Monday, January 14, 2013

Book review: Foundation + Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov

I’m sorry SF fans. I’m well aware that the Foundation trilogy is classic, seminal, well-loved SF, and the Hugo “Best Series of All Time” and all that… but I didn’t like these books at all.

In a very quick summary, the trilogy concerns the establishment of the Foundation, which was apparently conceived as a scientific enterprise tasked with documenting all of the knowledge of the galaxy in a Galactic Encyclopedia. Shortly after its initial settlement on a remote planet, it is revealed to Foundation scientists that the true purpose of the Foundation is not, in fact, simply to create the Encyclopedia, but rather to develop into the new dominant political power that will supplant the current failing Empire. The majority of the books chronicles a series of “crises” that the Foundation must overcome in order to achieve the predicted political goals of the Foundation founder and lead the galaxy out of centuries of “barbarism.”

I need to clarify quickly that I only read the first two books in the trilogy, Foundation and Foundation and Empire. I was just not enjoying them and didn’t want to trudge through the third. Both books (and the third as well, from what I’ve heard) are actually composed of short stories, which chronologically detail the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the crises and how the Foundation pulls through them. Because this is going to be a mostly negative review, I’ll start by saying what I did like. First, the world-building is first-rate. Secondly, the concept of “psychohistory,” the scientific art that propels the story, is pretty cool. I’m grabbing this directly from Wikipedia, since several editors have spent — I’m sure — painstaking hours perfecting this short definition, and it’s better than I am likely to do on my own: psychohistory is “a concept of mathematical sociology (analogous to mathematical physics). Using the laws of mass action, it can predict the future, but only on a large scale; it is error-prone on a small scale. It works on the principle that the behaviour of a mass of people is predictable if the quantity of this mass is very large (equal to the population of the galaxy, which has a population of quadrillions of humans, inhabiting millions of star systems). The larger the number, the more predictable is the future.”

In practice, what this means for the story is that a premier psychohistorian has mapped out the future of the Empire and the Foundation and has foreseen the crises that the Foundation will need to overcome in order to assume its rightful place as the dominant power in the galaxy — and that brings me to my first complaint, which, as it turns out, was apparently something that Asimov himself had anticipated when writing Foundation. Though the *idea* of psychohistory is a pretty significant contribution to our collective imaginations and the SF canon, it’s application here makes for a pretty clinical, repetitive story that lacks true conflict. Because we already know that the Foundation will emerge from the predicted crises, the crises themselves fail to hold any weight. The stories add up to “Oh no! Something bad is happening! This must be a crisis!” “Fear not, I am here to play the role of the clever hero in this tale, who will outsmart our opposition and secure victory for the Foundation!” “Oh, whew, that was a close one!” over and over again. While it’s momentarily fun to read the exact way that said hero overcomes the crisis, it’s expected. As a reader, I felt no tension, and considering the high drama of terming these obstacles “crises,” I’d like to experience a bit more of that drama for myself.

Asimov altered the formula a bit in Foundation and Empire with the introduction of The Mule, a character who alters the predicted the course of the galaxy, since his role in everything was not foreseen by the initial psychohistorian-puppetmaster. Unfortunately, even though the second novel does end up dealing in that kind of suspense and uncertainty I was hoping for from the first, I was already so tired of what I felt to be a formulaic — and frankly kind of boring — experience that I just couldn’t continue, despite the novel ending in a very unresolved place.

My other major complaint — and I’m sorry, because I know this is a more modern concern to impose on a novel of this time, but I just can’t help it — is holy shit, where are the women? When I complained about the sexism in Stranger in a Strange Land, back when I reviewed it for CBR4, what I didn’t realize at the time was that, apparently, I should have been pleased that Heinlein even bothered to include women at all! There is one woman in Foundation, and if I’m remembering correctly, she appears for about 1 page to nag at her husband and get all moony-eyed over some jewelry. And that’s it! So like I said, I guess I should have given Heinlein credit for bothering to remember that women exist, even if the way he wrote them was colored by his time. I know people will always gripe that feminists want to shoehorn women into places where they aren’t appropriate, but I can’t help but wonder why these people have the imagination to accept human civilization across a galaxy, with such cool inventions as nuclear reactors that can be worn around the wrist so as to give someone a personal deflector shield, but something like including a few women here and there (which is actually pretty realistic, hello) absolutely runs up against the edge of the fantastical things we can create. We do get a significant female character part of the way through Foundation and Empire, and though she’s exactly the kind of woman I would have expected from this book — somebody’s fancy, emotive wife, with a powerful maternal/protective instinct — I was happy to have her after 500 pages with almost nary a lady in sight. (Okay, Beyta becomes more interesting right at the end, but for most of the book, I feel my assessment is accurate, if harsh.) So, like I said, I know it may not be exactly fair to hold this book to my more modern standards, but it’s my review, damnit, and this kind of stuff is seriously distracting and alienating for me. And it’s also bullshit, quite frankly, because literature from times much earlier than Asimov’s manages to include more than one gender without patronizing them, so I reserve the right to be not impressed.

So, all of that goes to say, I’m sorry world, but Foundation wasn’t for me. I’d like to say that I can kind of understand why it has the reverence that it does, but honestly, I don’t really get it. Even if I put aside all of my lady-concerns, the completely formulaic nature of the first book (and half of the second) have me scratching my head as to why this is still considered the be THE BEST of sci-fi. It would be one thing for people to say “This was great at the time, but it hasn’t aged well,” but it seems like Foundation still tops a lot of best-of lists, and, well, I’ve read a lot better.

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