Isaac Asimov, Game of Thrones: How to Write Sociological Stories


These are the Foundation novels by Isaac Asimov. They’re some of the finest pieces of science fiction ever written and even won the Hugo Award in 1966 for all-time best series, despite everyone thinking the one-off award had been made solely to recognize the Lord of the Rings. Attempts to adapt the series go all the way back to 1998 when New Line Cinema had a project in development but scrapped it because the studio had signed on to develop The Lord of the Rings. Another film adaptation was attempted by Columbia in 2009 but also failed to get off the ground, as did a TV series from HBO in 2014. Currently, Apple is working on a 10 episode season, but after such a long history in development hell, I’m skeptical that it’ll actually get released. The Foundation is a uniquely difficult series to adapt, largely because it is a sociological story. In an article for Scientific American, Zeynep Tufekci argued that the reason Game of Thrones declined in quality in its recent seasons was because it changed its focus from sociological storytelling to psychological storytelling. The difference being that psychological stories are focused on individuals, while sociological stories are about institutions. Psychological stories hook the audience in with a compelling character and their struggles. Sociological stories usually have a wider cast of characters that can come in and out of the narrative. They show how the incentives of a particular political system will determine the decisions that the characters are making and as a result allow the reader to understand the decisions that every character is making, even the ones they disagree with. Of course, we can understand the motivations of characters and psychological stories, too, but the distinction here is how we understand them. If a character acts out because of a bad father: psychological. If the character does something immoral because their job incentivizes it: sociological. The 2015 film The Big Short is a great example of this and granted, it’s a true story, so that helps. In one of the movie’s plot lines, the protagonists interview basically every kind of employee involved in the corrupt financial system. Mortgage brokers, regulators and rating agencies and each person tells them essentially the same thing: I’m not a bad person. I’m just incentivized to do what I’m doing. “If we don’t work with them, they will go to our competitors. Not our fault. Simply the way the world works.” And that’s really the essence of what a sociological story is. I should also clarify that I’m not saying that one type of story is good and the other is bad, nor are the terms mutually exclusive. In its heyday, Game of Thrones was strong at both types of storytelling. We care deeply about Aria as an individual, for example, and we got to see how the absence of consequences changes men in the battlefield. We cared about Tyrion and we saw how the politics of King’s Landing changed people or broke them. The Foundation, on the other hand, is peak sociological storytelling. The premise of the story is that there’s a guy named Harry Seldon who comes up with a new science called psychohistory. It’s a science that can predict how groups of people will act, rather than what individuals will do. Individuals are random and unpredictable but people become more predictable as the group gets bigger. So it’s easier to figure out what an empire will do than it is a single person. Using the science, Seldon realizes that the empire he lives in is going to fall and that there’s no way to stop it. So instead of trying to prevent the fall, he’s going to shorten the amount of time between the fall and the rise of the next empire from 30,000 years to just a thousand years. The plan is to send a group of scientists out to the edge of the galaxy so that they’re as isolated as possible, making it easier to predict what kind of crises they’ll face over the centuries. From there they will hopefully safeguard civilization and then revitalize it by establishing a second “Galactic Empire!” And right there in the premise, you can see why this is a sociological story. Psychohistory is based on the idea that institutions behave more or less predictably, regardless of the individuals that actually populate it. If you know what the incentive structure is in an institution, you can predict how it will behave. Okay, so I’m going to do a brief rundown of the series before getting into any spoilery analysis. The first three books are technically called The Foundation Trilogy. They include five short stories and four novellas, which were mostly originally published in Astounding Science-Fiction magazine but then collected into the novels we know them as today in 1951, ’52 and ’53. But they are very much nine distinct stories. So really this should be called The Foundation Trilogy Trilogy. In her article, Tufekci talked about how the willingness of Game of Thrones to write out main characters is a clue that it is a sociological story. The reason for this is because the audience is invested in the political development of a setting more than they are any