This is a THP first (though it shall soon be repeated) – a Hugo winner that is not the first book of its series. The 1983 Hugo Award for Best Novel went to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation’s Edge, the 4th (publication order) and/or 6th (internal chronology) in his Foundation series. So before we can get to the 30th official edition of The Hugo Project, we first have to read the original Foundation trilogy…
Foundation and Empire
stories published in Astounding Magazine, 1942 – 1950
published as novels in 1951, 1952, and 1953
Here’s the thing. In the twelve years prior to this post I have tried, on at least three separate occasions, to read Foundation.
Emphasis on tried. Ye Gods.
Anyway, the point is, the dude has done some seriously great stuff. And by “seriously great stuff,” I mean “not this Foundation garbage.” I honestly have no idea how these became so highly regarded.
Perhaps part of it is the fact that the stories were originally written in the 40s; especially in the midst of THP, where the books have ‘evolved,’ so to speak, to 1980s mores, including things like having women and people of color and actual character development in your books, reverting to 1940s standards is difficult for my brain.
The books also suffer from not being actual books. They’re collections of 8 stories (plus one more than Asimov wrote for the beginning of Foundation, which explains the origins of the Seldon Plan) in three volumes and they don’t really go together. Each story, while very much a part of the same universe (and generally the same shade of boring), involves completely different characters, so good luck finding a lot of wholeness in the books.
The real problem, though, is the very premise of the stories – the Seldon Plan.
Basically, through the “science” (skeptical physicist is skeptical) of psychohistory, which deals with the statistics of large groups of people, Hari Seldon has predicted the collapse of the current Galactic Empire, leading to thirty millennia of dark ages before civilization (in the form of a second Galactic Empire) can be restored. But somehow or other Seldon has foreseen (predicted? theorized? deduced? calculated? psychohistorized? through the MAGIC of “SCIENCE”) a way that the Second Galactic Empire can be brought about in only 1000 years. To that end, he establishes the Foundation on Terminus to preserve humanity’s scientific knowledge, and (rather more secretly) a Second Foundation which, it is eventually revealed, is devoted to the development of psionic abilities. Of course, Seldon’s predictions/deductions/whatever were made under the assumption that no one knew of his plan (since it didn’t exist when he was making the predictions), so the only way the plan can work is if people know as little about it as possible.
An interesting idea at first, but upon further examination, it’s both a problematic political mechanism and a terrible narrative device.
First, the in-world problem. While neither Hari Seldon nor any other character are specifically identified in terms of race…it was the 1940s. We all know Asimov was picturing a white dude. And we also know how I feel about WHITE MALE BRILLIANCE.
I am so incredibly over the idea of the character (and it usually is a white man) who claims to know what’s best for the entire world/galaxy/universe/human race/etc. but of course can’t tell anyone about it and has to work in secret for the good of all. (Leto Atreides, I’m looking at you). The idea that one person, or even a small group of people, gets to make decisions on behalf of an entire species without consulting them or even informing them is incredibly patronizing, especially when the decision-making power is given to a person of relative privilege and framed in a “I must shepherd them all for their own good” sort of way, as here.
And don’t think I’ve missed the fact that civilization = imperialism, apparently. I mean, the Galactic Empire worked out so well the first time around (except for the whole ‘imminent collapse’ bit) that surely it must be the answer to our upcoming ruin. There’s some passing mention of it being a ‘better’ Empire, but ‘better’ is usually followed by ‘stronger,’ so apparently the standard for improvement is a governmental system more impervious to collapse and not, y’know, something that improves the lives of its citizens. But apparently life was totally rosy under the first Galactic Empire, so what do I know.
(I know just slightly more than Jon Snow)
(but I know that white dudes + imperialism = BAD NEWS for pretty much everybody, historically speaking)
I find it ironic that Asimov wrote these stories during WWII – you know, when the US was fighting against the prospect of an evil German empire? Then again, given the level of jingoism at the time, I guess most people were thinking, “Our empire is better than your empire!” and not asking themselves, “hey are empires even a good thing?”
Even if the Seldon plan were aiming for some kind of magical intersectional feminist utopia with bread on every table and no police shootings and free healthcare for all, we still have the other, frankly larger problem: as a narrative device, it is freaking awful.
Remember above where I mentioned that Seldon’s calculations were made before his Plan existed? What this means, apparently, is that no one can take any actions to attempt to promote the Plan, since any actions would not be part of the Plan and would thus deviate the course of history. So we have a Plan that must be followed, but no one can know enough about it to consciously follow it, because that knowledge would bias their actions and cause the Plan to fail.
…I’m pretty sure Hari Seldon also invented The Game. Which you just lost.
