Monday, July 26, 2010

1983 Hugo and Locus – FOUNDATION’S EDGE by Isaac Asimov

Asimov is the writer who did the most to get me into science fiction, and I really think he was a master of the genre. His Foundation series is brilliant, and his robot stories are even better. So, it's a shame that I don't really get to praise his two Hugo-winning novels.* I didn't like The Gods Themselves, and I'm afraid that Foundation's Edge feels much like the belated, unethusiastic cash-in that it was.

The Foundation, to review, is a scientific refuge that psychohistorian Hari Seldon predicts will rebuild the collapsing Galactic Empire in a mere millennium. The original trilogy covered the first three centuries of this effort, and then basically declared that all went smoothly from then on. It seems that Asimov was running out of ideas, which is fairly evident from how bogged down the end of the trilogy gets with various quests to find the mythical Second Foundation, which is full of psychologists so good at their jobs that they are mega-telepaths capable of mind control and galaxy-wide manipulations.

Asimov finished the Foundation series in the early ‘50s, but publishers and fans convinced him to return to the series in the ‘80s. In Foundation’s Edge, it’s 500 years into the Seldon plan and the Foundation is stable, but one man, Golan Trevize, is still worried about that pesky, manipulative Second Foundation. He’s given an assignment to try to find the Second Foundation (which was the basic plot of the previous three novellas in the series), and he’s accompanied by a historian named Janor Pelorat. Meanwhile, members of the Second Foundation suspect that there is an even greater psychic force manipulating them. Both of these stories converge on the search for Earth and lead to revelations that change everyone’s understanding of the galaxy.

This is a more conventional novel than the previous, exposition-heavy Foundation works (and with double the word-count for half the story!). But it somehow manages to replay well-tread plotlines (“someone is manipulating galactic history…besides us! We must find them and stop them!”) while also doing violence to some of the original concepts. The idea of preserving wisdom in a galactic dark ages gets replaced by telepathic super-beings and galaxy-wide organisms. The characters are flat even by Asimovian standards, and there’s a somewhat unconvincing romance with a beautiful superwoman named “Bliss” (no, really). This, by the way, was the first novel I ever read with a sex scene in it. I wish someone had slipped twelve-year-old me a Penthouse Letters collection instead.

The one thing I will say in Foundation’s Edge's favor is that at least it's much better than the next Foundation novel: Foundation and Earth (not to mention the additional robot novels added to link most of Asimov's works together).

*in between, he did write a fantastic story – “The Bicentennial Man” which won the Hugo for best novelette in 1976 (and was made into a sappy Robin Williams movie twenty years later). It's a sentimental, though very compelling, story of a robot who desires to be, and eventually becomes, human. The character of Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation was basically ripped-off from this material, although The Bicentennial Man is a much more domestic story.

Grade: C+

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