Third Time’s The Same Old Boring Stuff: Isaac Asimov – Second Foundation

My opinion of Isaac Asimov, his writing abilities, and his position as one of the greats of science fiction, wasn’t that great to begin with. But reading the Foundation Trilogy (which was later turned into a longer series) pretty much makes me question earlier generations and their taste in fiction. I also don’t get how publishers let Asimov get away with writing the same story three times and publishing it as if it’s something new…

SECOND FOUNDATION
by Isaac Asimov

Published: Harper Voyager, 1953
eBook:
227 pages
Series:
Foundation #3
My rating:
3.5/10

Opening line: The First Galactic Empire had endured for tens of thousands of years.

When the First Foundation was conquered by a force Seldon had not foreseen – the overwhelming power of a single individual, a mutant called the Mule – the second Foundation was forced to reveal its existence and, infinitely worse, a portion of its power. One man understood the shifting patterns of the inhabited cosmos. This was Hari Seldon, the last great scientist of the First Empire.

The mathematics of psychohistory enabled Seldon to predict the collapse of the Empire and the onset of an era of chaos and war. To restore civilization in the shortest possible time, Seldon set up two Foundations. The First was established on Terminus in the full daylight of publicity. But the Second, at the other end of the galaxy , took shape behind a veil of total silence.

Because the Second Foundation guards the laws of psychohistory, which are valid only so long as they remain secret. So far the second Foundation’s location, its most closely guarded secret of all, has been kept hidden. The Mule and the remnants of the First Foundation will do anything to discover it. This is the story of the Second Foundation.

Wow, I can’t believe this got published the way it did and that people actually ate that shit up… I have rarely read such an overhyped, totally undeserveing of its acclaim, classic as this.
Asimov spends pages upon pages re-explaining the same thing to us, over and over again. That thing is the Foundation, how it came to be, and its purpose. So basically the first chapter of the first book. You’ll get to read that crap in every single Foundation book and also have every character explain it to another character several times throughout that book. Which doesn’t leave all that many pages for, you know, an actual new story. And that’s because Asimov really doesn’t have a new story to tell, he just wanted to milk this idea he had for all it was worth.

This impression is only strenghtened by the fact that each book ends with a sort of cliffhanger. The follow-up book then adresses the rest of this story and only then starts a new larger story arc. Which, again, is finished only in the next book. So I guess Asimov wasn’t lying in his introduction, when he said he wanted to make sure they’d publish another book by him. He pulled the same trick (how very clever) several times to get book deals. Now if only he were a proper storyteller. Alas, all he can do is repeat himself.

So Second Foundation begins with the finale to the Mule story arc which made me angry in so many ways, and only then begins a new story, which actually has to do with the Second Fondation that Hari Seldon said he would set up “at the other end of the galaxy”. At this point, it really wasn’t clear whether Second Foundation was good because its people are a safety net for the first Foundation working the way it should, or whether Second Foundation was the enemy and needed to be defeated by the first Foundation so the first Foundation can take over the galaxy. And ultimately, as the goal is always and exclusively world domination, I couldn’t care either way and I hated the premise. I don’t want to root for anyone in these books because the characters all have the same personality anyway and nothing they do makes any difference.

The problem is that Asimov was so in love with this trope one of his that he turned it up to eleven making anything that happens essentially worthless. You see, when every chapter is one person being secretly so much cleverer than the other person and then, in the end, explaining how they tricked the other person, that can be fun once or maybe twice. That’s all the first book was, chapter after chapter. But if every chapter works that way, it gets old fast. And if – like in Second Foundation – you do this Batman Gambit within a Batman Gambit three times in a row, it really loses all value. What was the point of reading this story if none of what happened, none of the character actions, mean anything?Because it turns out, everyone who outsmarted someone else was in turn outsmarted by yet another player in the endless game that doesn’t even have stakes. Because remind me what the point of all this is? Building a Galactic Empire again in 1000 instead of 30000 years. In the meantime, people are living on various planets, science and technology are evolving, politics are politicking, and so on… And because Hari Seldon’s plan is basically infallible, nothing any one person does can change the course of history anyway. So WHAT’S THE POINT of telling meaningless “stories” set in this world??

