Friday, September 10, 2010

Book Review: Foundation's Edge

Isaac Asimov
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

…for all of Isaac Asimov’s other Foundation novels.

This is one of the last books in Asimov’s Foundation series (one of the most excellent and significant bodies of work in science fiction). It is hard to describe this book without giving away a lot about the previous books in the series.

This book also incorporates elements of Asimov’s Robot series (yet another excellent and seminal work).

And, because the Foundation series deals with thousands of years of galactic history, it is hard to describe this book without going into a ridiculous amount of back story, which I’m not going to do here.

Clearly, then, the only thing to do is to read all the Robot and Foundation books, in the correct order, and then to read this review, and then to read Foundation’s Edge. (To help you in this worthwhile pursuit, a complete chronology of Asimov’s books can be found here.)

In the 1950s, Asimov began writing a series of books telling the story of the development of humanoid robots in our near future (the Robot series). He simultaneously began a separate series of books about the rise and fall and rise again of a galaxy-wide empire ruling millions of inhabited worlds in our very far future (the Foundation series). He wrote Foundation’s Edge about thirty years after finishing the last of the original Foundation and Robot novels but he intertwines elements of both multi-ologies in this book in his same familiar, clear style as if there had been no break at all. This is a testament to the solidity of the characters, worlds, and concepts he created.

The Foundation novels are built around one main character, Hari Seldon, and the science of psychohistory that he developed. Psychohistory is sort of a combination of mass psychology, sociology, and complex mathematics. With it, Seldon is able to predict the future of society; and what he forecasts is the inevitable decline of the decadent galactic empire which rules at the time he is alive, followed by a painful, chaotic period of several thousand years of division and war, and then the rise of a second (more benevolent) empire bringing peace and stability back to the galaxy. The violent interregnum has the potential to last from one thousand years to thirty thousand years, depending on what people do. So Seldon sets up a foundation of scholars and directs them to guide humanity towards the choices that will shorten the period of chaos as much as possible. He also records a series of holographic animations of himself to be played at key times in the future so he can help guide humanity himself even after he is dead. The Foundation series follows the playing out of this “Seldon plan” across hundreds of years of ups and downs and dangers.

One strange thing about the Foundation series is that there is usually very little action. Often the major crisis in each book involves the characters working to prevent something from happening, rather than to make something happen. They usually center on a skeptic who challenges the assumptions of the majority and who has to use logic and persistence to turn the others around. But it is Asimov’s particular genius that he makes this kind of story interesting and keeps the pages turning.

It helps that the whole concept of psychohistory is awesome and the character of Hari Seldon is enduring and appealing*. And because Asimov covers thousands of years of history in his various novels, he has to invent a ton of other characters, not to mention worlds and governments and advances in technology, and he always does it with extraordinary clarity, believability, creativity, and humor.

Foundation’s Edge takes place 500 years into the chaotic interregnum. The original First Foundation (of regular people) and the Second Foundation (of telepaths) appear to have things well in hand. Things are going perfectly in accordance with the Seldon Plan. Maybe a little too perfectly. People in both foundations grow suspicious that someone is manipulating all of them to align with the Plan, depriving them of independent action. Eventually, their investigations center on a mysterious lost planet, Gaia, which may or may not be the original Earth, and which may or may not be able to control and/or destroy the entire universe.

This book was a mixed bag. It exhibits all the good characteristics of Asimov’s work. It also exhibits his tendency to give his characters silly names and to include a number of pert young women who are attracted to older, professorial-type men.

I liked the First and Second Foundationers, their slow realization that they are being manipulated, and their search for the source of that manipulation in the first half of the book. But the second half was unsatisfactory. I didn’t really like what Gaia turned out to be. And I didn’t buy the climax of the plot, where there was a multiple-choice decision that had to be made to determine the fate of the galaxy and only one guy in the universe could make it. It was a little thin.


* In fact, Nobel-Prize-winning New York Times columnist Paul Krugman admits here that part of the reason he went into economics is because it is the closest thing we have to psychohistory.

No comments:

Post a Comment

HTML Tag Instructions

Bold: To make text bold, tag it as follows:

<b>text you want to appear in bold</b>

Italic: To italicize text, tag it as follows:

<i>text you want to appear in italic</i>

Links: To add clickable links, like say to a Wikipedia article on baseball, tag it as follows:

<a href="">text you want to link from</a>

Related Posts with Thumbnails