particular character. We wanted to see who would win the game of thrones and here we want to see what the galaxy will look like politically after the thousand years of quote unquote “darkness.” But instead of the big dramatic character deaths that populate Game of Thrones, the simple march of time brings character in and out of this narrative. None of the characters in the original trilogy appear in more than two of those nine stories which makes this a difficult adaptation if you’re coming at it from a psychological perspective. The audience won’t be able to get too attached to any one protagonist. The characters also do not have deep internal lives. We only see how they act in the context of the plot without getting into their personal relationships. They speak in a very wooden manner as honestly all of the characters in Asimov books do. He’s famous for his ideas, not for his prose. But as Tufekci writes, the “hallmark of sociological storytelling is that it can encourage us to put ourselves in the place of any character and imagine ourselves making similar choices. All of the characters in these stories, both good and bad, are the products of their environments and they make equally self-interested decisions. We don’t need to be emotionally attached to them for sociological storytelling to be effective. We merely need to understand them. For 30 years that’s all there was to the story, leaving things sort of unresolved. We were promised a story that lasts a thousand years, but the original trilogy only got us a third of the way there. But then in the 80s, his publisher wrote him a larger than normal check and insisted that he continued the series. So we got a pair of sequels: Foundation’s Edge and Foundation And Earth. Back when I gave the premise for the story, if you were thinking hey, why is reestablishing an empire inherently a good thing? Well, you’re in luck because Asimov basically agreed with you and puts the idea of empire on trial in the sequels. But most of that happens in Foundation’s Edge, while Foundation And Earth is about a guy wandering around wondering if he made the right decision in the last book. It’s the first book in the series that’s more of a travelogue than a political game but it is very meandering compared to the other books. Since he was writing these in the 80s these are also the first books in the series where the characters are actually allowed to have sex lives, though when you combine that with Asimov’s robotic dialogue, it’s not exactly stimulating Her breasts were a smaller version of the woman herself — massive, firm, and overpoweringly impressive. “well?” she said. Trvize said, in all honesty, “Magnificent!”
“And what will you do about it?” “What does morality dictate on Comporellon, Madam, Lizalore?” “What is that to a man of Terminus? What does your morality dictate? –And begin. My chest is cold and wishes warmth” Trvize stood up and began to disrobe… After Foundation And Earth, Asimov had no idea how to continue the story so he started writing prequel novels about Harry Seldon. Because of that you do sort of feel like the series loses some momentum since the actual conclusion is in book 5, even though the prequels are both a lot of fun. They make the prospect of a TV series pretty exciting though since you could adapt them as flashbacks while telling the rest of the story. So, that’s the series in brief. But what are these books really about and spoiler warning for these stories in books 1 and 2. At the age of 21, Asimov was on his way to his weekly meeting with John W. Campbell, the editor of Astounding Science-Fiction. He had to pitch a story but he didn’t have any ideas. Luckily, he happened to be reading Edward Gibbons’ The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and thought “Hey! Why not just do this, but in space?” In that original pitch for the series still contains its essence that the story isn’t just about institutions, but about the decline and fall of institutions and subsequently how they form and change with time. In each story, The Foundation will face an existential crisis, usually some outside force that seeks to conquer the planet. They’re called Seldon Crises since Seldon predicted that the crises would happen. We’re told that the good guys can’t win in a fight so they have to rely on something else. Whether it’s diplomacy, economics, religion or some other broader sociological trend in order to ensure their survival. As one character puts it, “Seldon crises are not solved by individuals but by historic forces. Harry Seldon…did not count on brilliant heroics, but on the broad sweeps of economics and sociology. So the solutions to the various crises must be achieved by the forces that become available to us at the time.” Stories usually tell us that a rugged individual can save the planet, The Foundation tells us the opposite. It’s one of the reasons these books are hard for Hollywood to adapt. They endlessly tease big space battles that don’t happen or aren’t important. There is no fist fight to save the universe. There’s a guy explaining why his trade policy will end a war with less bloodshed, not exactly blockbuster material! But