Speaking of the world. I had to think of a certain Sad Puppy argument from a few years ago that, back then, science fiction still used to be about science and epic space battles, and sense of wonder and ideas. And I can now definitely say that they can’t have meant Asimov with that. Because there is no world building whatsoever. People are said to live on different planets but there is neither any difference between these planets (other than the fucking weather), nor is there anything much to travelling between them. Who needs science, after all? Distances in the galaxy? Just say “parsec” and “lightyear” a lot and it will sound spacey and sciencey… And then the whole premise of this book is a group of magicians threatening the Foundations. I’m serious, the Second Foundation, which is supposed to consist of nothing but psychologists, can basically mind-control people… with “science”. Don’t make me laugh!
And that doesn’t even take into account the convenient ease with which new inventions are brought about just when needed. Any character either just has had a magical gimmick all along or just quickly invents it because he needs it to defeat the current bad guy. Who will turn out to have been a good guy after all, controlled by the real bad guy. Who then turns out to have been outwitted by someone else. Does it seem like I’m a bit tired of the trope? Because I really am.

Seriously, the more I think about this series, the stupider it is. Asimov’s one cool idea basically ruined any story told within that world because it preempts the outcome. Just for a moment, when he actually made a 14-year-old girl named Arcadia one of the main characters, a proper protagonist in her own right, I got interested again. But the casual mysogyny and ultimate meaninglessness of Arcadia’s cleverness destroyed all pleasure I might have felt.
Oh and it’s not just mysogyny here. There is a tremendous amount of hate directed at all sorts of people. Old people, young people, and especially people with physical deformities. Neurodiverse people are called names and completely disregarded as if they’re not even human. I mean, the whole idea behind the Mule is that he’s too skinny and has a large nose and that’s why he was bullied and now wants to take over the Galaxy… And it’s equally terrifying that being physically unattractive is apparently bad enough in Asimov’s world to make someone a “monster” and a “freak” in everyone’s eyes.

So yeah, I have very little to say about this that’s good. I did honestly enjoy a part in the middle of this book when Arcadia went on an adventure, but as all that happened to her, turned out to have been for nothing, that doesn’t really save the book. And as in his third book, Asimov still hasn’t learned how to write a story, how to create characters or an interesting world, I don’t see much reason to continue this series. That said, the next book did win a Best Novel Hugo Award and it was written 30 years later. So I have the tiniest glimmer of hope that even someone as full of himself as Asimov may have learned a thing or two in that time. The hope is slim, however, so if I ever do read that fourth book, it will be a long time until I find the motivation for that…

MY RATING: 3.5/10 – Bad

Still Mostly Meh: Isaac Asimov – Foundation and Empire

Ages ago, I read the first Foundation book because it’s a sci-fi classic and on all the “Best SF” lists and all that other jazz. I found it okay then but now that the book series is being turned into a TV show, I wanted to both refresh my memory and finally continue the series. Turns out, my second reading of Foundation was exactly as middling as the first one. I did continue and read the second book, though, and that experience – although a teensy bit better – was similarly meh.

FOUNDATION AND EMPIRE
by Isaac Asimov

Published: Harper Voyager, 1951
eBook:
240 pages
Series:
Foundation #2
My rating:
5/10

Opening line: The Galactic Empire Was Falling.

WINNER OF THE HUGO AWARD FOR BEST ALL-TIME SERIES

The Foundation series is Isaac Asimov’s iconic masterpiece. Unfolding against the backdrop of a crumbling Galactic Empire, the story of Hari Seldon’s two Foundations is a lasting testament to an extraordinary imagination, one whose unprecedented scale shaped science fiction as we know it today.

The First Foundation survived two centuries of barbarism as the once-mighty Galactic Empire descended into chaos. Now it mist prepare for war against the remnants of the Empire as the Imperial fleet advances on their planet, Terminus.

