January is Vintage Sci-Fi Month and I’m hoping to feature a number of looks at vintage sci-fi I’m reading for the month to spur some discussion and hear your thoughts! Follow Vintage Sci-Fi Month on Twitter and get in on the fun, too! As I recall, the rule for calling something “Vintage” is that it was written before you were born, but feel free to adjust that as you like.
Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov
Foundation’s Edge won the Hugo and Locus Award and was nominated for the Nebula Award for best novel when it came out. That’s some great pedigree, especially coming from an author as prolific and influential as Asimov. I loved the early parts of the book in spite of myself. Yes, that’s right, I have a predilection to disliking Asimov which has only increased through my reading about the man himself and his treatment of women (more on that below). The Foundation Trilogy, long hailed as the pillar of science fiction, has managed to bore me three times through. Asimov, in my opinion, is not great at developing characters at all, and tends to focus on whatever pet idea he had in the book. All that said, I wasn’t sure I’d like this one, but found myself really getting into the premise of a mystery within a mystery within a wider, galactic story.
The initial premise(s) of the novel is absolutely fascinating. The two Foundations were in a secret war with each other; one is thought to have been destroyed, while the other comes to dominate humanity. Suspicious about the death of Second Foundation being exaggerated come to the surface, and the only female character written with any effort manages to maneuver a blowhard politician into outing himself as a potential “traitor” and getting pseudo-exiled on a snipe hunt to try to find Earth with an eccentric, obsessive scientist as a cover for actually tracking down Second Foundation. Seriously, that is an awesome premise, and the setup was deftly handled. I was absolutely engrossed.
But then the book kept going. And going. And going. The premise kept getting dragged on and on through permutation after permutation of the same ideas and characters remarking on how this or that aspect of the premise is good or impossible or bad or great or the worst. We get it, Asimov. The events in this novel are A Big Deal. That was understood with the premise itself! Let’s get into the meat of it! But when we do get to the meat of it, Asimov drops the ball, big time.
It is impossible, as the novel wears on, to ignore some significant flaws. Most egregious is Asimov’s treatment of women, which should not, perhaps, be surprising given his notoriously crappy treatment of real-life women (something that surely ought to downplay his legacy). There’s a whole scene in which the male characters debate over whether to go out on the town and hire prostitutes (without using the term), and ridiculously stupid joking about the needs of men regarding sex. It’s as though Asimov never grew past the earliest adolescence regarding both his attitude towards and knowledge of women, and it is extremely grating, especially as the novel goes on and on.
That is the second major problem with the book: it’s about two times too long. The awesome premise mentioned above isn’t enough to bank on throughout a novel that’s this long, but it is effectively what Asimov plays towards. Though he does give the payoff, that payoff is the absurd scenes centered around Gaia, which appears to be a form of escapism for Asimov but only annoyed me as a reader. The third major problem is Asimov’s struggling with the anthropic principle, which is again a major theme in the book. It’s almost as though Asimov attempted to answer this rather deep problem through Foundation’s Edge but ultimately the best he could come up with was “Well we’re here, aren’t we?” and some hand waving and readers are supposed to think that somehow solves the very real difficulties with the anthropic principle that Asimov himself brings up in the novel. It’s a kind of deus ex machina that Asimov tries to use in order to get rid of the Deus. In doing so, however, he only shows how absurd his own position is: a kind of brute fact approach tha doesn’t provide any answer at all. It’s annoyingly simplistic and detracts from the novel
Now that I’ve ranted for that long about the flaws, readers might think I disliked the novel, but I didn’t. It was a good novel, but one that could have been improved immensely by a much heavier hand from an editor. Foundation’s Edge is good, not great, which is a disappointment, because the premise on which it is built could have been a really fantastic adventure story. The characters were compelling enough in the beginning, but got replaced by the typical Asimov cutouts later on. Instead of being an epic novel, it’s a middling mess of hard sci-fi, adventure, sexism, shoulder-shrugging answers to big questions, and a psychadelic acid trip of a planet.
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I read the trilogy when I was a kid, and enjoyed it. But by the time this came out I’d read so many better SF prose stylists that I was off Asimov. I was too young to have read SF at what is considered the peak of the Astounding era, although I did read some Heinlein Astounding stories in Signet paperbacks in the late ’50s & early ’60s. But my era really started with books by Brian Aldiss (also mostly Signet) and Galaxy magazine with its pioneering editor H.L. Gold. The prose was often better, and the best stuff had subtexts that commented on the day’s world, rather than on trying to predict the future. I always thought that social commentary was what SF was best at, and after prose style that’s mostly what I read it for.
I do have to say that I always enjoyed Issac speaking at cons. He was funny and trenchant, and he seemed to take it as a given that the SF of the ’70s and ’80s generally had a higher level of prose than in his day. In one speech that I was at (I’m guessing at Noreascon 3 in 1989), he came up with what I think is a plausible explanation for this phenomenon: Writers couldn’t find any markets other than either esoteric literary magazines or SF magazines, so writers who wanted larger audiences learned to write SF. I guess that was easier than a traditional SF writer learning to write good prose, although with people like Delany, LeGuin, Russ & Ballard the field did launch some great prose writers.
Thanks for stopping by and for the comment! Love the stories you shared, here, too!
I agree about what I like about sci-fi–I vastly prefer sci-fi that goes beyond simply attempted predictions at the future and/or straight up adventure. I like my share of those, but the sci-fi that has impacted me most has been that which was thoughtful along with the action.
On the other hand, it is easy for sci-fi that comments on culture to rapidly get out of date, which I’ve run into occasionally, as well. It’s a fine line.
[…] Theist continues the Asimov trend with a review of the Hugo and Locus award winning Foundation’s Edge, which is the fourth book in what I thought was a […]
I read the first book of the Foundation series this month and really enjoyed it. I do plan to read at least the original trilogy, so this review was good to come across before I get to them. I’ll be keeping your review in mind when I read them.
Thanks for commenting and reading! Glad you’re liking the Foundation Trilogy! I liked some parts of it but not all. It’s got awesome concepts. Look forward to discussing more when you get to Foundation’s Edge!
This was such a thorough review. Thank you for it.
[…] Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov- Asimov can (kind of) write characters! I enjoyed this one pretty well. […]