The Mule is a Black Swan

Isaac Azimov guided my transition from children’s books to adult literature.

In Azimov’s Foundation novellas, mathematician Hari Seldon uses the probabilistic science of psychohistory to chart the decline of Galactic civilisation into ten thousand years of ignorance and disorder.  Seldon makes a well-placed intervention, founding a colony of archivists on the planet Terminus at the unregarded edge of the galaxy.  This becomes the Foundation, the seed from which a new civilisation is to grow, shortening the dark ages to a single millennium.

After only a few hundred years, however, enemy ships invade the home planet Terminus.  A mutant calling himself the Mule, with overwhelming psychic powers, has rapidly forged a power strong enough to overcome the Foundation.  This cataclysmic event was outside the scope of Seldon’s probability-based science to predict.

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However, Seldon had also founded, in secret, another colony.  The Second Foundation is populated by psychohistorians, trained in his science, able to predict galactic events based on a new balance of probabilities and then act to bring his planned future back on track.

Isaac Azimov has been feted for his predictions made in 1964 of our life today.  He could see forward to something like mobile phones and tablets but never predicted the internet.  In the Foundation stories, however, he captured the essence of what people later recognised in the 9/11 attack or the 2008 financial crash and called Black Swan phenomena.  Black Swan Events are outliers to any sensible informed educated probabilitstic understanding of our world.  They, by definition, have major impact but are unpredictable in any useful way.   Importantly, though, Black Swan Events will inevitably occur at some point if we wait long enough.  For the Foundation, the Mule is a Black Swan.  Seldon knows cataclysms will occur unpredictably so he builds flexible systems able to recognise and respond to such events when they occur.  By imagining Seldon, Azimov also encapsulates the concept of anti-fragility, planning resilience in the face of unpredictable events.

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There are no black swans in these illustrations, drawn at Blacktoft Sands as the rain drifted in through the ports in the sides of the bird hide.

4 responses to “The Mule is a Black Swan

  1. Asimov had the same important role in my reading but I had forgotten him…. You have prompted me to try to introduce his writing to my 15 year old, but from experience, the books that excited me at his age are rarely of interest to him 😦

    • HI Izzwizz
      Top books for me for 15 year olds right now
      Philip Pullman – starting with Northern Lights
      Garth Nix – Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen
      Hunger Games perhaps
      What else have you found?
      Sadly, Azimov now feels very dated. I think it is partly the way he portrays, or fails to portray, women.
      My son got into the late Iain M Banks’ Culture series. So much cooler than Azimov’s staid Galactic Empire.
      Oh – and so many books by Neil Gaiman.
      I am not sure I have grown out of really well written fiction for teens.

    • Hi Anne,
      I thought your comment showed good taste – far from being light weight, the books you cite are the classics, written with skill by masters of writing. So much sci fi is imitative and poorly written. In the same class as Orwell and Huxley is contemporary writer Christopher Priest. He writes real novels but there is a twist, usually focussing on our perception of reality. I just finished The Adjacent but otherwise recommend The Prestige. These are not really science fiction as sci fi fans would understand it. Another great sci fi book for the non sci fi reader is Slaughterhouse Five. It is deceptively simple in style. Importantly, even though it appears to be about time travel, in fact this was the vehicle for the author to work through his real experiences as a prisoner of war in Germany.
      Feel free to recommend books in return. Always a pleasure to discuss books.
      Neil

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