Tag Archives: Free will in literature

FOUNDATION TRILOGY – Isaac Asimov (1951-’53)

Foundation first edition cover high res (David Kyle, Gnome, 1951)Foundation and Empire (Asimov, first cover, damaged)Second Foundation (Asimov, first cover, Binkley)

For about a decade I didn’t read any fiction. About 14 years ago a friend recommended me Anathem by Neil Stephenson, and I’ve been back at reading fiction since. Some Culture novels by Banks followed, and I became enamored with science fiction as genre. So I dove into its canon, and the Foundation series became the first thing I read after I gobbled up Iain M. Banks. It became one of my favorite series, even liking book 4 and 5 from 1982 and ’86 most – back then because of their scientific-mystical all-is-one slant.

I read some more of Isaac Asimov too: I, Robot (1950), Caves of Steel (1954), The End of Eternity (1955), The Gods Themselves (1972), and the godawful Foundation prequels – Prelude to Foundation (1988) and Forward the Foundation (1993).

And now, after my rereads of the entire Dune series, and Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, the time felt right to reread and review Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation. At first I wanted to do one book at a time, but when I finished Foundation, it was obvious that these books are better reviewed as a whole, as they are a sole collection of short stories and novellas first published in Astounding Science-Fiction, from 1942 to 1950, under the auspices of editor John W. Campbell. Only the very first chapter, “The Psychohistorians”, was written for the publication of the first book itself.

I read the splendid Everyman’s Library edition – a hardback with an excellent 15-page introduction by Michael Dirda that’s isn’t expensive nonetheless. That introduction guided my reading a bit, and I’ll get back to it a few times.

First, a warning: I’ll have to let down recurring readers expecting a long analysis like those of the Dune books or The Book of the New Sun. This post won’t be 5,000 or 10,000 words – only 2,300. I simply don’t have that much to add to all that has been written on this seminal work, considered a “watershed” in literary history by many. Dirda quotes SF editor Donald Wollheim: “Stories published before Foundation belong to the old line, the stories published published after belong to ‘modern’ science fiction.”

Before my actual reread, I thought this post might turn into a big examination about how Asimov deals with free will in the books, not dissimilar to my post on LOTR. It turns out that there just isn’t that much to discuss, but I’ll spend a few paragraphs on it nonetheless, as it is the crux of the series.

Did I think this trilogy has become way outdated, and did I enjoy my reread? To answer that and more, let’s get back to Dirda – three times.

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This is a list of longer articles of a more scholarly nature, some are +5,000 or even +10,000 words. Most touch on philosophical matters.

Isaac Asimov

On free will and determinism in Asimov’s future universe, embedded in a regular review of a reread.

Frank Herbert

On Paul as a tragic hero, and determinism as the foundation of Dune, amongst other things.

A comparison between Dune & Dune Messiah, a part on Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence in relation to Messiah, and how that ties into Paul being a tragic hero and not an Übermensch. I end with a discussion on determinism & free will in Messiah.

For starters Alia as tragic figure, and a discussion about an important thing that remains unclear: Paul’s relationship to the Golden Path. After that, 4 specific subjects: how I think ‘change’ is the central concept of this book, the prevalence of a Nietzschean Amor Fati, the book’s relationship with Nietzsche’s morality beyond good & evil, and finally, free will and its relation to Leto II’s specific version of prescience. Over 10,000 words in total.

Starts with a regular review, and after that examines Leto as the most tragic character of the series & the conceptual knot. Also examines the nature of the supposed cautionary tale Herbert meant to write and the introduction of non-mechanical world building in the series, contrasting with its central theme of the absence of free will. Other topics are the mechanics of no-room shielded prescience, the Golden Path, change & creativity, and it takes a critical look at various inconsistencies in the novel. Over 8,700 words in total.

11,600 words. Among other things, the text looks at Herbert’s narrative bluff, and examines the Bene Gesserit’s motivations. It discusses love, heresy and variation as themes in the novel, and looks at how the book’s characters are permutations of those of Dune. I try the explain why I liked this book the most of the sequels, even with all its shortcomings. The most important focus of the analysis is on a major shift in the series, as in Heretics, under the influence of Einstein and quantum theory, Herbert casts prescience not as something passive, but as an active, shaping force. This sea change alters the ontology underlying the series drastically. I also look at an underlying principle Herbert uses: perception shaping reality.

10,700 words. An assessment of the book’s shortcomings, plus a further examination of the Bene Gesserit, a section on free will and shorter sections on change & creativity, on Nietzschean morality, on the obscure & conflicted nature of Mentats and on Herbert’s obsession with bureaucracy. Ends with an reflection on the Dune series in general.

Yoon Ha Lee

On the morality of writing & enjoying violent fiction.

Hilary Mantel

On the conflict between the two world views underlying the novel: pragmatism vs. Plato, and a wee bit on free will.

Ada Palmer

8,600 words on the first half of Terra Ignota’s metaphysics – tied with Mycroft’s status as a narrator, its seemingly essentialist outlook, the embedded case study of utilitarian ethics, the nature of J.E.D.D., the question whether this utopia could devolve into war, a gender issue and the books’ politics, intrigues and world building.

6,400 words on the epistemic nature of the text and its relation to the metaphysics of Palmer’s future world. In comparison with my text on Seven Surrenders, I changed my opinion a bit on the relevance of the science fantasy matter, mainly because of an essay Palmer wrote online. The second thing I examine more closely is J.E.D.D.’s shaky motivation for his involvement in the coming war: it is linked to utilitarianism and the trolley problem.

5,500 words, mainly about one of the fundamental ideas underlying this series: theodicy. I also discuss some other stuff that wasn’t fully to my taste this time, and I’ll end with a few short discussions: on free will, on J.E.D.D’s. nature & the fallacy of fiction being a real world guide, on J.E.D.D.’s trolley problem motivation, on J.E.D.D. & Palmer’s theodicy cop-out, on the trolley problem itself & on a few of the series’ gender aspects.

Richard Powers

3,000 words on why the defeatist Bewilderment fails the goals Powers has set for himself with this clifi-ish short novel. Amongst other things a matter of hubris about the power of literature, and of content that is out of focus.

Kim Stanley Robinson

A lengthy, analytic review backed by lots of fragments from recent KSR interviews.

W. Olaf Stapledon

On the conceptual & philosophical content, and its science fictional relevance.

J.R.R. Tolkien

A detailed exploration of LOTR‘s most basic problem: its internal contradictions viz. free will, and Tolkien’s own messy thinking on the subject.

Gene Wolfe

5,500 words on a reread of TBotNS, focusing on the narrative trap Wolfe has set, and my theory that his literary sleight of hand serves a religious/mystical goal, much more than it is the supposed puzzle for the reader to unravel. There’s also a short section on free will, and it ends with my overall appraisal of the book’s enduring appeal.

Not as long, but with a coda that is a response to Wolfe’s delusional reactionary politics as he expressed them in a 2001 essay on Lord of the Rings.


Consult the author index for all my reviews, the index of non-fiction & art book reviews, or my other lists.