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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