Great Galloping Galaxies! A review of the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov on his (maybe) 94th birthday.

The Foundation series feels like an epic space opera that has been condensed to pulp, although it started the other way around, but the novella-sized parcels don’t do the story justice. With big concepts like science as religion, psychic mind control, female heroines, and psychohistory, Asimov’s sparse storytelling style doesn’t match the grand scale of his ideas. The series is meant to be a galactic allegory of the fall of the Roman Empire, but it primarily toddles around on scenes with two old dudes having a smoke and arguing.

Although none of its installments were actually a Hugo Best Novel winner or nominee, the 1951 – 1953 Foundation trilogy was honored in the one-off Best All-Time Series category in 1966 (against LOTR, no less!), and “The Mule” won a Retro Hugo in 1996. It’s considered to be one of the major cornerstones of science fiction.

My advice: Unless you are a completionist, skip the first book, enjoy the second book, and maybe read the third, if you’re up for it. Or, read Asimov’s the Robot series, which feels more dated, but is an overall more pleasurable read.

And, by golly! What timing! It may or may not be his 94th birthday today!

The first, and the worst…

Foundation

Foundation (1951)
Hari Seldon, the galaxy’s eminent psychohistorian, has used mathematics to predict the fall of the current empire, followed by 30,000 years of barbaric chaos. But he has a plan to winnow down that chaos to only 1,000 years, by a probability of 94.2%… that is, as long as the Foundation can successfully steer human history without any foreknowledge of Seldon’s plans. (Like how I used “winnow” up there? That’s an Asimovian favorite.)

By the dust clouds of space, this is a dull book. There is a probable nondeviation of 94.2% that this book is just untagged dialogue between two old dudes, with no action cues, emotional context, or elaborative background. It’s. Just. Talking. About. Things. The male characters vary from segment to segment, but the voice and context never change, which makes it difficult to differentiate anyone. To my annoyance, the brash obnoxiousness of some of the male characters are reminiscent of Heinlein’s old white guy, Jubal Harshaw, from Stranger in a Strange Land

I wish I could say better things about this book, considering the ideas are provocative and interesting, but the writing is terrible. It’s not even writing; it’s the scaffolded dialogue of a terrible play. It’s dry, skeletal, and unmoving.

But then we get to the gem of the series…

Foundation_and_empireFoundation & Empire (1952)
Two novellas: “The General” about Charlemagne-wannabe Bel Riose and his attempts to destroy the Foundation, and “The Mule” about newlyweds Toran and Bayta, who get wrapped up in political scheming and inadvertently adopt the strange clown Magnifico, who is on the run from the mysterious conqueror, The Mule.

By the Great Seldon! Asimov adds bits of flesh to his skeletal storytelling in this installment. “The Mule” rescues the series by introducing interaction between more than two characters, and the female protagonist, Bayta, proves that vintage science fiction can support intelligent and important female characters. The story’s twist is as obvious as an ATOMIC reaction, but I was still surprised by the way it was revealed. Totes worth the read, folks.

And the 3rd novel, despite the completely misleading title…

Second_foundationSecond Foundation (1953)
Seldon’s Plan becomes a Sel-Don’t Plan (sorry!), when three centuries after his death, Foundation citizens are starting to resent the elusive, yet powerful, Second Foundation.The Mule continues to seek and destroy the Second Foundation, and 14-year-old Arkady Darrell dives into midst of her father’s intrigues, inadvertently causing a war, and stumbling upon some hidden knowledge.

Asimov’s skill as a storyteller is at its best when he explores the complex depths of his freaky antagonist, The Mule. The second part introduces another strong, intelligent female character, Arkady, and even the male characters get some personality injections. As story comes to a close (but not really because he picks up the series again in the 1980’s), Asimov has to overstretch those plot threads to establish satisfying reasoning, which is a little unconvincing in places.

