Saturday, August 04, 2018
Digging Away at the Foundation
It's been a long time since I've reread Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. More than 20 years. It used to be my favourite science fiction series; one that I held up as an example of the best in the genre, even when it had been years since I'd read it. But over the past decade or so, an ugly suspicion has started to creep into my brain that maybe it wasn't as good as I remembered. Maybe it wasn't any good at all. What if I'd been wrong in my assessment? What if I went back, as a more mature reader who's experienced a much wider variety of what sf has to offer, and reread it again, only to find out that I didn't like it? How much of an emotional blow would that be?
I read Foundation for the first time when I was 11 or 12. As I've mentioned elsewhere on the blog, I'd always been a fan of science fiction and fantasy, but up until that that point, I'd only been reading kid-oriented stuff: Wollheim's The Secret of books and the other old Winston hardbacks from the 1950s (at least the five or six that were in my school library), Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, all kinds of big, flashy, pictoral adaptations of movies available from the Scholastic order system, Choose Your Own Adventure books, Allan Rune Pettersson's Frankenstein's Aunt, and whatever else I could get my hands on at the school and community libraries. And all of that was a good start — I still look back on some of those kids' books with fondness, and reread a couple once every few years and still enjoy them. But I hadn't stepped over to the adult section of the public library yet to explore it's cache of sf. My uncle Malcolm, who was the lone science fiction fan of his generation in the family, decided it was time for me to graduate to the more mature stuff. For Christmas of '85 or '86, he and my aunt Janine gave me a copy of Foundation, and it
The idea of a small group of scientists with a plan spanning a whole galaxy and a thousand years. The concept of using science to predict the future. The decidedly non-adventurous notion that a gigantic catastrophe can't necessarily be averted, no matter how plucky the group that recognizes the problem when no-one else will, but that the consequences can be minimized — that sometimes victory isn't measured in overcoming disaster as it's unleashed, but recovering from it well. And that recovery itself is often slow, step by step, over a long period of time — beyond a hero's lifetime. And heroes can be people who sit behind desks and talk and research and calculate and think, rather than grabbing a gun and blasting off in a dreadnought for the nearest space battle. It was all so amazing! And so validating for a young nerd who wasn't into barrelling down a sportsball field and knocking other kids over just for kicks.
And so, when I'd finished, I immediately ran to my little local indie bookstore and bought Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation and Foundation's Edge (and, when it came out in '87, Foundation and Earth) and devoured them. And then turned my attention to everything else Asimov wrote that I could get my hands on, which, fortunately, at that time included the historical anthology series he assembled with Martin H Greenberg: Isaac Asimov Presents: The Great SF Stories (I started at #15), which introduced me to dozens of other authors, educated me in the history of the genre, entertained (and occasionally challenged me) with great stories, and prompted me to seek out the work of others like Clarke and Bradbury.
Through my teens and early twenties, I'd come back and reread the Foundation series every few years, and I still enjoyed it with each reread. Going through it in university, I channeled my minor in Philosophy and started to suspect that more than just being a tale of the recovery of galactic civilization after a Roman Empire-like fall, maybe Asimov was also using it as a platform for his own version of Plato's Republic, examining the strengths and weaknesses of different forms of government.
Time passed, and the collection sat in a spot of honour on my shelf and was largely ignored as I read other stuff. In fact, for many years, I didn't read any Asimov at all, except maybe for the odd short story in a best-of or historical anthology, and even then I often skipped over those because I'd already read them in my youth.
And then I got kicked in the literary nards by that old cliche that says you can't really ever go home. It happened with Frank Herbert's Dune (another Christmas present from Uncle Malcolm and Aunt Janine, given the year after they'd presented me with Foundation). I'd loved the Dune series in my teens (well, the first three books anyway — I soldiered through the others but they each got progressively worse), but when I reread it about 11 or 12 years ago in my thirties, it was terrible. I had to wonder, were they always this bad, or was it merely the case that my tastes had just changed that much?
This worried me. What about the other favourites of my youth? Would they suck too?
Bradbury wasn't a problem. He'd kept writing, steadily putting out new collections of short stories every year or two right up until his death in 2012 (most of which were pretty damn good), and I'd read all of them, so I knew I was all right there. Clarke didn't last quite as long (2008), and for the last several years of his life, most of his stuff was co-written with other authors, but once in a while I'd reread 2010: Odyssey Two or one of his other novels or short story collections, and they'd always stood up. But what about Asimov?
I loved his stories so much that I was afraid to reread them, lest he get knocked off his pedestal like Herbert. So I decided to put it to a test: instead of diving right back in to my beloved Foundation, I'd do an exploratory return to his writing through the Robots series (the four Elijah Bailey and R Daneel Olivaw books, not the I, Robot collection). It was awful. While some of Asimov's science fictional ideas were cool, and the worldbuilding was excellent, the quality of his writing was terrible: clumsy and dumb, predictable (yes, even with the understanding that I already knew the stories, having read them before) and boring, with characters that weren't believable. They didn't work very well as science fiction. They didn't work very well as detective mysteries. They didn't really work very well as anything. Asimov was a great ideas guy, but not a very good writer.
In the intervening years, I've reread a couple of his short stories here and there, and they seemed okay for the most part. Maybe Asimov was passible as a short story writer, where he could just stick to saying "Hey! Here's a really cool idea I just had!" rather than longer forms which demand an ability with story and character (not that short stories don't need these things — the medium is just a little more forgiving if a story isn't as strong in those respects because it's short) that he just didn't have.
But the Foundation question still bugged me. Yes, the first three books really weren't novels at all, but rather collections of short stories or novellas that had originally been published separately in magazines, so, as a better short story writer than novelist, I wondered if maybe they were okay. Passable, at least. And yet, taken collectively (especially with the fourth and fifth books, which were written as single novels, rather than assemblages of shorter materials), they represented a long slog, and I wondered if Asimov's long-form weaknesses would show and ruin the experience and the memory for me.
There's only one way to tell though. Suck it up and give it another try. Yeah, I've got a ton of new books in my to-be-read pile (and a bunch that aren't so new!), but sometimes you have to make time to reread some of your old favourites. To remind yourself of why they're your favourites. Or to show yourself how much you've changed over the years, and how some stories and authors — even the ones that you built your appreciation for the genre on — don't age well.
Is it wise to go digging around an old foundation? I'm about to find out.