was a path to be followed – not to prevent the inexorable and inevitable Dark Age – but to reduce its length from an unimpeded 30,000 years to “only” 1,000 years. All the wisdom in the world is insufficient to stop the great cycles of human history. We do what we can.
The Plan goes awry only a few centuries into its efforts, thrown askew by a unique mutant psychic named the Mule, a force totally unforeseen by the Plan. The Mule’s great power is the ability to manipulate the emotions of any human, a power he first uses to make a planet’s population fearful, then, once conquered, to make them intensely loyal. First the Mule takes over the machinery of Empire, turning the supposed leaders into his puppets. Then he diminishes the Foundation into near irrelevance. And so the galaxy descends into a 30,000 year Dark Age.
But the Radiant survives, kept alive by a small band of psychohistorians determined to get humanity back on the right path, no matter how long of a game they must play. This is the Second Foundation, established at the same time as the highly public Foundation, working in anonymity and behind the scenes. Hunted by both the Mule’s Empire and the still powerful Foundation, it is the Second Foundation, using similar mental powers as those of the Mule, that ultimately prevails.