Friday, August 17, 2018

Cracks in the Foundation

I've finished my reread of Isaac Asimov's Foundation, and the verdict is: it's deeply, deeply flawed, and I don't love it like I used to, but it's not terrible.

As I noted in a recent post, the Foundation series was one of the first examples of adult-level science fiction that I read as a teen, and for much of those early years, I counted it as my favourite work of sf. But it's been more than 20 years since I last picked it up, and when Asimov's Robot novels failed the reread test a few years ago, I was afraid that revisiting Foundation would ruin the memory of it.

So over the past week or so, I've finally confronted it and given each section a lot of thought. It's often been hard — sometimes cringeworthy — encountering the weaknesses, blunders, and missed opportunities in this collection of stories that's been stitched together and had a "novel" label slapped on it. Fans back in the days when these novellas (Novelettes?  Whatever.) must have been truly desperate for content as much as they were blown away by the ideas in the Foundation stories to have read them and wanted more — never mind the editors who published them. And yet we can't dismiss out of hand the idea that people can be blown away by the ideas within a story (or collection of stories), even if it is deeply flawed. You like what you like.

And yet we do have to be honest about the cracks in the Foundation.

For starters, the writing isn't that good. Asimov's approach to characters is clumsy, with both his protagonists and villains unnecessarily exploding at each other in just about every other conversation, as he attempts (and always fails) to ramp-up tension in scenes that really have none because the stories are all talk and no action (as the author confesses in his forward to the book). Beyond their forced bursts of aggression, their dialogue is hackneyed. There are the cheesy attempts at futuristic expressions like "Space!" or "Galaxy!". Imperial officials and borderworld warlords speak in an overwrought fashion that comes off as pretentious, and while it may have been Asimov's intention to use this mode of speech to try to show that the apparently (though often ultimately not) powerful antagonists themselves were pretentious (or products of a pretentious culture), it just comes off as pretentious writing. Similarly, the protagonists of the Foundation have a forced, rapid plainspokenness that feels like Asimov is trying to mimic what he thinks Humphrey Bogart might say in a movie (the stereotypical "fast-talkin' high pants" speech that probably wasn't as pervasive as old black and white films would have us believe), but doesn't quite pull it off.

Beyond their dialogue, the characters themselves are one-dimensional. The outer rim of Asimov's galaxy is populated by warlords of antagonistic kingdoms next door to Terminus who could each buy-out entire stores in Portland of their supplies of moustache wax as they scheme and utter threats, stopping just short of laughing maniacally and tying damsels to railroad tracks for kicks (nuclear railroad tracks, that is, because everything in the Foundation stories — up to and including kitchen knives — is nuclear, in keeping with the technological darling of the 1940s and 50s). Taken with the overwrought dialogue, their descriptions and actions are supposed to evoke Kasper Gutman, or Ming the Merciless, or any other well-spoken, aristocratic (or pseudo-aristocratic) bad guy of the era, but instead they fall flat and unintentionally become caricatures of characters who are themselves intentionally, to varying degrees, caricatures. The protagonists are also caricatures, chomping on their cigars in back rooms as they tell everyone around them how much more clever they are than anyone else, and especially smarter than the current government of  Terminus/the Foundation. Hober Mallow, the merchant prince of the final sequence, is an absurd, futuristic Yankee trader or robber baron, who, in spite of the story, is impossible to take seriously because he's just so over the top, painted as a giant with a booming voice who's seemingly the best at everything. Asimov misses the opportunity to create a three dimensional character in Mallow by failing to give the Trader captain any kind of internal examination of what it means to be an outsider within the Foundation power structure. He's frequently reminded that he's from one of the worlds the Foundation has conquered, and thus a kind of second class citizen, but Mallow never addresses it internally, and I don't recall him addressing it externally in any substantial way either. It's just brushed aside. A better writer could have opened the character up with this issue to let us get to know his motivations better, and to give him an opportunity to evolve. Instead, Mallow, like every other character in Foundation remains static.

There are other problems with the writing: Chapter 1 of "The Mayors" is essentially a long "as you know" piece, making it dull. That's a fatal way to start a story (or, at least, it should have been) when we consider this would have been published as a piece in an sf magazine.

