Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, July 23, 2012

1951: Foundation (Asimov, Isaac)

Classic to some, past its atomic half-life for others (2/5)
From September 1, 2010

My dislike of a few of the genre's most famous works has not been popular. When I gave Dune three stars in 2008, I was being generous. I can't recall exactly what rubbed me the wrong way. When I finally picked up Foundation, I decided to keep notes to see exactly where the novel went wrong. My documentation and opinion stating may never suit the most die-hard Foundation fan, but I merely want everyone to acknowledge that all books have faults--my favorite novels are probably hated by some, just as some of your favorite books are hated by others. Hugo and Nebula awards don't justify a book's greatness; I typically disagree with many of the award winners. I guess my idea of science fiction doesn't meet the more popular view of the genre.

Foundation is the epitome of the ideal of the pessimistic technocratic utopia. Strange as it may sound, the plot is as follows: pseudo-science finds a way to predict future, politicians banish scientists, scientists establish new citizenry, trade flourishes, scientists gain control through pseudo-religion. This supposedly tried-and-true pseudo-science is a way to predict the future by way of studying human behavior (an oddly fatalistic view of a scientific universe). However, I disagree with the notion and invest my interest in the rival fund of the "Crazy Eddie" effect of Niven & Pournelle's Motie series where an individual can make the most drastic difference.

I must further state that I was born in 1980 and began reading SF in 2007 with the likes of Niven, Bear, and Brunner. I like my complex Iain Banks, voluminous Alastair Reynolds, mind-bending Greg Egan and ever-changing Brunner. Now while many of the so-called old timers have proclaimed Foundation sacred like the novels of Dune, I am of the new generation and of the new voice, which can't be held to the same standard as the last generation (or two). Times changes, ideals change, perspectives change, terminology changes, tolerable prefixes change, and personal development changes. While Dune may have been impressive in style and scope, it did not satisfy me in content, interest, and follow through. To these effects, I wish to express my dissatisfaction with Foundation.

To paraphrase an excellent book about the relationship between psychology and musical composition entitled Of Mind and Music, the author states that repetition is an exploitation of human emotion causing the listener (or in this case, the reader) to fall into a collective primal rhythm with fellow listeners (read: readers). Like in Foundation, the amount of repetition is akin to the acute attack of bass at a rave: theories are repeated endlessly, idiosyncratic allegories are scattered through every chapter and the word "atomic" was shotgun blasted, litter strewn, scattered to the winds, chucked without consciousness onto nearly ever page (sign of the times, I presume?). Here is the alphabetical list of "atomic" phrases found in Foundation:
Atomic blaster, atomic drill, atomic drive (also the hyperatomic drive), atomic fire, atomic force, atomic force-shield, atomic gadgets, atomic generator, atomic knife, atomic power, atomic shear, atomic ships, atomic specialists, atomic techniques, atomic washing machine (bwah!) and atomic weapons.
If "style" could mean the expressed use of repetition, then Asimov has easily seduced the science fiction reader of the early 1950s. With the blossoming (pessimists read: destructive radiation) of the atomic age, the dream of an atomic future must surely have seemed to be an optimistic fantasy. Nowadays, the equivalent would be a novel which is saturated with micro- and nano- prefixes. Thus, it seems as Asimov had the initial bug of beginning of the "atomic" prefix fixation. Did Asimov overdo it? In these regards, I stand to say that Asimov had a single-tracked mind.

While reading the sciences and unfolding plot of the pseudo-science, I was constantly remained of the "Seldon crisis" and the mightier-than-thou proverb "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent." As an educated reader, I only need to be reminded once to have the full effect of conveyance and depth. Throw in the tame pre-censor curses of "Oh, space!" and the cringe-worthy "Great galloping galaxies!" and you have for yourself a novel which is mildly aggravating, almost maddening. Repetition doesn't mean a solid follow through. Rather, it just means the author is either under-evaluating the reader of filling up word space.

Additionally, the characters were as bland as cardboard for breakfast. Everyone seemed to be a utopian plutocrat or an idealistic capitalist in a struggling capitalist society. Scientists know best, so scientists so rule, right? It's ONE vision of style of government but the path Asimov takes is one of superiority and, ultimately, disagreement. The approach is too preachy to the benefits of an ideal technocratic civilization. Throughout, I understood the relationships and the dealings between opposing parties, but I found the unraveling as tedious as the usage of the word "atomic." Politico scenes compounded by feudal titles bored me to bits, much like Herbert's Dune, Tepper's Grass and some of Wolfe's Long Sun series. While the over-all feudal scene works well with the future technocratic/religious society, I find the kowtowing to be overwhelming (more so considering I already live in a fairly visible feudal society).

Inevitably, as these words and review suggest, I must say that the novel has failed to impress me in the year 2010 after 30 years of mortality and four years of reading science fiction. Surely, many modern novels must have been based off the ideals presented in Foundation, but from my standpoint in the year 2010, I fail to see the greatness which was intrinsically embossed upon it during its publication and further years of intense readership. In the year 2010, the novel does not stand the ultimate test of time.


  1. I am not fond of the Foundation trilogy (the original one, never read any of the later ones) either, even as someone who was born ever so slightly closer to the original publication date than you and has read science fiction and fantasy since being a teenager (with a rather long break in which was mostly reading other stuff, though, until I returned to it a few years ago).
    My main gripe with Asimov is his horrible, horrible writing - he is one of the very authors who actually get better in translation. (And no, him being a Russian and English not being his native language is not an excuse - just read any of the novels Vladimir Nabokov wrote in English.)
    I have been toying with giving Foundation another go (it being a classic, and all), but on consideration I think that Asimov really is not worth wasting my time on and that I'll rather read some Vance instead, or maybe do the Cordwainer Smith re-read I've been wanting to do for a long time now.

  2. I'd run towards Vance in a heartbeat! I loved The Languages of Pao and my favorite ever short story is by Vance--Dodkin's Job. I'll probably, one day, in the far future, re-read Foundation with a different mindset, but there are so many authors who write much more beautifully than Asimov... I wish to indulge in those (e.g. Anderson, Brunner, Leiber, Aldiss).

  3. Since Asimov emigrated to the U.S. when he was three, and never learned Russian (family spoke Yiddish), I don't think a language barrier was the problem. The problem is he's a horrible, horrible writer.

    I've enjoyed Asimov's shorter works, though I haven't read many (any?) of the famous/Robot ones, and I've shied away from his novels. I can't imagine trying to slog through that dead prose for anything longer than "Nightfall." (The original one.) I'll get to the Foundation series eventually.

    Yes, I'll take Vance over Asimov please, no contest.