Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Book: Foundation & Empire by Isaac Asimov

Lowdown: The Foundation soldiers on in the second book of the original Foundation trilogy.
Asimov's original Foundation trilogy is one of those series of books I've read many times, but the last time I've read them I was probably 14. They represent the core of my early science fiction career and they are considered to be big time sci-fi classics, so with my admiration to everything Asimov I've decided to give them a new go and see how the years make them feel like. Does the accumulative wisdom I have gathered make them a better read?
Well, about a year ago I read the first Foundation book and found it very good. Not spectacularly good, but definitely a thrilling read. Foundation & Empire, though, was quite a disappointment.
The book tells the story of the Foundation once it has sort of established itself as a powerhouse in the corner of the galaxy, waiting for the old Empire to die so it can take over the galaxy with its advanced science. I suspect most readers will not know that in the first book of the series the Foundation was established as a colony of scientists that is supposed to stop the decay of humanity once inevitable historical cycles get the current rule of law out of the way. Established using psycho-history mathematical calculations, where statistics is employed to forecast what the general state of mind is going to be in the future, the path of the Foundation towards a long and uninterrupted rule of the galaxy was paved away. That is, until the dangers posed in the second book of the series step in, first in the form of the old remnants of the decaying Empire and then in the form of a mutant called The Mule. Will the Foundation manage to get through?
Sadly, the answers will only be provided in the next book of the series; I just hate it when books play that good old "to be continued" trick on you. Add to that a rather predictable plot, a list of characters that is way too long to keep track of, and this weird habit of scenes taking place in different places at different times with no passage breaks, and you get a rather annoying book to read.
Counter that with Asimov's rather laconic way of writing, which I quite like - it's very much to the point - and add the fascinating ideas he has thrown in, such as the way science can be corrupted and the way science has to fight emotions - and you get a book that is some sort of a compromise. How good a compromise is up to the reader.
Overall: Ultimately, I suspect Foundation & Empire should not be judged on its own, as the second book of a trilogy, but rather the entire original Foundation trilogy should be judged as one. That said, if I have to rate F&E, I'd have to give it only 3 out of 5 stars; that's what I gave The Stars My Destination, and anything more than that would be Asimov favoritism.


Uri said...

'a rather predictable plot'?
What was so predictable?

Well, if you think it's as good as The Stars My Destination, I guess I can't really complain.

Moshe Reuveni said...

What I really think is that my taste in books has significantly changed lately. While I still love science fiction, it doesn't do as much to me as it used to; currently, it is books like The Selfish Gene that deliver a kick.
I'm sure you'll regard it as regression.

As for the predictability issue (be careful - spoiler alert):
It could be because I still remember some of it from previous readings, but I found that the solution for the first crisis - the general being stopped by the emperor - was very obvious. And I also found that it was fairly obvious there was more to Magnifico than meets the eye.

Uri said...

I don’t mind if you claim to have outgrown Drangonlance, or Amber (even if I never did). You can even say LotR isn’t what it used to be, but don’t you start badmouthing Asimov, who made sciences clear and understandable for half a century.
If you’re so much into popular science these days, you can check out one of Asimov’s many essay collections. I’m sure there are several in your local library.
Adding a Dimension, if you can find it, has a special sentimental value – it was the first Asimov book my father read, and it led him to his science fiction books. Without that, I may have been exposed to SF at a much later date.

Moshe Reuveni said...

I think I would be the last to badmouth Asimov. During the last year alone we bought a bunch of his books, including some non-fiction stuff, and in a similar way to your father Asimov formed the bulk of my early sci-fi reading.
I don't think I have outgrown Asimov; I think my taste has changed, which is significantly different. And I don't think this change would apply to all of Asimov's sci-fi work either: I really liked the first Foundation, Caves of Steel and Naked Sun, as well as some of his short stories that I read relatively recently.
In the case of Foundation & Empire there are several reasons that have combined to make me not like it as much, with the sequel factor being the most dominant one.

Anyway, Asimov stands as one of the top four writers I will quote you as my favorites if you were to wake me up in the middle of the night, and Amber and LotR will be quoted in the list of my all time favorite books. Even if The Selfish Gene is the book most representative for me at the moment; there is no contradiction there.