Then there are the rare holographic appearances by Hari Seldon, the legendary psychohistorian who founded the Foundation: they serve no purpose. It's a logical hole in the story big enough to fly an Imperial battle cruiser through. Seldon's photonic ghost provides no guidance at all — he just checks-in once in a while to say "Well, I calculate that you probably made it through some crisis that I didn't warn you about, even though I knew it was coming, and I'm not going to spell it out now even though we may actually be thinking about two entirely different incidents if your experience varies from my predictions, but hopefully you're sitting here listening to me, even though I'm still not going to tell you anything! Basically, you're here just to look at my picture. Am I dead sexy or what?" The leaders and academics of the Foundation don't even have a schedule of when he's going to appear! They really don't know! They just have to assume that things have been shitty enough recently to constitute a Seldon Crisis, and that the old man is going to materialize in his cube any minute, look up from the book on his lap, and, yet again, tell them nothing of substance. I mean, this is the future, so you'd think there would be an electronic warning in city hall a little while prior to the airing of the latest episode of The Hari Show, but Asimov doesn't mention anything along these lines, so it could just be the case that the mayor of Terminus has a line item in his budget to pay some kid to stand around outside the Seldon vault and shout "Hey, you guys!" whenever the machinery starts to hum. Or, knowing large organizations the way we do now, it's probably an unpaid internship position.

Asimov has made some other strange decisions when it comes to the Foundation colony: only one psychologist was sent with the initial population of settlers, and there have been no others since. That's a truly astounding amount of faith in the mental health of a group of people who have to build a society, run a major project, and, you know, survive in the face of hostile neighbours (and eventually a hostile Empire) while isolated out on the rim of the galaxy, never mind your standard run-of-the-mill psychological, emotional and relationship issues, and developmental challenges, that come up during everyday life. The explanation given is that Seldon didn't want the Foundation to have psychologists who could relearn and use his predictive science of psychohistory to try to guide their society and thus skew his plan. But Asimov seems to have confused the disciplines of psychology and sociology, and besides, his fictional psychohistory seems to rely heavily on some kind of higher level mathematics, which is sufficiently different from psychology (read sociology in this case) that there's little danger of a mental health professional who does marriage counselling or developmental assessments or personal therapy, and maybe still has 5 minutes left in his/her day after dealing with this case load and making time for a life outside of work, stumbling into calculations that will allow him/her to predict and steer the future of entire civilizations.

There's also what feels like a bit of retconning going on between the introductory section, "The Psychohistorians" (which was added on later when the first Foundation stories were compiled into a novel) and the other sections over the question of the secrecy of Seldon's plan. The intro section tells us that Seldon and his team have been working on preparations for the Foundation project for two-and-a-half years prior to his trial, preparations that are so well-known that, because of his dire predictions, he's earned the nickname of "Raven Seldon". So lots of people know his take on the state of affairs (at least generally) and that he's getting ready to do something about it. And yet, by the time we get into the originally-written stories in the second section, "The Encyclopedists", nobody out on Terminus has any idea that they're there to do anything other than compile an encyclopedia, even though they're only 50 years out from the settling of their colony. It's completely unbelievable that they're ignorant of the Foundation's true purpose. After the first crisis, Seldon's recorded holograph tells them they were kept in the dark about their purpose (never mind his predictions about what's coming) to prevent them from going off the course he'd charted for them. Never mind that I've heard scientists of varying disciplines say on several occasions that scientists don't like to keep secrets, it's just not believable that with all of the extensive preparations going on before the launch of the original colony ships, and with all of the publicity about Seldon's predictions, that none of the settlers would have known or guessed what their purpose was. There's also no value in keeping them in the dark. Asimov, through the character of Seldon, saying that the Foundation's people can't know what's coming so they don't corrupt the timeline and the plan is basically so much weak handwaving. The fall of the Empire and the bid to have the two Foundations survive with all the old knowledge and rebuild society over a thousand years into a Second Empire is disaster planning on a galactic scale, and any emergency management expert will tell you that people have a better chance of making it through disasters if they plan ahead and know what to challenges to expect in different situations and how to deal with them. It's just not believable that the best way for the Foundation to succeed would be to keep its people ignorant. There may be an argument for keeping the science of psychohistory out of their hands so that the Foundation doesn't, with the best of intentions, wander too far out into left field, but using Seldon's electronic spectre to give them advanced warnings ahead of the crises would make sense and probably help them succeed.

