Vintage Sci-Fi Month: “Foundation’s Edge” by Isaac Asimov

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.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

My Read-Through of the Hugos– Check out all my posts on reading through the Hugo Award winners and nominees. Tons of sci-fi fantasy discussion throughout.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.