Foundation

Second Foundation

Second Foundation Youll cover

Second Foundation – I. Asimov; 1991 (Cover: Stephen Youll)

Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov is the third novel in the Foundation trilogy. It was first published in 1953; I read the Bantam 1991 edition. I read the first novel in the trilogy, Foundation, in January of 2012.  I read the next in the series in August of that same year. Unfortunately, I failed to return to this series until now in 2017. I gave both of the previous novels four stars in my rating/review and I think this novel will also get the same.  It was a bit of a struggle to read this one, because Asimov has a very distinctive writing style that does not lend itself, in my opinion, to brisk reading.  I think this is at the core of the reasons why many readers dislike the Foundation series and rate them lower than other novels.

Asimov was an intelligent fellow. Fiercely intelligent, even. I do not think that this can be disputed whatsoever.  His science fiction is also creative – full of big ideas.  Asimov also stuffs the presentation of all his big ideas with logic. I believe when he sat down to write his novels, he did not go about it by writing:  and then the character did this.  No, I believe Asimov did say that the character did some action – and then Asimov considered why this character did the action.  Asimov’s intellect does not seem to tolerate random and empty things.  Unfortunately, in contemporary society, I find a lot of people who accept prima facie anything and everything. Many times, their interest is very superficial. Asimov does not strike me as a writer who will just write stuff for the sake of word count.

Asimov’s considerations of things (which sometimes make it onto the pages and sometimes hide in the background – barely discernible) made his writing very much his own.  I found many reviews and comments on his novels wherein the readers complain about how “slow” his writing is. Or how the characters are “wooden.” Or how the novels are so “boring” that they could not finish reading them.  Maybe these reviewers are not the most articulate in describing what they experience when they read Asimov, but I can understand where they are coming from.  There is a perfect example in Second Foundation of this sort of writing. Chapters five and six of the novel (pgs. 64 – 96 in my edition) are exactly what readers complain about regarding Asimov’s writing.

In all honesty, I stalled out in my reading during these chapters. I think I re-read these pages nightly for a week because they kept putting me to sleep. Literally. It is indeed boring writing and it seems repetitive and it did take some effort to push through. Are these chapters integral to the overall story (both in this novel and in the series)? Yes, I think they are and so would be very against excising them at all. Could these chapters have been shortened or otherwise edited to make them less tedious?  I am not sure.  I think to do so would be to lose the very Asimovian aspect of the whole series.  I would not care to do that to the author or his works.  Honest to goodness, once I marched through these pages, the novel picked up pace and it was very good the rest of the way.

What the heck goes on in those pages? Asimov has several characters confront each other and they converse back and forth about what happened and why it happened and what the possibilities are. Who is lying? Who has incomplete knowledge of the subject? Who is being fooled? What are the intentions behind these matters?  In other words, Asimov is digging into the characters’ minds to root out the purposes in their actions. He is logically arguing among them. And he is also showing all the likely possibilities that the storyline could follow.  From this standpoint, it really is not bad. However, considering the pacing and style in a novel, it is quite numbing. Readers who make the effort and want to care and understand Asimov, will appreciate what he does when he writes segments like that. Readers who just want to be entertained probably will not pull much from such sections.

In this novel I really like Darell and Arcadia. They are awesome – in their own way. I want their continuing adventures, so to speak. I want to get to know them and have their backstories with all the nuances in good fiction. However, this is another aspect of Asimov’s writing.   It seems he is so potent a personality himself that his characters tend to all seem flat and cardboard – wooden, if you will. So many readers complain about the lack of “character development” in Asimov’s novels. But in my opinion, this does not precisely state what happens. I think that all of Asimov’s characters are all very flat and similar – because he, himself, shows through so strongly in all of them.  There is something subtle and familiar about all the characters – even though, on the surface, they are totally different.  I am willing to bet Asimov, when he wrote, often asked himself something like:  now, what would I do if I were this character? And then took his response into consideration when writing the story.

Overall, this is an excellent ending to the trilogy. I can see so many places where this series could be expanded and developed and re-examined. The big idea of it is so awesome, I think the novels all get four stars just because they present it. Sure, there are valid complaints about Asimov’s writing style throughout, but at the end of the day, the novels are very much Asimov’s novels and not something churned out by machine or a “novel generator.”

4 stars

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Foundation and Empire

Foundation and Empire

Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov; Del Rey Ballantine

This is the second novel in the famous Foundation series by Isaac Asimov.  It was originally published in 1952; the copy I read was the 1983 edition.  The cover art for my copy was done by Darrell K. Sweet.  The novel is actually two parts – quite distinct, but related in a general timeline sort of way.  The first part, The General, explains how the Empire is falling, but a bold General launches a mighty attack on the Foundation.  This is the section that most folks connect with Asimov’s reading of Ancient Roman history.  The second part of the novel, The Mule, deals with events that occur roughly one-hundred years after the events of the first part.

The first novel in the Foundation series was a conglomerate of short stories that depict the unfurling of the Hari Seldon crises for the Foundation in relation to the Empire.  Much of that book dealt with the development of the Foundation and it’s survival and growth into an “empire within an empire” on the edge of the galaxy.  The short story-like structure of the parts of that novel made reading it a bit difficult and I know that many readers were unimpressed because of the seeming discordant style.  Also, many readers hated the extreme lack of character development in that novel.  Because of these two things, I do not think many readers move forth in the series.

Foundation and Empire definitely has more character development – however, these are still not necessarily books about characters, but rather they are books about big concepts.  Specifically, Hari Seldon’s psychohistory theories drive both novels.  The lack of character development is probably the largest complaint from readers.  I understand this complaint – particularly in the first novel – but I do not think that it is the great criticism that it purports to be.

