Foundation and Earth (or, the Asimov Crisis)


Here is my concise review of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Earth, his final book (chronologically speaking, anyway) in the Foundation series: I didn’t like it.

Which is not to say I hated it. This was, after all, the second time I’ve read the book. The first time was sometime around 1986, when it was published. I know I read it then. I remember reading it then. But, when I began reading it this time, I discovered that I could recall almost nothing about it. You may not think this odd. It was three decades ago. But, I read the previous books—Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation, and the eventual sequel Foundation’s Edge—before 1986, and I could remember these, at least partially or in general. When I read them for the second time this past year, they were at least familiar to me. This one? Eh…not so much.

I think I know why. I didn’t like it. My brain decided to block my memories of this book because it somehow didn’t fit in the same category as the other Foundation stories. The prequel novels—Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation—which I’ve read only once, were written and published after Foundation and Earth. These books do seem to fit it with the other stories, in ways that this one never will. I should qualify this statement: in ways that this one never will, in my opinion.

I will offer my reasons for this, but only after adding that for anyone who is a completist, like me, you will have to read this novel as well. If you like Asimov, you won’t hate it—or at least, you won’t hate all of it. There are a lot of interesting ideas in the novel, some that I will think about in the future, even if I block their origins from my mind once again.

My main complaint about the novel is that it’s not really a Foundation novel at all. All of the other books, including the prequels and Foundation’s Edge, are about Hari Seldon, and his grand plan for reestablishing the galactic empire. Arguably, Asimov scraps this idea for some high-concept fever dream of re-crafting the entire galaxy into a single super-organism called Galaxia. This departure from what in my mind remain as stories about probabilities and statistics and galactic actuarial tables into kumbaya-hippyland-utopia territory seems jarring to me and it violently knocks me out of the fictive Foundation dream. My opinion is that Asimov violated the rules of the universe he created.

He didn’t keep his reasons for doing this secret. He was trying to merge his Foundation universe with his Robot universe. Was his attempt successful? Sure. R. Daneel Olivaw was a welcome addition to the legend of Hari Seldon, and his presence wasn’t distracting at all in the prequels. I just don’t agree that the ultimate goal of psychohistory had to be the establishment of Galaxia. I think Asimov wrote himself into a corner. At the conclusion of Foundation and Earth, we are only 500 years into Seldon’s 1000-year plan. Asimov could never develop his idea further, which is why, according to his widow Janet, he resorted to writing the prequels instead. Asimov himself was the ultimate crisis that Seldon and psychohistory couldn’t plan for.

There are other reasons that I didn’t like this one, aside from the overall “destruction of entire thematic narrative” bit.

The main characters are two-dimensional at best, and despicable at worst.

Most of the action of this too-long novel is confined to the gravitic spaceship Far Star, and the word “action” is generous, even for an Asimov book, which are not famous for being action-packed. I honestly can’t say that I genuinely cared about any of the central characters in the story, including the hermaphroditic child adopted during the course of the episodic plot (yeah, you read that correctly). Much of the novel space is taken up with long discussions about things that don’t really matter, including the proper pronoun usage to refer to a hermaphroditic child.

Golan Trevize, arguably the protagonist, is a particularly vile person, even though the reader gets the impression that Asimov may not have thought so. He has been cosmically blessed with the gift of always being right in his decisions (there’s some hard science for you), although the impetus of this entire plot is his desire to find out why his decision to create Galaxia, made at the conclusion of Foundation’s Edge (which I genuinely liked, both times) was the correct one, even though you never once begin to think it might not have been. Unless, of course, you’re like me and wanted to read a Foundation book instead.

Trevize also seems to be the galaxy’s gift to women everywhere throughout the story. I was only marginally surprised that he didn’t steal the Gaian organic fembot Bliss from the old academic Pelorat. It would have fit in with the book’s undercurrent of weird sexual implications. I’m almost certain there’s some X-rated fan fiction out there that I never want to read.

And my final reason for not liking the novel. Taken as a whole, it was boring. As I assume this review may have become by this point.

I am about to embark upon my first reading of the Foundation novels written by other authors, authorized by the Asimov estate. I hope they can wash the taste of this one out of my mouth.

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