Thursday, September 17, 2015

1983: Foundation's Edge

I had hoped that Foundation’s Edge would be at least mediocre since the original books were good but alas no.  Foundation’s Edge is the worst book to the Hugo since 1955’s They’d Rather be Right, which an observant reader may remember is generally considered the worst book to win the award.
                Foundation’s Edge is set over a hundred years after Second Foundation. The Foundation is at the height of its power. It controls, directly or indirectly, around half the planets in the galaxy and recently resolved a Sheldon Crisis (the turning points in history where Sheldon would appear in holographic form to discuss what is happening). Most of the population believes that the Second Foundation has been completely destroyed. Except for councilman Golan Trevize. He has a long tedious debate with Mayor Harla Branno, leader of the Foundation, which ends with him exiled from Terminus. This is all an elaborate cover, however, as the Mayor actually wants him to go search for the Second Foundation. So she gives him an advanced ship and companion, the historian Janov Pelorat. Obstinately they are looking for the original world of mankind. At the same time, ambitious Second Foundationer, Stor Gendibal, is sent to follow them. What follows is a very talky story where plans within plans are revealed and the fate of humanity is determined by the generally unlikable Trevize.
                Foundation’s Edge commits the biggest sin a book can commit: it’s boring. Much of the book is taken up by meetings and dull conversations as characters endless debate philosophical or political matters. I am not saying that the book needs to full of wiz bang action but something needs happen. Characters travel to a place, talk, then travel to a new place and do the same thing. This structure might work if any of the places they traveled were interesting. But that does not happen. The planets that they visit are not interesting. Asimov’s whole galaxy is uninteresting. There are no aliens, no exotic living creatures, and no strange political systems. The book states that every planet that can bear life only had microbes when humans arrived and were all seeded with earth planets and animals. When Trevize and Pelorat visit a planet outside the Foundation space, the place feels no different from Treminus. Even the Second Foundation’s society of telepaths is not really that different. Everyone even speaks exactly the same language! It’s too orderly and too pat. Asimov showed in The Gods Themselves that he can create different societies but there does not show here at all. Great science fiction should make me want to learn more about a world but I could not care less about this one.
Asimov’s fourth Foundation book also does the worst thing that a sequel can do: it undoes much of what was great about the original works. The point of psycho-history is that it used mathematical modeling to deduce the movements of human history on a galactic scale. In Foundation’s Edge this that idea is tossed aside as the mental machinations of powerful telepaths shown as the real power behind history. The telepaths on the planet Gaia (spoilers) are so powerful that they negate everything else from the book. Asimov even managed to ruin The Mule, the most interesting characters from the previous books, by making him a runaway from Gaia rather than a true mutant. The whole book reminds me how George Lucas wanted to change original Star Wars Trilogy to confirm to the prequels instead of understanding that it was the originals that were better and the new stuff needs to conform to it.
All this begs the questions if it is so terrible why did Foundation’s Edge win the Hugo? My guess is that it something I’m going to call the Phantom Menace Syndrome. In 1998, I went to see Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace opening day. When it was over, I lied to myself and said it was great. I wanted to believe it was great because I loved Star Wars so much and because we the fans had waited so long for a new movie. It was only after viewing it a few more times (too many honestly) that I came to realize that it was not a good movie and worked against much of what was great about the original trilogy. I have a feeling that many people felt this way about a new Foundation book. There was a nearly 30 year gap and Asimov admitted that he wrote it on the urging from his publisher. Fans wanted to like so it won. It’s a shame because The Sword of the Lictor by Gene Wolfe (3rd book in the Book of the New Sun tetralogy) was also nominated and is a far more deserving winner. Really I can’t promote that series enough.

How disappointing it turned out this badly.. I hope that the next winner, David Brin’s Startide Rising, will be an improvement, though even how disappointing Foundation’s Edge was, it should not be too hard. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Special: The Foundation Trilogy

