Foundation’s Fear, by Gregory Benford: a book review.

Last year, I re-read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, and loved it once again. Maybe I’ll read these books again in another couple of decades, if I’m lucky to be around that long. I also read Foundation’s Edge again and also liked this novel a lot. Then, I read Foundation and Earth, and the love affair ended. It was not a good book . At all.

I had also read, some time prior to this, the two prequel novels that Asimov wrote—Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation. I liked these two books as well. They brought Hari Seldon into center stage and I was able to learn much more about the life of the man behind psychohistory and the two Foundations. I didn’t love these two books the way I did the original 1950s trilogy, or even, in fact, as much as I did Foundation’s Edge. But, I liked them a lot more than Foundation and Earth, which, in hindsight, probably holds the distinction of being my least favorite of everything I’ve read written by Asimov.

At the risk of repeating myself, I think Asimov wrote himself into a corner at the conclusion of Earth, still only halfway through the cycle Seldon himself predicted for a return to Empire. I didn’t mind that Asimov was executing some reasonably fancy footwork to make the Foundation and Robot universes into One. I kind of liked that part, and enjoyed the inclusion of R. Daneel Olivaw in the prequels. Asimov turned to the prequels because this whole nonsense about Gaia derailed the entire Seldon plan.

But, Hari Seldon was an interesting character.

In Foundation’s Fear, the first sequel authorized by the late Asimov’s estate, Gregory Benford presents a story that spans the gap between Prelude and Forward. And, once again, it’s about Hari Seldon just before he becomes First Minister to Emperor Cleon.

It’s mostly about Seldon. There are also big chunks of the novel that are about computer simulations of Voltaire and Joan of Arc, who embody Reason and Faith.  There are some interesting debates and concepts, before the whole thing devolves into some sort of Lawnmower Man/Tron/Matrix digital landscape where Voltaire discovers the existence of ancient aliens.

These parts of the book failed to hold my interest at all. In fact, these scenes seemed to have very little to do with the rest of the book . I know that they are justified by the author because it has something to do with the robots and R. Daneel, and through the aliens something to do with psychohistory, but it all feels like it was a separate story shoehorned into this one. And it’s an awkward fit. Honestly, I think this would have been a better book without any of it.

I liked the parts of the novel that featured Hari Seldon and his wife, the robot Dors Venabili. These scenes were full of political intrigue and perhaps more action than in all of the Asimov stories combined. This is not hyperbole. I loved Asimov, but his books were heavy on the talking and light on action.

In spite of this well-deserved praise, I find that I would rank this novel only slightly higher than Foundation and Earth. And, if forced into binary decision-making, I’d have to say that I didn’t like it.

Why? Aside from the Voltaire and Joan of Arc idiocy I mentioned before, Benford let me down as a reader in several ways. His version of Seldon seems less capable than that presented by Asimov in his prequels. Weaker, less able to defend himself, more dependent on Dors. While I enjoyed reading about Hari and Dors in action, I could never quite shake the feeling that these weren’t the same characters from the Asimov novels.

Benford also monkeyed with some things in the universe that I didn’t think needed to be monkeyed with. He ditched the concept of hyperspace drives in favor of superhighways of wormholes. He retconned the wormholes into the formation of the Empire. I’m interested in wormholes and can appreciate the physics of the idea, but hyperspace drives were an integral part of all the old novels, even the gravitic ship in Earth was a cool variation on the concept. But, no, Benford wanted wormholes, so he put them in. This did result in an exciting escape sequence featuring Seldon and Dors—truly exciting—but it was a scene I would have preferred in a different book. Our spaceships in the Foundation universe travel by making jumps and using hyperspace drives. That’s just how it is.

There were also never any aliens in the Asimov novels. Only humans. In this Star Wars and Trek world, that seems odd, but it was something I liked in the Foundation stories. Psychohistory has always been about predicting human behavior. There was no place for aliens in those formulae. But, Benford is introducing aliens into the mix. Somehow, this bothers me a little less than the wormholes, and I think it’s going to play a part in later events, but it still bothers me. I’d like to think that Asimov himself wouldn’t like the idea; however, he did bring hermaphrodites into the story in Foundation and Earth, so I can’t really know his mind.

Above all else, I missed the presence of the Good Doctor himself. I missed the simple sentences and dialogue that went on for pages at a time. Benford is a more stylized writer, a good writer, and he doesn’t hesitate to write complex sentences expressing complex ideas. I wouldn’t expect him to ape Asimov’s style—or, as critics might say, lack of style—just because he’s writing in his universe, so I can’t fault Benford for not being Asimov. It’s just that I missed Asimov in this.

I will be reading the other two entries in “The Second Foundation Trilogy,” written by Greg Bear and David Brin, because I want to get to the conclusion of the living Seldon’s story.

I’m not pessimistic by nature, but I don’t have high expectations for the other two.

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