How Does Science Fiction Age?

The week before last, I found Isaac Asimov’s fourth Foundation novel in the university’s library. A good find, as Foundation’s Edge is missing from the public library.

One can read the Foundation stories (the five short stories and four novellas that his publisher cobbled together into three books) and detect meta-themes of 1940’s science fiction: male dominance, the worship of technology (sometimes literally in this series), a disregard for emotion, and the elevation of reason. Feminists might observe you get halfway through the original “trilogy” before you find the first female character of any consequence. (Story #7 of 9 if you’re counting at home.)

Thing is, I don’t find Mr Asimov’s tenth Foundation story–and the first actual novel–to be much different with regard to women. There are three important women in this novel. There’s the powerful politician who shows chinks of weakness only privately. But she’s older, about the author’s age when he wrote this book. There’s a young woman who you might see on the mass market paperback cover who consents to an affair of sorts to an older man. This male character happens to share the author’s age and like him, is also a professor. Make of that what you will. And there’s another woman who isn’t quite what she seems to be.

So there are women, but they are all variations on a middle-aged man’s views on women–outsiders looking in. Was Mr Asimov still a sexist when he wrote this book in the supposedly-liberated 1980’s? Sure he was. A woman at the head of the Foundation doesn’t change that. Not when a twenty-something beauty is hanging on the author’s arm–in his dreams.

In essence, the book is about a machination to get three people and the forces they represent to a particular planet so a decision can be made that settles the fate of the universe. The plotting, an Asimov specialty, is excellent. The development of characters is typical, which is to say nearly non-existent. The discussion of various interesting ideas both central to the plot and peripheral, is also classic Asimov.

It’s the first Foundation story in which people are actually looking at the universe around them around them. And not just talking about it. We learn in this book that Terminus, the Foundation’s capital planet, is mostly a water world with islands–a way for the author to back-write a world without metals, a key point in the plotting of the first Foundation story. And Asimov introduces an idea new to the Foundation series, the proper motion of stars, to move the plot forward.

And yet, I found the book not entirely satisfying on my second read after thirty years. It won the Hugo best novel, but not the Nebula). But it’s not nearly as good as The Gods Themselves, which I think stands head-and-shoulders above his other novels. As novels.

If you’re new to Isaac Asimov, read his short stories first–this is where this writer excels. Read the robot novels and the Foundation “trilogy” before tackling this book.

Getting back to the post title, I don’t think this book ages quite as well as the author’s short fiction. It’s almost always about the quality of writing. Great writing wears well. Exposed by time, lesser efforts do not.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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