We are used to dramas on television, in movies, and in novels, that center on individuals.  Readers have become acclimated to pages and pages of characters being described in their thoughts, deeds, and circumstances.  In theory, this is supposed to make the characters seem realistic and form a bond between the characters and the reader such that the reader is invested in the character’s personhood and life.  However, just because this has become the common way of doing things, does not mean it is the best or even only way.  I actually appreciated reading a novel wherein I was not forced to struggle alongside the characters, examine their motives and feelings, and watch them grow from young adults to seniors.  Nevertheless, there is quite a bit more “character development” in this novel and I feel it’s just the right amount.

This novel is less episodic.  However, the events that we learn about – another opening of the Time Vault, the fall of Foundation – happen quickly and without a whole lot of build up.  The last half of the novel involves a fairly exciting chase across the galaxy as two unlikely heroes race to Trantor/Newtrantor to either communicate with the Emperor and/or to learn as much as they can about Second Foundation.  I like how Asimov keeps the story focused on the concept of Seldon’s psychohistory – that individuals are unpredictable and maybe somewhat insignificant in terms of the statistics generated. Seldon developed psychohistory to predict the actions of large groups of humans.  And so throughout the novel the actions of the individuals are presented as conundrums compared to the actions of large populations. Of course, much can be discussed regarding Seldon’s theories and the actions of The Mule.

Their enemy, The Mule, is a famous “villain” in science fiction.  And I think Asimov handles this character splendidly.  It’s actually really a great job done by an author of hiding and presenting a villain.  And this villain, by the way, is both easy to hate and love and pity.  He’s also responsible for the fall of Foundation.  He conquers in a unique way with an intense method that makes the ending even more poignant.

I gave Foundation 4 stars because of the “big idea.”  The fairest rating would have probably been something like 3.5 stars.  But this novel? Definitely four stars – unreservedly. I really want to read the next novel, Second Foundation, because I have to see the timeline continue and play out.  I know this series is not for everyone, but I honestly am really enjoying it.

4 stars

Foundation

Foundation Orange The first book of 2012 that I finished is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.  I am not sure if I read it previously in my life or not, some things (like the Foundation Series) I feel are so ubiquitous that it’s indistinct if I actually read all of the series or something else.  So, in this review, I am going to just pretend and assume this is the first time I’ve read this novel.

This first book of the Foundation Series has seen an incredible number of printings.  However, this first novel is actually the combination of five short stories that were published together in 1951, but separately as stories in the 1940s.  The short stories are all related and the Foundation Series, as a whole, is considered Asimov’s best fiction work – easily, it is his most popular. My edition is the Bantam Spectra edition show to the left:  the cover illustration and design are credited to Jamie S Warren Youll and Stephen Youll.  Asimov was born January 2, 1920 in Petrovichi, Russia and passed away April 6, 1992 in NY, NY.

The five [former] short stories are:

1.  The Psychohistorians

2.  The Encyclopedists

3.  The Mayors

4.  The Traders

5.  The Merchant Princes

Definitely, overall, the first three sections are my favorite.  The last two are so entertwined and full of politico-economics that I am sure I ought to have read those two sections twice to make sure I caught all of the nuances and details. Each of the sections is located on a timeline from the exile of Historian Hari Seldon from the planet Trantor.

The premise of the series is that Hari Seldon spent his life developing a branch of mathematics known as psychohistory, a concept of mathematical sociology (analogous to mathematical physics). Using the laws of mass action, it can predict the future, but only on a large scale; it is error-prone on a small scale. It works on the principle that the behaviour of a mass of people is predictable if the quantity of this mass is very large (equal to the population of the galaxy, which has a population of quadrillions of humans, inhabiting millions of star systems). The larger the number, the more predictable is the future.

Foundation deals with the variety of “Seldon Crises” that occur after the Foundation is banished from the Galactic Empire. A “Seldon Crisis” refers to a social and political situation that, to be successfully surmounted, would eventually leave only one possible, inevitable, course of action. They are named after Hari Seldon, who founded the field of psychohistory, and who appears as a pre-recorded hologram at the climax of each crisis. Before his death, he used psychohistory to predict and manipulate each event. A Seldon Crisis usually involves both an external pressure (such as threat of attack) and an internal pressure (such as threat of revolt). Both pressures will come to a head simultaneously, and be resolved with the same action.

The parts of the novel wherein Seldon appears in his pre-recorded hologram are actually pretty neat. It’s always like a big unveiling and no one is 100% certain that it’s going to happen when it does. So, Seldon ends up becoming something like a prophet – and, naturally, that’s how religion-science enters the storyline. Overall, Foundation is full of ideas – ideas that are sometimes pared down for the reader and sometimes surprisingly astute.  The storyline is moved along via dialogue and the descriptiveness is kept to a minimum.  The characters have “similar” names that are easily pronounced. Obviously, Asimov was not writing characters like Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.  This makes for the book to read quite quickly; no droll boring parts, no unending rambling descriptions.  Knowing that each of the five sections was originally a short story published separately helps the reader, as well.

Overall, I was unsure whether this was a three or a four. I went with a four. I also wanted to share the quote from the Commdor’s very bitchy wife. I think it’s gloriously scathing:

“Enough, my very noble husband. You had another of your vacillating consultations with your councilors. Fine advisors.” With infinite scorn, “A herd of palsied purblind idiots hugging their sterile profits close to their sunken chests in the face of my father’s displeasure.”

4 stars