As if all of that wasn't enough, the book is a total sausage fest. The only female character with a speaking role (and, unless I'm forgetting, the only female character in the book at all!) is the Commdora in the final section, and she doesn't occupy any place of value in the plot. A princess of the Empire who's married to a warlord out on the border, the Commdora only makes a couple of appearances to play the role of a spoiled shrew of a wife who nags her husband to prove he isn't a loser by getting off his ass and conquering some planets. Oh, and she likes pretty jewellery. This is probably Asimov's attempt to inject a little humour into a dry story, making his barbarian conqueror a hen-pecked hubby, but it isn't necessary and doesn't accomplish anything in terms of story or character development. It isn't even funny. And while we can look at the absence of women on the Foundation's council or among its Traders as an artifact of the time the stories were written (and possibly of the editorial choices of the magazine where they were published, and the writer and editor's assessment of their target audience), to have no women mentioned at all elsewhere in the stories is a major oversight, and to make the only female character a shallow harpy is bad writing. Whether cast in the role of a protagonist or antagonist, Asimov could have given the Commdora more to do, such that she actually has an effect on the plot.

It's also strange that Asimov, an immigrant born to parents who grew up in Tsarist Russia who fled with him to America to escape the Communist regime, seems to have little use for democracy in the story. It begins in an empire (which was chosen because Asimov took inspiration from the fall of the Roman empire, and probably because empires are, to our modern eyes, inherently dramatic), and starts with a colony that has a democracy in the form of the mayor and council of the planet Terminus, but one that has no teeth because it's subservient to the non-democratic council of academics running the Foundation project. The mayor, Salvor Hardin (who, at age 34, seems unbelievable in the role of media mogul and colony leader) then stages a coup and overthrows the council, but this isn't a victory for democracy as Hardin leads more-or-less as a dictator. From there, the Foundation (though still a democracy for its own citizens on Terminus) manufactures a religion to control the people and governments of neighbouring kingdoms, and this theocracy is left in place for decades, rather than installing democratic governments in their new subjects/confederates. Eventually, the territorial theocracy is replaced by Mallow's plutocracy, which more-or-less squats on top of the democracy of the Foundation itself: there's still an elected mayor, but Mallow has used his money to buy the election, and it's the richest Traders who (like the merchant families in Renaissance Italian city states, or the Hanseatic League) decide what happens in the Foundation for the next period in its history, with Mallow, as the richest, ruling as de facto dictator, tossing political opponents in jail. Putting aside the other changes to the Foundation's government throughout the rest of the series, Hari Seldon's goal, ultimately, is for a Second Empire — a monarchy — to be established, leaving no room for democracy.

But, for all its faults, I can't find it in myself to dislike Foundation. Is it just nostalgia that's holding me back, preventing me from hating this book? Or, taking into consideration the time when it was written and the nature of other sf that was being published, balancing the writer's ideas and enthusiasm against lack of ability, and its impact on me as a reader and on the genre as a whole, does Foundation have merit?

Overall, I liked the larger plot of a colony established to minimize a period of cultural darkness following the collapse of a large civilization, and, more than that, to build something greater. I like the notion of intelligent people, rather than interstellar bullies, being the ones who rebuild civilization — the nerds win! Even if I don't agree with all of his assessments or outcomes, I'm intrigued by the possibility that Foundation is Asimov's attempt to do what Plato did in the Republic and examine types of government. And I love the vastness of Asimov's future, of time so deep that humanity has forgotten its origins — that even in an age of electronics and super science, this forgetting implies thousands of years of exploration, colonization, exploitation, experimentation with different approaches to creating and running cultures and civilizations that compete with, overthrow, destroy, amalgamate and outgrow others and their predecessors; that technologies for and philosophies of record keeping and storytelling have changed; that there have been wars, epidemics, isolation, Renaissances, building and rebuilding, soul-searching, and reinterpretation of and throwing away and reinventing history; that people have created and repurposed and discarded and edited cultural myths, and repeatedly invented a new sense of self both personally and culturally. It's truly breathtaking worldbuilding contained in a few throwaway lines about historians arguing in books over centuries about humanity's origin.

Maybe there's also something to the thought that Asimov might have been a better short story writer than novelist, being better suited to a platform that could showcase his big ideas while being tight enough to let him skate over his professional weaknesses.

I think, taking all of those things into consideration, Foundation does still deserve a place in the sf canon (and whether the genre should have a canon or not is something that's been debated by many others previously and will continue to be argued about into the foreseeable future), and, personally, I think I can be comfortable in defending my enjoyment of it. If nothing else, Foundation and Asimov opened the door for me to adult sf, a lot of big ideas, and a universe of other (and often more talented) writers. For that reason alone, it deserves a place of honour on my bookshelf, and a fond bookmark in my memory.


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