Tag Archives: Isaac Asimov

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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THE GODS THEMSELVES – Isaac Asimov (1972)

The Gods ThemselvesFrom 1958 tot 1972 Asimov did not write science fiction, so The Gods Themselves was a sort of comeback, and it went on to win the Hugo, Locus & Nebula. It’s heralded as “His single finest creation” by the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. In 1982 Asimov himself expressed this to be his favorite science fiction novel. High praise all around.

A story in three very different parts, it is set in 2100, and deals with a possible unbalancing of the cosmos because of the Electron Pump – new technology that delivers clean, abundant energy. This unbalance might obliterate Earth.

The first part deals with the science behind it, and with the social problems inherent in doing science: it is a critique of ego before truth, and the petty competition between men. The second part deals with aliens – the first time ever Asimov wrote about aliens – in a parallel universe, aliens that are responsible for the Electron Pump. The third part is set on the moon, and is about scheming to resolve the problem.

It is a visibly constructed story: Ken MacLeod even speaks of “dialectics” in the pompous introduction to my 2012 edition, and indeed, as a construction it certainly has a charm, and Asimov’s craft is undeniable. Yet at the same time it sucks a bit of life out of it too. Wooden characters obviously don’t help that, especially not as most of the story is told through dialogue.

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THE END OF ETERNITY – Isaac Asimov (1955)

The End Of Eternity 2Colonial studies have been part of the curriculum for over two decades at literature faculties on universities across the globe. I wonder how many professors and scholars realize lots of science fiction can also be considered as literature that deals with colonialism. There’s the obvious Prime Directive in mainstream culture’s Star Trek. There’s a variant of that in Banks’ Culture novels: how and when to intervene in other – technologically less developed – cultures? There’s Ursula Le Guin. China Miéville explored the theme a bit in Embassytown. And so forth… The fact that lots of SF deals with encountering and engaging with other, alien cultures makes it a perfect genre to explore real world colonial issues.

The End Of Eternity fits into this way of looking at SF as well. It is one of Asimov’s stand-alone novels, and is considered among his best by many. The protagonist is Andrew Harland, one of the few who live in Eternity, a location outside place and time, where “Eternals” enact “Reality Changes”, small, calculated shifts in the course of history made for the benefit of humankind. Though each Change is made for the greater good, there are also always costs.

For those who have read it, 1971’s The Lathe Of Heaven of Le Guin instantly springs to mind. I have written extensively about my view on utilitarianism – an important theme in both books – in Lathe‘s review, so I will not repeat those here. Le Guin is more overtly critical on the matter than Asimov, who doesn’t necessarily fault utilitarianism, but instead faults placid, safe, stale thinking, and pleads for ambition, difference, diversity and risk.

“Whom do you mean by ‘we’? Man would not be a world, but a million worlds, a billion worlds. We would have the infinite in our grasp. Each would have its own stretch of the Centuries, each its own values, a chance to seek happiness after ways of its own in an environment of its own. there are many happinesses, many goods, infinite variety… That is the Basic State of mankind.”

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CAVES OF STEEL – Isaac Asimov (1954)

Caves Of SteelIt’s heralded as one of the best books Asimov ever wrote, but to me The Caves of Steel felt pretty pulpy. Maybe there’s not a lot more to be expected from a 200 page SF novel released in 1954.

There’s really not much meat on the bone story-wise: it hardly does anything new with the revolutionary ideas Asimov introduced to humanity in the earlier robot stories, and it basically only toys around a bit with them, in what is just a plain, straightforward and wooden detective story.

It’s also not nearly as well thought out as any of the books in the Foundation trilogy, which were published a few years before, and that’s a shame. Here, Asimov writes about a robot that talks and understands English very well, and can even mindread pretty complex mindsets (like the emotional ability of a human to kill or not), yet doesn’t understand or even hasn’t heard of words like “mercy”, “forgiveness”, “curiosity” or “bible”. That’s just inconsistent writing, sadly only for the sake of a few pages with some vague Ethics 101-stuff.

There’s other annoying stuff: while there are some interesting (and probably visionary) bits about ecology, overpopulation and the limits of Earth’s resources in the book, and hence about the reorganization of cities, there’s absolutely no justification for the fact that those cities on future Earth aren’t open to the air, the sun, the weather. Air-pollution? Radiation? Who knows? ‘Caves of steel’ seem like a neat idea – and makes for a good title – but as well crafted world building goes, it’s a gimmick only. The effects on humans of living indoors aren’t explored at all.

Finally, on a surface level the book seems to radiate a message of peace and understanding, since it’s about adjusting and overcoming prejudices – but actually — tiny spoiler alert — the main character’s development is the only one in the book, and paraphrases as this: “human is nudged to overcome fear of robots due to mild drug administered to him, without his knowledge”.

Still, it definitely was a mildly entertaining, fast read with some nice SF tidbits. So, those who have an interest in Asimov or 1950ies SF should give it a chance, for sure.

originally written on the 11th of July, 2015

FORWARD THE FOUNDATION – Isaac Asimov (1993)

Forward The FoundationSomewhat better than the previous installment (Prelude to the Foundation), this book might be of interest to Foundation completionists, but it lacks the scope, depth and vision of the Trilogy, and it also lacks the interesting story the 4th and the 5th novels still had.

This is just Hari Seldon working on psychohistory on Trantor, setting up the Foundations. At least it isn’t as predictable structure-wise as Prelude…. There’s not really that much of interest to learn, and as always, Asimov is not a good stylist, nor a writer of vivid dialogue.

The text on the back cover is hyperbole: this is no “crowning achievement” nor a “stunning testament”. I feel Asimov had better not succumbed to his readers’ pressure, and should have ended the series after Foundation and Earth. The 2 prequels feel forced, but this is the finer of the 2, for what that’s worth.

Still, since it’s only about 400 pages in pocket format, and not a dense read at all, completing the series isn’t a big investment of your time. Just don’t start reading because of Foundation-FOMO.

originally written on the 10th of October, 2014

PRELUDE TO FOUNDATION – Isaac Asimov (1988)

Prelude To FoundationThis is a prequel to the Foundation trilogy, which in itself was followed by Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth. Those two sequels aren’t as good as the first 3 books, but they are much, much better than this one. Even though it is a prequel, I do not advise on reading it first. It might damage one’s opinion of the entire series, or even cause uninterest in the “real” trilogy, which would be a dying shame.

Prelude to Foundation is, however, a quick and at times fun read, and has a good ending, so for anybody who has read and enjoyed the first 3 (or 5) books, it’s a nice addition to the series. But it is not much more: taken on its own it’s rather bland, especially the middle part, so please: don’t start here, just read everything in order of publication.

The first 3 books of the Foundation series are a true monument of SF, with wild ideas, a vast and breathtaking scope and a really interesting story. This book has none of that: it is basically Hari Seldon visiting four different sectors (with a different culture) of Trantor, in order to learn something from those cultures so he can work out the basics of his psychohistory. This starting up of psychohistory is sketchy at best, and there’s not that much to be learned about it you didn’t already know if you’ve read the rest. Seldon gets in some trouble, there’s some fighting, there’s some political scheming, and again there’s a link with the robot novels (as in the 2 sequels), but nothing like the plot of the Trilogy.

I hope the final book, a sequel to this story (and so a prequel to the others as well), is a lot better…

originally written on the 2nd of October, 2014