31 October '20

Foundation

by Isaac Asimov

3/5

I wasn't a big fan of the novel, but I can recognise that it's informed a lot of science fiction that's come since. Still, I'm not sure that's enough to overcome its structural issues.

Initial complaints

The book plays out across 5 short stories, each of which basically reiterates the plot of the last, with the names moved around. A man with little regard for the rules holds forth against a horde of bureaucrats who don't believe in him. With the help of some macguffin tech/insight that he just has somehow, he sticks it to the bureaucracy and wins a personal victory. The victory is almost never a collective one, and we never see how things have changed for the better. The story ends.

The problems are evident here: there's no character development, nothing really goes anywhere, the stakes remain super-low because we never spend enough time with any of the characters, or in any one place, to care. With the exception of the final story, "The Merchant Princes", most of the action appears off-screen. Tension is nonexistent because you always know that our hero has some ace up his sleeve. Half the time, this ace is just Hari Seldon showing up to tell them that things are all Going to Plan.

Most of the bad guys have no plan at all. The crisis of the story usually consists of the bad guy deciding to go to war with their weapons dealer or trade partner (invariably the Foundation). When the Foundation sabotages their weapons or refuses to trade, the bad guys go apoplectic and surrender, as if they just couldn't have seen this sort of thing coming.

These are all sort of nitpicks, complaints against the implementation, rather than the structure. But I've got some complaints against the structure too.

Structural complaints

A lot of the modern reviews that I've read acknowledge that Foundation is flawed from a character and action point of view, but that the series isn't about characters—it's about society, and what makes a civilisation grow and fall.

But from that perspective, I can't find that much of substance to comment on either. There's some sort of handwringing over religion in the middle and latter parts of the book, which I guess could be interpretable as commentary on the insidiousness of organised religion—but the religion is based on hard empirical rules of science, and the organisers of the religion are our good guys. So I'm not sure what Asimov is getting at.

Asimov makes clear what he's against—bureaucracy, aristocrats, militarism, complacency—and what he's for—action, verve, insight. While these play out at the story level—that is, the bureaucrats are defeated, the hero triumphs through decisive action—in the end it turns out that the crisis & solution du jour was just part of the Plan, and no one really had any agency. And where it's not part of the plan, like in the very last story, Hober Mallow pulls a 180 and stops trying to help. "Let my successors solve those new problems, as I have solved the one of today."

I can't find the thesis here. If I stand very far away and squint my eyes, it feels like maybe Asimov is saying that all civilizations tend towards complacent bureaucracy? But that sort of message isn't really explored here, just punted down the road, like Mallow does above (in one of the last sentences of the book). So I'm left grasping.

In historical context

Right so. I wasn't a fan. But is it good in context? I think so. Most of these stories were written during World War II, for Pete's sake. Can I fault them for not living up to the standards set by the science fiction authors in the intervening time? Probably not. Was Asimov head and shoulders above his peers? Probably. Did he lay the groundwork for legions of writers who came after him? Undoubtably.

Buuuuuuuuut

Lord of the Rings was also written in the 1940s and it continues to be the high-water mark to which intervening fantasy aspires. Some of our greatest literature was written hundreds of years before Foundation and hasn't been surpassed today. The questions about humanity that Philip K, Dick's science fiction explores still feel fresh, despite the fact that Ubik was written closer to Foundation than to today. So how did Foundation go out of date so quickly?

I don't know. And I don't think I'm too bothered to find out. Maybe some time down the line I'll read the two other books in the Foundation series, but at the moment I just don't feel compelled.