this comes back to what we’re talking about with sociological stories, that it’s all about incentives. Asimov’s basic hypothesis about human beings is that were more or less driven by the same motivations and that we’re just doing whatever benefits us based on the setting we happen to be born in. We’re using the forces that become available to us at the time not something unique to the individual. The first few stories in the series show The Foundation using the strategy but they sort of try to have their cake and eat it too. They’re very good at showing how the norms of an institution shape the people within it and also how those norms can paralyze an Institution because it means that no one is able to conceive of a solution for a problem that’s outside of the system. For instance, in the story called The Encyclopedists– The Foundation is run by a group of scientists who are hoarding nuclear technology. The surrounding kingdoms no longer have that tech and each want to conquer The Foundation. Never would these scientists think to simply give their rivals that technology, that’s simply unheard of for that institution. It takes someone outside of that incentive structure to come and change it. So the story is really good at showing how the characters are formed by their setting but the solution does come from one person, even while the text is trying to tell us that one person counts for less than the masses in determining the course of history. The heroes of the early stories do use broader sociological trends to their advantage but the fact that they are individuals doing this is a bit of a contradiction. But a better demonstration of Asimov’s original ideas is in the story originally titled Dead Hand which is the first half of the second novel, Foundation And Empire. The story is about the last remnants of the empire threatening to conquer The Foundation. the protagonists of the story accomplish nothing, the conflict just sort of resolves itself and at the end, one character explains that no matter who is in charge of each faction The Foundation would have won. Basically since most emperor’s were formerly generals who overthrew the previous emperor, it’s impossible for the empire to conquer any meaningful piece of new territory since whoever is in charge of doing so, is much more incentivized to turn around and conquer the capital. In this story, the individual really is at the mercy of broader historical trends that are difficult to reverse and that’s what makes Asimov’s series so vital to science fiction and what makes it so relevant today. When Asimov started writing the series, he did so in the shadow of World War II. Afterwards, he said that “…this was also a time when I’d been living through the Hitler era in the 1930s, where no matter what anyone did, Hitler kept winning victories and the only way that I could possibly find life bearable at the time was to convince myself that no matter what he did he was doomed to defeat in the end.” It’s an optimistic belief, but he was also very much aware of how sometimes the broader historical trends aren’t in our favor, sometimes things fall apart. Many of the issues we’re facing today exist because of a broken system of incentives, not the least of which is climate change. Which is why we have to focus on changing the systems that cause that problem more than on individual behavior even though that’s part of the solution, too. Incredible stories have been told using psychological storytelling but they also comfort us with the fantasy of being able to produce complicated issues to the individual. Great sociological stories, like The Foundation, train us to think of social issues with more nuance instead of finding individuals to blame. It’s a more difficult story to tell which is why Apple, I’ve got my fingers crossed. I’d love nothing more than to see Isaac Asimov’s Foundation on film. Oh, and by the way, Harry Seldon is Asimov’s literary
alter-ego, like he’s the character that resembles Asimov the most. So do us a favor and give the character Asimov’s wicked mutton chops Now if you haven’t read The Foundation novels, then you can find all seven of them on Audible, the sponsor of this video. But I actually want to recommend another book to you that’s relevant to all of this. It’s called the Tyranny of Metrics and it’s a look at how institutions choose to measure will influence how people in that institution behave. It’s a great real-life breakdown of exactly what The Foundation is all about and it’s filled with tons of hilarious anecdotes and is really just a solid read all the way through. So I really recommend checking it out. In addition to those books, Audible has the world’s largest selection of audio books and audio entertainment. You can start listening with a 30-day Audible trial where you’ll get one audiobook and two audible originals for free! Just go to audible.com/justwrite or text:
justwrite to 500 500. That’s audible.com/justwrite. Thanks for watching everyone and a big THANK YOU to my patrons for supporting me on Patreon! I’m going to be updating some of the tiers on Patreon shortly, so keep a lookout for that. Keep writing everyone!