The End of Eternity (1955) by Isaac Asimov

EndofEternity1And here’s another sci-fi romance, dated forty years earlier, by Mr. One-of-the-Big-Three Himself, Isaac Asimov.

Andrew Harlan works as an Eternal Technician, analyzing and recommending Minimum Necessary Changes (MNC) in order to guide Reality. When he meets Noÿs Lambent, a non-Eternal from a Century far from his own, he falls in love and attempts to save her from the upcoming MNC that could destroy her existence as he knows it. But is he just playing into the hands of his superiors? Or, perhaps, a more powerful guiding force?

Like Remake (1995), which I reviewed yesterday, it’s another “he barely met her, but now he desperately loves her” kind of book. And also like Remake, it’s easy to dump this book for its dull, old-fashioned tone and predictable sexist relationship patterns. However, both books’ faults lie in their shared purpose: a tongue-in-cheek critique of social standards, although Asimov’s tongue might be less in his cheek and too buried in sci-fi pseudo-jargon for ‘50s sci-fi geeks to notice the social disconnect. Continue reading

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.

The Robot series by Isaac Asimov (The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, and The Robots of Dawn)

ImageImageImage

For such an old series, I was surprised that these books are the most enjoyable reads I had all summer. All three novels are sci-fi mysteries, based on a detective named Elijah Baley and his robot partner Daneel Olivaw (tell me that’s not an anagram), and are set a millenium into the future, when Earth’s population is bursting at the seams, and a minority of snooty “Spacers” have colonized the galaxy.

As an adult, I don’t consider myself a fan of mystery stories, but I have noticed that a great deal of science fiction stories revolve primarily around a mystery plot. In fact, of the five current Hugo nominees for best novel, three are mysteries (2013, Redshirts, and Blackout). To me, mystery plots seem like an unfair plot device that is designed to withhold and deliver whatever the author chooses, while endowing the protogonist with extraordinary analytical capabilities, even if the protagonist is portrayed as a “regular Joe”. It’s a rather loaded technique.

But back to the Robot series…

Synopsis
Elijah Bailey is a no-nonsense detective who lives on Earth, approximately three millennia into the future, where the city sprawl populates all of the eastern seaboard of the United States, and is primarily hidden from the sky by over-hangings of steel. A murder of a Spacer has occurred, but Baley must overcome his bias against robots in order to solve the crime with his new robot partner Daneel. In later novels, the two partners work together on other planets where Baley’s tension with robots is constantly tested and adjusted.

What I liked:
1. Laid-back sci fi. While I love a good, deep science fiction novel that challenges my mind, it’s nice to take a break and just enjoy the creative edge of the genre. Reading these novels brought me back to my childhood Nancy Drew phase, when I would zip through those stories so fast, and not mind devoting an entire weekend to reading on the couch. Asimov’s novels are quick, easy reads. I wouldn’t describe them as hard sci-fi, even though they contain elements of robotics and galactic travel. Asimov was a bio-chemist, but even so, he allows his “regular Joe” character to ignore the scientific how-to’s of his technology. You won’t be getting theory or mathematics out of these books. They are more about sociology than they are about rocket science and bioengineering.

2. Robot Daneel Olivaw is the character base for Star Trek Next Generation‘s android Data. I love Data. I want a Data of my own. He’s so logical and calm and candid. It’s no secret that Gene Roddenberry consulted with Asimov for his shows, and that Data was born out of Roddenberry’s enjoyment of the Robot series. Frankly, I never really warmed up to Detective Elijah Baley (he’s a bit too 1950’s asshole for me), but I’ll follow Daneel anywhere.

3. The characters grow with the series. The main character starts out rough, as he expresses anti-robot, anti-Spacer, and anti-progress sentiments. For the first two novels, he is unabashedly rude to Daneel and other robots. (Why would you be rude to a robot? The robot doesn’t care. It just highlights your own insecurity.) The roughness and the rudeness make Baley an unlikeable main character, but stick with it! By the third novel, Elijah warms to Daneel, and experiences a lot of self-growth.

4. Even earth is a different world. Asimov’s vision of our future Earth is pretty scary, and his characters’ comfort on that Earth is a testament to his belief in the adaptability of human beings. The Earth he describes is just as foreign to the reader as the planets Baley visits in the second and third novels of the series.

What I didn’t like:
1. It’s a little bit old-fashionedSpeaking of asshole characters from the 1950’s, there is a dated perspective in these books that is hard to ignore. Even for an open-minded, humanist like Isaac Asimov, his first two novels in the series contain elements of 1950’s culture that are not acceptable today. The women are dimwits (omg, Baley’s wife, ugh), the male view of women is limited and sexist, and, as I mentioned, the men are pretty insecure about their status in the world (and galaxy), hence their hatred toward robots. (The friction between man and robot reminds me of today’s friction between the white working class and immigrants, so maybe it’s not that dated.) Still, Asimov’s novels aren’t nearly as intolerant as some other vintage sci-fi novels, and by the third novel, which was written in the more modern ’80s, he addresses (and rectifies) some of the non-PC slip-ups he made in the first two novels. This all ties into Detective Baley’s personal growth and fits appropriately into the story.

2. The galaxy is completely uninhabited! Really? So future Earth colonizes 50 planets within the Milky Way and there is no threat from outsiders of any kind? All these idyllic planets are just waiting for us, the blessed humans, to settle them? This provides an unusually human-centered view of outer-space, which also seems a little old-fashioned. Like Middle Ages old-fashioned.

My final word. This is a great little series to enjoy if you are looking for some real sci-fi to cut your teeth on, but are not ready to dive into the heavier Kim Stanley Robinsons or Neal Stephensons of the genre. Plus, you’ll get to experience the very first-time the word “robotics” was ever put into print.

I hope you enjoy it like I did.