More Foundation Novels

When the “second” Foundation trilogy came out in the late 1990′s, I was looking forward to the reads with great enthusiasm. I enjoyed the original novels, certainly. And while the original author was now dead, the Asimov estate had engaged three fine writers to pick up the task.

Gregory Benford I respected for his fine novel Timescape as well as his six-novel series of a future humanity harassed to near-extinction by machine intelligence. Greg Bear‘s impressive first novel Eon had some enjoyable follow-ups. He also penned a great novel Moving Mars, which I thought held its own against the many Mars books published in the past twenty years. David Brin‘s uplift series was hugely enjoyable for me.

I’ve been reducing the contents of my basement bookshelves the past few weeks. A lot of books are bagged for donation, and I paused as I fingered these volumes of Foundation:

It’s off to the donation pile for the last hardcover science fiction books I ever purchased.

I started to reread them earlier this week, and I think my disappointment today is deeper than when I read them for the first time. Mr Benford introduces a lot of fluff to produce a story that lodges in between Asimov’s first (in sequence)/ last (to be written). Introducing simulated electronic intelligences, robots, and human immersion in the consciousness of chimpanzees (pans, as they are known) doesn’t do a lot to forward the story as an addition to the Foundation universe. It’s weird, and just not up to par for him.

Mr Bear’s efforts center on the robots working behind the scenes. Granted, Asimov himself brought robots into his Foundation novels with the last three books he wrote in the 80′s. But these “new” ideas don’t get handled very well by him or by Mr Brin.

Mr Brin is my favorite of these three authors, and as for the last book in the series, I wanted to like it. I tried hard. But no go.

If one is presumptuous enough to tread on what sf readers consider sacred ground, one should strive for the discipline to tell a story within the confines of the “universe.” Asimov treats well the idea of free will, a galaxy-wide civilization, and the overarching concept of the Foundation, a force to ameliorate the decline of an empire that, while corrupt and in deep decay, still is better than the barbarian alternative. American foreign policy in southwest Asia might take note.

Mr Benford throws in some interesting ideas that, one, he doesn’t handle with much interest to a reader, and two, seemed so foreign to the Foundation universe that his co-authors chose to mostly ignore it.

As for the other two authors, too many robots and robot intrigue. And too much Earth at the end.

David Brin is well able to handle the space opera subgenre. It would have been far more interesting to see him write a Foundation novel set in the era of the independent traders, before the Mule. Foundation explorers rediscovering the galaxy: that would be interesting. Until 1987, Asimov himself only wrote two short stories about Hari Seldon, the scholar who develops the science to predict human behavior via mathematics. Amazingly intriguing idea. But the idea might be better handled by seeing how it affects everyday people in the Foundation. Does predictability imprison people, taking away their free will? More importantly, if it’s all going to be decided by equations, where’s the human motivation to do one’s best, to strive for a dream, or even to search for a better future than the Foundation?

I don’t know about you, but I would want that in my life: a certain freedom to pursue a goal that might not, but just might, be a possibility long after I’m dead.

If you are a Foundation freak and have never read these books, go to mu local Goodwill to pick them up next week. There are interesting things in them. But if you have a lot of other good books, good science fiction to read, I have to suggest you look elsewhere for inspiring fiction.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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