Isaac Asimov – Foundation’s Edge

4956471872_85688261ba_o (1)
Asimov was a great mind who somehow wrote books that were nothing more than good. They were very enjoyable, and anyone who wants to write a straightforward adventure or mystery has a lot to learn from him. Yet none of them alone justifies Asimov’s place at the throne – they are no Grapes of Wrath or Catch-22. Foundation’s Edge isn’t that book either, but it’s the one that comes closest so far.

It is a product of a person who didn’t let old age stop him. We often treasure youth so much, as if by old age everything is over. The distance between this and the previous Foundation novels is felt. It’s not an old author returning to his well-known series to boil the pot a little. Rather, he returns to the series with the new things he learned over the year.

The story’s format and style is not very different, but it obviously tries to address previous flaws. For once, we get actual characters. Asimov’s characters are no longer chess pieces. This is just as dialogue-heavy as before, only now we can distinguish who the characters are by how they speak. It may a small difference, like Pelorat’s ramblings (and calling people dear chaps) or Golan’s toughness, but it is something.

Asimov doesn’t work against his structure – his stories are driven by plot and ideas, not characters. He just breathes a little more life into them to make them more fun. Pelorat’s character also feels like an author exploring himself. Asimov is our image of a ‘cold academic’, but in Pelorat he comes to the conclusion that a life that’s only the Life of the Mind is pretty empty and dull. It’s an alternative point of view that in previous stories he wouldn’t even consider.

The position of the Smart People is a new theme here, too. That must be something that comes from hanging too much around intellectuals. Asimov once said of Mensa Internatinal that they’re ‘aggressive about their IQ’s’, and this criticism of elitism is in this book. Asimov doesn’t hold an ideal view of a world where everyone is intelligent. Some people’s minds are just not good enough. But these don’t mean they’re automatically useless.

The Hamish people represent the ‘simple men’ who do manual work. Asimov doesn’t condescend above them, though. Asimov is mostly interested in how to prevent the intelligent people from getting drunk with power. That’s what the whole conflict of Second vs. First Foundation is about, and why the Second Foundation has such strict rules about tempering with minds.

Gaia is also Asimov’s attempt at acknowleding there is more to life than being an academic. It does come off as an asspull – a mystical thing that pops out of nowhere and becomes the center of the conflict. Like always, Asimov is good at controlling his asspulls and limiting them. They may have changed the conflict, but they don’t conveniently solve it. Gaia exists more to express the idea of actually living instead of just being an intellectual. It’s not a very deep exploration of that idea. Asimov sinks a bit into the One With Nature cliche. Still, it’s good to see him stretch beyond his comfort zone.

This is also the book where Asimov connects Foundation to his Robot, Eternity and Empire novels. This isn’t a Marvel Cinematic Universe syndrome, though, where the purpose is to point out references and think of how cool it is. Asimov references the ideas of these stories, not their actual plots. The value of the reference to the Robot universe doesn’t change if you read the novels or not. He even admits in the afterword that The End of Eternity isn’t exactly as it was described here.

Asimov’s prose remains as brisk as before. It’s a little less minimalistic, but it doesn’t read like an author who is beyond the power of editors. The occasional techno-babble is amusing. It’s so distinctly Asimov. He describes it in such cold intellectual langauge that is also very simple that these little details become amusing. The books would have been better off without explaining how hyperspatial travel works or how we can see the skies of various planets, but he always stops himself before it gets too far. If anything, it makes me curious to see how Asimov is like when he isn’t writing fiction.

Asimov remains a master at simple adventures. So far, this is the best in the series. On the previous entries, Asimov brushed his flaws aside because he was skilled enough at telling a cool mystery. This time he’s better at expressing ideas and creating actual characters. It still reads like Asimov’s more interesting ideas are in his essays. The story remains a simple adventure, but it’s better at every aspect than before.

3.5 Earths out of 5

Advertisements

Isaac Asimov – Second Foundation

secondfoundation

There are two sayings about reading literature that I hear often. The first is that the person just can’t get into the book. The second is that I should wait 1000 pages until the character killed in the epilogue for A Storm of Swords for a cheap twist, is connected to the larger picture. True, these statements aren’t said by the same people, but even the people of the second group don’t display an interest in reading. You’d think that if reading is such a task, people would prefer more minimalistic works.