This time, as I mentioned in the last blog post, I’m going to do something a little different. The 1983 Hugo Winner is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation’s Edge, the fourth book in his Foundation series. Having never read this seminal series, I figured that it would best to do so before proceeding to the fourth book. The Foundation series also won the Hugo for Best Over-all series in 1965 and has had a tremendous impact on a number of prominent individuals from Newt Gingrich to Paul Krugman.  
                So I sat down and the read them (the cover above is similar to the paperback I used) and found they were… good. Good with scattered moments of greatness. I do not find them better than two of the other nominees for Best Over-All series, Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom series and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. The books are classic “Golden Age of Science Fiction” for all the good and ill that loaded expression holds. Asimov creates a lot of big ideas that remain impactful on science fiction but the books themselves tend to be very talky and with little real tension. Let’s look a little deeper into the books themselves and see what works and what does not.
                The Foundation Trilogy is composed of Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. The trilogy begins on the city world of Trantor, capital of the Galactic Empire. Hari Sheldon has created a new discipline of science called Psycho-history. Psycho-history allows Sheldon to predict the course of history on a galactic scale and he has found that the Empire is decaying and will collapse in the next few hundred years. What’s more, Sheldon has found that the galaxy will plunge into chaos and barbarism for 30,000 years before a new empire will rise. Using his psycho-history, he found a way to reduce this “Dark Age” to only a thousand years. Imperial authorities, unsurprisingly, are not happy with Sheldon’s predictions and seek to try him and his followers for treason. They flee and found the Foundation on Treminus, a strategically unimportant planet at the edge of the galaxy. Obstinately founded to compile knowledge for a Galactic Encyclopedia, the real purpose of the Foundation is theto serve as the seed for a new empire.
                Foundation follows the first 150 years or so of the Foundation and how it outwits and eventually absorbs the surrounding barbaric kingdoms.  It was interesting how Asimov has the leaders of the Foundation win through maneuvering and cunning rather than military skill. The only problem is that it all seems too easy. The Sheldon Plan, as the Foundation’s goal of re-establishing the empire is called, is taken as flawless and each of the Foundation leaders in the story easily outwit the enemies. No setbacks; everything just falls into place. While the story was interesting there was no tension to keep me invested. I never had a feeling of danger or that much of anything will go wrong. That’s the biggest problem with this trilogy since, except for one part, everything works swimmingly. Additionally, life just seems to be comfortable all the time. Treminus is economically poor but the life styles seem solidly middle class. I was amused how much everyone smoked (every meeting, of which there are a lot, people are offering one another cigars) and how everything is atomic this or that. Nothing wrong with either thing, just amusingly anarchistic.
                Foundation and Empire is much more interesting. Not for its first half, which shows how the Foundation defeats the remnants of the old Empire, since the conflict hits most of the same beats as those in the first book. Asimov hints at the great battles that are taking place but does not show the reader much of them.  It’s the second half of Foundation and Empire where Asimov introduces the first real challenge to the Sheldon Plan: The Mule. The Mule is a mutant that can manipulate the emotions of those around him and turn his most hated enemies into loyal friends. The Mule is a great character and his story is far and away the best part of the trilogy. With the introduction of The Mule, Asimov finally brings some uncertainty and tension to the story. It was here that I first felt any surprise reading this trilogy.
                Second Foundation was a bit of letdown after Foundation and Empire. The beginning of the book features the Mule but a majority is taken up by the Foundation’s search for the Second Foundation. The Foundation was built on the physical science while the Second Foundation was built on social sciences especially psychology. I found it strange that Asimov gives so much credit to psychology. The Second Foundation’s mastery of psychology basically gives them the same power as the Mule but only on a much smaller scale. A great deal of the novel is taken up by conversations between characters about what Sheldon meant when he said that the Foundations would be at opposite ends of the galaxy. The main character of the story is Arkady Darell, the granddaughter of the hero from Foundation and Empire, Bayta. She is a precious and generally likable character but her travels around the galaxy just feel too safe. She ends up on a faraway planet with strangers but I almost never felt any sense of danger.
For a supposedly chaotic galaxy, it seems pretty orderly. There is a no sense of lawlessness by the third book. No “Mos Eisley cantina” or a hint of underlying messiness to society. Asimov seems far too structured in his approach to fiction to allow for that and I feel it hurts the galaxy he has created. Few characters are morally gray and most are fairly stock. The writing is standard Asimov: direct and without any great stylistic flourishes. The Mule sections are some of his very best writings.  They have more dramatic flair and inventiveness than anything else he wrote.
Still there is much to like in The Foundation Trilogy. Asimov pioneers ideas such as a Galactic Empire (interestingly he views this as a good thing while Lucas used the Empire as the villain), a city that covers a whole planet, destiny as mathematical, and even the holophonor from Futurama is directly based on viso-sonor from Foundation and Empire. I can see why The Foundation Trilogy appealed to so many people, especially the scientific minded. The trilogy postulates that humanity can find order in the chaos and create something better by means of a mathematical plan. I personally don’t buy but the appeal is there.

I am glad I read The Foundation Trilogy at least to see what all the fuss was about. Next time, I will review Foundation’s Edge, the long awaited follow up. See you next time, dear readers.