On My Bookshelf: Foundation Novels

Isaac Asimov generally abdicated writing much science fiction for many decades in the middle of his life. Apparently by the 1980’s, he and/or his publisher were finally convinced that hardcover sf books would be very profitable, especially if they could cash in on the perceived public appetite for sequels. That perception remains with us today. Really: when was the last time you heard of a movie that wasn’t either a sequel or based on a comic book? For a genre that prides itself on originality, brash and intriguing ideas, and big wonder, have you ever wondered?

For some reason, I found myself inspired to revisit Asimov’s Foundation fiction for the first time in about twenty years. What have come to be known as his first Foundation novels, the original trilogy, are actually four short stories and four novellas published separately in the 1940’s. He added a first “chapter” for the first book, introducing readers to the mathematician Hari Seldon himself. And it was all packaged into three “novels.”

When this emerged in the early 1950’s, it was generally well-received, but not unanimously so. Some critics think he’s a clunker on characterization. And for writing in a big wide galaxy, I have to say his prose doesn’t communicate awe and wonder. I rate Asimov as an A-plus when it comes to ideas. And he is a genius at the surprise ending–no wonder his mystery sf novels are probably his best works.

About three-hundred years into the Seldon Plan (the blueprint that will reduce a galactic dark age from three-hundred centuries to just ten), a mutant enters the fray. The Mule is able to manipulate minds, and he sways enemies. He touches minds, and changes foes to allies. By doing so, a fragile man is able to throw the Foundation off its course and conquer it. This happens in the second half of the second book, Foundation and Empire. The Mule is eventually thwarted by–surprise!–a woman. A Foundation woman who is anti-traditional (she gets married and smokes cigars) no less.

It is up to the Second Foundation to defeat the Mule, and attempt to put the Plan back on track. A culture’s first military defeat, a conquest no less, has damaged their pride and sense of destiny. By halfway through book three, Second Foundation, the First Foundation is reeling psychologically, and the Plan’s chance of success is only about one in five. The small novel that concludes this third book is one of the strongest entries in the series. And it has an intriguing main character. For circa 1950, you have a teenage girl as a protagonist–amazing to ponder that Meg Murry (aka the girl nobody would publish) was still ten years in the future in real-life culture.

That brings me to the book I finished last night, Prelude to Foundation. No question it starts off with a bang. Intrigue and curiosity force the young Hari Seldon on a madcap tour of the capital world of Trantor from about page 15.

Along the way, he meets his future wife, future adopted son, and a most intriguing character who has appeared in other Asimov novels. Asimov also lets out dribbles about things he never wrote about before: the mythical origin planet, different human races, poverty and injustice.

There’s a very good surprise ending, but one gets the idea–at least I did–that Seldon is being “handled” carefully in all this. Instead of a legendary figure at the head of a Plan, he comes off as a very ordinary human being. With a hidden talent for the martial arts, to be sure. And he telegraphs he’s thinking hard about something during all his travels. So you know some intellectual prize awaits at the end of this book, despite Seldon’s insistence that predicting the future with mathematics is impossible. And at book’s end, the reader is told the whole purpose of the story is to move the main character around and inspire his ideas. Mission accomplished: here comes the next book.

With the last four Foundation novels (chronologically, numbers 1, 2, 6, and 7 in the series), Asimov neatly tied together all the various mystery and galactic-scale science fiction he had written. Which is to say, most of everything. It’s clever. But when your publisher is clamoring for best sellers, perhaps clever is the best one can do. Even given Asimov’s select talents as a writer, he could have done better than writing what is essentially good fan fiction.

I’m not sad I reread these novels. But I think I’m going to stop at this point and find something new.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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