Seldon has also predicted certain critical points in the future history of the Foundation, points at which a particular action must be taken for the Plan to succeed…only, of course, no one can know what this action is. The result is that characters must either:
- do absolutely nothing until there is only one course of action available to them (which must be the action predicted by Seldon, somehow)
- do whatever, since it doesn’t matter what individuals do; psychohistory applies to huge groups only, so their actions are meaningless and the Seldon Plan will magically take care of itself
What this means is that there is literally no point to anything that happens in the stories. The characters have no hope of influencing the course of history and must trust that the Plan is carrying on Its merry way.
So, Mr. Asimov:
WHY THE FUCK DID YOU BOTHER TO WRITE THESE STORIES?
There is no drama. There is no tension. It literally does not matter what the characters do. When I was halfway through Foundation and Empire, I made this point to a Foundation fanboy and he could not refute it.
Anyway, the result is that, as I reader, all I could think was:
Seriously. How am I supposed to care about what happens when none of it matters? You haven’t even given me interesting characters whose development might interest me enough to put up with this nonsense! I had to switch to audiobooks for the second two so I could at least knit or drive or do something to keep myself awake.
There is, fortunately, an obvious solution to the second problem, though apparently it didn’t occur to Asimov until his sixth (in terms of order written) Foundation-verse story, The Mule, which makes up the second half of Foundation and Empire.
That solution is, of course, to break the Plan.
Suddenly – drama! Tension! Conflict! The Plan has been broken! That holy of holies is no longer certain! OH NOES WHAT DO?!?!?!
This ‘breaking’ of the Plan arises through the person of the Mule, an individual who manages to conquer a large section of the Galaxy previously under Foundation control through the use of his psionic powers. Since the Mule is an individual, not a large collection of individuals, there is no way that Seldon’s psychohistorical calculations could have predicted his existence or accounted for his actions. It is dramatically revealed that the course of history has deviated from Seldon’s predictions, the Plan is in ruins, the Foundation has failed…but wait! Didn’t Seldon mention something about a Second Foundation once? Maybe they can save us! If only we can reach them before the Mule does…!
It should be noted that The Mule, on its own, won a Retro Hugo – while the Hugo Awards didn’t exist in 1946, the year in which it would have been eligible, voters in 1996 retrospectively awarded it the Award for Best Novel. Find more about Retro Hugos here.
The Mule was the first story where I found myself almost enjoying the Foundation-verse. An actual plot! Real conflict! A female character who wasn’t a one-line nagging wife of the imperial warlord du jour! Be still, my beating heart. (BAYTA LET ME LOVE YOUUUUU) Did I guess most of the Big Reveals before they were revealed? Sure. Still, it was actually somewhat engaging, and I got a huge kick out of the fact that Bayta got to save the day in a story written in 1945.
After The Mule, I went into Second Foundation almost hoping to not be bored out of my skull.
…yeahhh, that was overly optimistic.
Second Foundation picks up where Foundation and Empire left off, telling the story of the search for the Second Foundation by the Mule (part 1) and by the First Foundation (part 2). I’m not going to go into details on the first part, because I honestly don’t remember it beyond what I’ve come to recognize as the Foundation Formula. It goes something like this:
(some stuff happens, probably offscreen)
(the major players wind up in the same room)
Character 1: Ha haha ha! Allow me to explain you a thing! (spends pages explaining the thing)
Character 2: Ha haha ha! A clever explanation, but wrong! Allow me to explain you a thing!! (even more pages devoted to explaining the thing)
Character 3 (optional): Ha haha ha! And yet you are wrong! Now I shall explain a thing to both of you! (have you guessed? SUCH PAGES. VERY EXPLANATION. WOW)
The Foundation Formula of all of the books, but it definitely gets worse with time. Ye gods.
The second part of the book was a little better, in part due to the presence of Arkady Darell (granddaughter to the fabulous Bayta). While the depiction of her as a plucky but foolish teen girl is grating, she’s also no dummy, and she encounters a cast of suitably colorful characters on her little expedition around the galaxy. Of course there is the Boring White Man Brigade back on Terminus to wrap up the whole story in the requisite escalating monologues, but the story was almost not painful. I have to admit that the twist at the very end was something I did not see coming and actually made me laugh in delight, so there’s that.
But oh, dear gods, the monologuing.
I still really don’t get why these books are classics, but at least now I can say that I’ve read them. Is that a silver lining? It doesn’t feel very shiny. I’ve read them so you don’t have to? Not much better. I only have to read one more book before I’m done with this nonsense? Now there’s a sentiment I can get behind.
Next week we actually get to talk about a Hugo-winner. This one has at least three decades on the mess of the original trilogy, so one can only hope that Asimov improved in that time. Please, for the sake of my sanity, let him have improved…