Thursday, August 27, 2009

1946 Retro Hugo – "The Mule" aka FOUNDATION AND EMPIRE by Isaac Asimov

This is an awkward place to start, for several reasons.

First , this was not really the first Hugo Award winner. The first was the 1953 award for Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man (review coming soon!). The World Science Fiction Convention, which gives out the award, later decided to give retro Hugos to pre-1953 novels. "The Mule" received the first of these in 1996.

Second, "The Mule" was actually a short novella, which you now find collected with other novellas in Foundation and Empire. To compound the problem, Foundation and Empire is itself the second volume in a series of these collected stories (originally a trilogy, but Asimov added a few more volumes, a couple of prequels, then licensed it out to a few other big name SF authors. Asimov eventually decided that his other important series, including the Robot series, which I believe to be his best work, also took place in the same shared universe. You could easily count the Foundation series at over 15 novels) So, it’s not clear whether I should be reviewing the novella, the collected volume, the original trilogy of novella collections, or the entire franchise.

Finally, this is probably the Hugo-award winning novel that I read longest ago. It’s been twenty years since I read these books. I’d love to reread the original trilogy, but it’d certainly bog this project down. So, instead I’ll offer some brief thoughts and remembrances now and possibly come back to the books later (maybe with Foundation’s Edge, the fourth book in the series, and the Hugo winning novel of 1983).

So, enough with the rambling apology/introduction. Awkward way to start a blog, eh?

I read these books in fifth or sixth grade and absolutely adored them. I’ve always loved history (and am now a historian), and the Foundation novels set out the “future history” of a galaxy-spanning organization that hopes to secure human civilization from collapse in the distant future. It’s actually written in dry, distant, omniscient prose, modeled after Edward Gibbon’s influential 18th century history of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. So, we get big dramatic events and discussion of societal development, but not a lot in the way of character or even recognizable plot.

The central idea is that a mathematician named Hari Seldon, living in a highly advanced and galaxy-spanning empire, has created a very complex model that can predict the future. He sees that the empire is on the edge of collapse, so he decides to create a refuge for civilization (“the Foundation”) to help nurse the galaxy through the inevitable dark ages that are coming.

“The Mule” itself concerns the rise of a fascist dictator in the galaxy with mutant psychic powers, and the Foundation’s battle against him. I had to rely on Wikipedia to remember even that much detail.

Anyway, if you like big, original ideas, a (somewhat dated perhaps) discussion of the rise and fall of civilizations, and don’t mind books being a bit short on character – check this series out. It’s some of the most influential stuff around when it comes to space operas.

Of course, I might not be quite as fond of them twenty years later. I’d like to find out, but I want to push on for now.

UPDATE: I did manage to get in a reread of the Foundation series, and I still enjoyed it quite a bit. There's a bit more character than I thought; we do get focused stories centered around Seldon-crises. I can see why I didn't remember the characters. They mostly just sit around and discuss the nature of history, economics, religion, politics, etc. It is all very fascinating though, and Asimov is a fine writer.

Grade: A- (A for the original Foundation trilogy as a whole.

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