Isaac Asimov – Foundation and Empire

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For a person who wrote so many books, it starts to look like maybe fiction isn’t Asimov’s thing. It doesn’t even read like he’s a got lot passion for it. He’s far more interested in grand ideas. That’s why there are no characters, and he cares little about pretending that they’re more than game pieces. Then again, he also knows the dangers of being pretentious, and Foundation and Empire remains a brisk, pulpy novel. It’s a weird thing. It’s a fun, shallow adventure written by an intelligent man who was probably too busy thinking to actually experience life.

Asimov occasionally inserts his grand ideas into the story. The conclusion to the first novella contained in this volume is a big deus ex machina. It renders all this running around irrelevant. The characters we followed had nothing to do with solution. Yet, it makes perfect sense in Asimov’s world. The only reason it was unexpected is because we’re still used to characters, even though they’re not driving the story. A solution that the characters came up with would’ve been easier to swallow, but will also see Asimov breaking the rules he created.

Doesn’t it sounded like the rules of psychohistory? Individuals are mostly meaningless. It’s the great masses that should be researched. Maybe Asimov got confused with masses of people and mass, the physical term. A hole is starting to appear, and it’s hard to ignore it when rappers are riding through it with the booming system.

If you can’t predict the behavior of one individual, how can you predict the behavior of masses of individuals? There is a composition/division fallacy here, but I can’t see how it connects. If the masses think in a certain way, doesn’t it stand to reason that an individual will most likely think in that some way? Psychohistory then does predict the behavior of individuals. It predicts the most common behavior ammong masses of individuals.

The science is messy, but if it were real and practical then Asimov would’ve written papers, not novels. At least he doesn’t use this as a crutch. ‘Prophecy’ is often used to make characters move the plot. It’s a great way to eliminate active personalities from your story and make it convenient. Since Asimov’s psychohistory deals with masses and not with individuals, it predicts that the whole Foundation enterpise will win – or at least, that its purpose will be achieved.

Time and again we see that it’s far more complex than it seems. The actual purpose of all these foundations remains in the shadows. Asimov also still has to create solutions for his conflicts that fit his rules. That’s why the first novella was successful, but it’s in the second one that Asimov goes to the edge. What’s beyond it is pretty foggy.

He introduces a character that messes up the whole equation. The predictions had a chance to be wrong, and by introducing a villain whose skill has power to completely change the equation – it’s more than a brand new variable – he raises up the question of whether or not this foundation thing will succeed.

He even tries to add some charactes. Bayta and Mis are the first real personalities here. They have dialogues that is recoginizably theirs, and behavior that is unique to them that doesn’t just move the plot. He even tries to create a unique villain with the Mule. The second novella shows a braver Asimov, one who tries to write more than a pulpy story.

He completely fails when he tries to be profound. When the Mule reveals itself in a pretty obvious twist, we get the obligatory villain’s monolgue. You’d think this was a tool of writers with zero creativity, but Asimov put some hard work into the Mule’s monolgue. He thinks that if the Mule will pour his heart out to us, it’ll make him more complex. He is more intriguing than a guy who just wants world domination, but it’s not enough.

Asimov spelling it all out clearly for us just emphasizes how shallow these novels are, in the end. He didn’t even try the obvious thing, to examine how an individual lives when he’s well aware of a ‘prophecy’ that has scientific basis. This is an interesting psychology to explore, because science’s role is, in the end, to predict. It’s one of the things that makes for a legitimate scientific theory. Asimov could have explored the individualĀ and the collective, religion and science and I’m sure he has a lot of interesting things to say about this subject.

Alas, what Asimov really thinks is not here. Like its predecessor, the novel uses big ideas as a beautifying prop. It’s incorrect to say Asimov uses it to cover the lack of depth. Asimov remains as unpretentious as they come, with bullshit-free writing. Any time he does bother to describe characters or the scenary, he never rambles. He just wants to give you a general idea of who these people are and where they’re at, and then he moves onward with the plot. It removes any subtlety from the novel, but no rambling makes it easy and fun.

The series is often criticized for being episodic and lacking a main protagonist. That’s its strength, and what prevents it from spinning out of control. Imagine if George Martin took Asimov’s approach, and wrote episodic novels in Westeros instead of a sprawling melodrama. By giving out these little bits, Asimov’s world feels much more alive. It’s odd to say it about such a novel disconnected from human life, but it’s a series that points to a world that’s too big to capture in a single book, or a few. So, it will just give you a few bits here and a few stories here, and let you fill up the holes. It’s also useful not to beat the reader with your coolest symbols. If Trantor was over-described like anything in Martin’s novels, it would lose its mystique.

The series remains a fun adventure dressed up in big ideas, but not much beyond that. I hope there’s an exciting enough story in this series somewhere, because then it might finally be a classic worthy of its name. I have faith in Asimov. So far, he’s very in control of his ideas and knows what he’s doing best. The second novella’s pushing forward and then regressing is a bit sad, but maybe it’s not the right time yet.

3 mules out of 5

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