Foundation is another novel where two styles clash. Unlike others, though, Asimov manages to make them merge. It’s especially impressive because these are two styles which shouldn’t work together. Asimov is a much better writer than people give him credit. He may not understand human beings, but few authors are so bullshit-free. Despite not even trying to create characters, there’s nothing that hides what works.
You can dub it ‘Space Opera’ all you want, but if you read a Robot book then you’ll settle into the format just fine. Asimov’s style consists of creating a puzzle and have the characters solve it. This is a pure intellectual exercise. There is no emotional weight there. There’s not even Saw’s cheap, either solve it die cliche. It’s as humane as a Rubik’s Cube.
The puzzles have pieces that sound profound, sure. Asimov just doesn’t try to explain why they’re profound. Among the pieces Asimov plays with include whole civilizations. There are video games that also deal with whole civilizations. Chess seems to tell the story of one kingdom conquering another. If you were an individual in those kingdoms or civilizations, you would care. Yet how much do players care about a single soldier in Warcraft III?
That’s Asimov’s weakness. He puts different names on the pieces, but they’re just pieces to play around with. Since there is no real character depth, not even one-note characters it’s hard to get to the bottom of Asimov’s ideas. Asimov has a lot to say about big things, like history and religion. Such a profilic author should have a lot to say, but the novel isn’t a good form for him to deliver his ideas.
They show you Asimov is smart and knows a lot, but that’s it. His treatment of religion is especially interesting. He confronts the claim that a lot of people believe scientists like they believe religious figures. A scientific theory, after all, is supposed to predict results. Doesn’t that sound close to being a prophet? The idea of a man seeing into the future, and then guiding humans how to cope with it is found in the Tanakh.
What is he trying to say by showing this common ground between religion and science? Science works, but the only people who are aware it’s science and not superstition are the scientists. Should scientists be a majority rather than a minority to prevent this? He doesn’t say. The Foundation survives because it’s a minority and keeps important knowledge to itself. It is the future of humanity. There doesn’t seem to be much criticism of it in the novel.
The novel doesn’t fail, again, thanks to Asimov’s bullshit-free writing. For a man who’s known to be important in ‘hard Sci-Fi’, he’s a great storyteller. He lays his interesting puzzles and finds interesting solutions to them. Even if they are shallow, Asimov’s puzzles are unique enough. Even when it’s clear there’s no depth and he’s just writing ‘civilization’ on a game piece, the illusion its important is entertaining enough, in and of itself. He doesn’t put anything else there but the bare bones, and so he lives to the promise of any good pulpy novel. It does weaken a little in the end, where Asimov gets more ambitious and the stories get bigger. They also get less coherent.
Foundation isn’t much of a great novel in terms of depth, but it’s a very entertaining story. It’s odd how the attempts at being profound neither elevate nor ruin the novel, which they often tend to do. It’s not the brilliant classic people say it is, but good, bullshit-free storytellers are rare. Asimov deserves some fame just because of that.