My reflections:

  • It’s odd that the great humanist Asimov assumes that empire is the only answer to barbarism, or that only barbarism results when people are left to rule themselves.
  • At first, it seems as if Asimov wishes for a religion based on scientific principles, but his story explores his fear that religious piety will pervert science and undermine the people.
  • Interesting thoughts on telepathy, which the canon suggests disappeared with the development of speech.
  • The women of the Foundation series are far more modern (and much more tolerable) than the women of the later Robot stories.
  • Asimov’s characters like to push back their curls, a lot.
  • The Battle of Horlegger… ha ha. (I am twelve.)

And yes, I will be adding “Galaxy” and its Asimovian variations to my expletory vernacular.

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17 thoughts on “Great Galloping Galaxies! A review of the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov on his (maybe) 94th birthday.

  1. gumanorak says:

    Excellent post, I want to go read Foundation now.

    And, Great Galloping Galaxies! THE naughtiest, filthiest expletive I have ever read/heard, it made me go bright red.

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  2. Widdershins says:

    I first read the series when I was a young naive country kid and as you’d expect, it blew my mind. Then a re-read as a passionate young feminist made me want to throw the books, Hari Seldon and Issac off the top of a very tall building.
    Some years ago I did another re-read and regarded my old friends fondly. They were a part of my childhood that didn’t suck and they got me thinking about science and future history and technology and all that good stuff that a SF/F writer needs to think about on a regular basis.

    I have them in the ‘boy’s-own-space-adventures’ section of my library, along with most of what was written by those blokes of the ‘golden age’ of Science Fiction.

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  3. […] efficient verbs punctuate the action. The opening pages are a refreshing welcome, especially after my recent foray with Isaac Asimov and his lack of dynamism. On an esoteric level, the espers make telepathic conversation a high art […]

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  4. The Foundation – Some Thoughts | The Leather Library says:

    […] Great Galloping Galaxies! A review of the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov on his (maybe) 94th bir… […]

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  5. […] In the spirit of SF euphemistic expletives like “frak” and “frell” and, my favorite, “great galloping galaxies,” Niven gives us “Finagle,” as in, “how in Finagle is that woman walking on a Mobius […]

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  6. […] characters who represent a variety of simplistic worldviews. It reminds me of Asimov’s skeletal Foundation series— epic ideas, but sparse storytelling. A novel stunted by the weight of its own ideas, written by […]

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  7. I think I read these as a child, and I recently re-read Foundation and wasn’t too impressed. I may give Foundation & Empire a chance since you liked it.

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  8. Warstub says:

    These books I read in my youth, I don’t remember much about them, nor did they do much for me, though I might have appreciated them as expanding my imagination. I never got around to reading the Robot novels, but I did read most of his short-stories (there were many), and eventually read The End of Eternity which is one of my favourites. It is a backwards and forwards time-travel novel, but I thought – at the time – it was so well done, hence me still having a vivid impression of it so many years later.

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  9. […] Asimov has always been more amenable to gender equality than some sci-fi writers. Even his stodgy Foundation series has some real women of agency (Bayta!), so it’s jarring to see such an old-fashioned […]

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  10. […] this is just the kind of fluffy pulp sci-fi I crave this time of year and, unlike the dryness of Foundation, the overt positivism of Carson of Venus, or the kitchen sink adventures of Galactic Patrol, the […]

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  11. […] galloping galaxies! From the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov (ex. Great galloping galaxies, these men sure do talk a […]

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  12. […] earlier SF writers explored the same ideas with a similar conceit of logic, Null-A, and psychohistory, which, as Max Cairnduff cleverly reminds us in his review, is now called consulting, the attempt […]

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  13. […] “The Mule” from Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – Asimov is an atrocious writer but Hugo voters had it right when they decided to vote only for this one little section, instead of the entire serialized novel. “The Mule” is one of the few interesting moments in an otherwise dry and jerky excuse to get the idea of psychohistory down on paper. […]

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