The general public has better things to do than search the net for new books to read. The Sci-Fi/Fantasy community is more disappointing. We’re all familiar with Asimov, so how come nobody asked why the hell people are preferring a longer, less focused, less meaningful version of Foundation?

Asimov’s focus has tigthened, and in this novel he abandons the short-story format of the previous novels. These are still two seperate stories, only with a much stronger connection between them. Unlike a lot of trilogies, Asimov’s books don’t get worse as they go on. Rather, he has a better idea of what inspired his first book in the first place and he discards what’s useless.

Asimov, despite being famous for being a hard sci-fi writer and a scientist, doesn’t resemble any of the ‘scientific’ people I encountered. Go to your typical science class, and people will worship physics while being sure that psychology is for the rubble. Since it can’t be represented in pure mathematics, it’s therefore meaningless.

Asimov gets around that by saying ‘psychohistory’ also has hardcore mathematics and equation, but no one in the novel can really comperehend this subject. That doesn’t make it less important. Understanding people is, above all, the most important thing. Whether you want power or to advance society, human society is first of all made of people.

Without people, the physical sciences can’t exist. If people are the basis of all science, they are therefore should be a top priority for research. In a genre that’s more about science than people, it’s a bold statement. Never mind that Asimov can’t (and doesn’t try) to create characters. He must have had bad social skills. His conclusion has more in common with literary fiction than a lot of popular sci-fi.

While his characterization remains weak, they got to be a little more human last time and here the Mule is improved upon. He’s still simple, but the climax gives him a moment of humanity that Asimov didn’t seem capable of. Asimov tried to make him sympathetic in the previous novel – that’s another plus for the author by the way, how his work doesn’t actually have ‘heroes and villains’ – but here it feels real.

In Foundation and Empire, the Mule was a generic weakling who decides to take revenge on the world. On Second Foundation, his journey reveals itself to be something like Manson’s Antichrist Superstar. Like the Worm, he achieves all that power but is not sure what to do next. He may have defeated the external enemy, but he didn’t do anything about himself. The Mule got into a habit of conquering and defeating that he couldn’t stop, even if his next enemy is possibly not even real.

If Asimov combined the two novellas concerning the Mule into a single one, it’d probably be worthy of considered a classic. It’s this moment of humanity that’s so rare from epic fiction nowadays. Even if the Mule remains simplistic, he’s a well-made, sympathetic antagonist who’s not here for us to hate or root for his defeat, but to understand his mistakes.

The rest of the novel brings Asimov back to his pulp style, and it remains surprisingly in control. This is where Asimov destroys everything that was ever good in Game of Thrones. Like Martin, his plot is dense, in large scale and features plenty of twists and riddles. Asimov’s minimalism means you’re never drowning in details don’t help to move the story forward.

Asimov wants you to solve his puzzle, but you can’t solve the puzzle if you’re given 100 extra pieces that got nothing to do with anything. There’s a reason puzzle games, even plot-driven ones tend to be minimalistic. No matter how many riddles and twists Asimov pulls, they’re always in focus. They’re never drowned out by long descriptions of rooms or of what the character thinking. There are a few embarassing moments of techno-babble, but they’re read more like Asimov was sure he was going to invent the thing. There is charm in that excitement

It does get a bit silly in the end, where everyone suddenly assumes he thinks he knows he assumes he thinks he knows what the other person thinks he assumes he knows what the fifth person is eating. The climax, while fun, is ridiculous and borders on self-parody. It’s a series of amusing twists, but they’re more confusing than clear. Confusion isn’t Asimov’s purpose. He keeps you at the dark at first, but then makes everything crystal clear. It’s a minor slip, though. It doesn’t completely undermine the coherency that makes these books so fun. Asimov just let the pen get away from him a little.

This is the best of the first of the original trilogy. It may not provide a big, final conclusion but it’s not needed. It sees Asimov getting better at both his strength, and he gets over some of his weaknesses. It’s still not a classic, but as far as simple, fun adventures go it sets the standards. Asimov wrote an adventure that’s smart, fun and occasionally has something to say. If he’s so popular, how come nobody replicates it?

3 mules out of 5