Hari Seldon predicted this war; he even prepared his Foundation for it. But he couldn’t foresee the birth of the mutant Mule. In possession of a power which reduces fearsome opposition to devoted slaves, the Mule poses a terrible threat to Seldon’s Foundation.

This book is comprised of two stories. The first one is simply a continuation of what was done in the first book – namely a Seldon Crisis which is resolved by one dude being slightly cleverer than another dude, and also “fate”. Because Hari Seldon predicted the various crises the Foundation would encounter, and he also predicted that by the laws of psychohistory the Foundation has a super high chance of surpassing all those obstacles, there’s not really all that much excitement left. We know ahead of time the Foundation will continue to strive, no matter what kind of problem comes up next. So by creating Hari Seldon, Asimov made it harder for himself to build up tension.

The second, much longer, part of this book is called “The Mule” and it can almost be called a proper story. There’s multiple character POVs, we travel different parts of the galaxy, there’s a big threat to the Foundation, and there’s some new political stuff coming up. Again, a big problem for me was the utter lack of tension throughout the whole story. I knew the Foundation would come out on top because that’s the entire point of this series. So why should I worry that a mysterious conquerer who calls himself The Mule is apparently defeating Foundation forces left and right?

Asimov’s characters are still as bland and interchangeable as in the first book. It literally doesn’t matter who is talking to whom. You could literally exchange the people with talking cats and it wouldn’t change a thing about the story (well, it would make it more awesome). Nobody has a personality because this is not the kind of book that’s actually trying to tell a riveting story or make its readers feel empathy for its characters. It’s a vessel for ideas and, in my opinion, those ideas were transported well enough in the first book. I don’t need a second book to tell me the exact same ideas, slightly differently.
But – color me surprised – one of those bland characters is a woman! Who gets to speak!! And who even has a vital role in the tale!!! Never mind all the microaggressions, the sexist remarks, the obvious disregard for women in general, at least we have proof that there are women in Asimov’s galaxy. Despite this revolutionary development, I found that the whole Mule story dragged along unnecessarily and the twist ending was super obvious and lacked any impact whatsoever. Again, Asimov is his own worst enemy because of course the “good guys” win and the Foundation is safe.

Speaking of “good guys” – I find the entire premise of this series quite disturbing. When it was all about preserving humanity’s knowledge, it was one thing. But what it has always really been about is power and colonization and gaining control over everything through a massive galactic empire. Why the hell should I root for that?

I don’t think it’s all that surprising that many of the so-called science fiction classics didn’t age well. Asimov’s idea of psychohistory is still pretty cool, and the Foundation series doesn’t have much more to offer in terms of sfnal ideas (so far), but everything that surrounds it, every tiny little bit of worldbuilding or character work I could find in this rather mediocre story is really rather startling in its misogyny, blind love for the military and colonization, hunger for power for power’s sake, and totally casual hate towards neurodiverse people.

This book also makes me wonder at this so-called golden age of science-fiction. Sure, many of the ideas that came up at the time must have felt new and exciting, but didn’t people also care about storytelling? Because, as interesting as certain ideas may be, they are rather worthless if the story about them sucks. Having just re-read the first Foundation book and then going straight into this one, I did notice that Asimov’s writing style has evolved, although he continues to do the same thing over and over again, just slightly better told. At least now we get some descriptions of surroundings, of how a given planet works, instead of just two men standing in a room trying to outsmart each other.

I’m still going to read the third Foundation book just so I have finished what was then The Foundation Trilogy but I very much doubt I’ll check out the rest of the series. This trip to a distant past that many people seem to glorify is just not for me.

MY RATING: 5/10 – Utterly meh!

Isaac Asimov – Foundation

This is the first of seven volumes (very small ones) in the Foundation series. While I was positively surprised about the idea and politics in this book, it felt very much like a beginning, at set-up for potentially greater stories.

FOUNDATION
by Isaac Asimov

published: Spectra, 2004 (first published in 1951)
ISBN: 0553293354
pages: 296
copy: paperback
series: Foundation #1

my rating: 5,5/10

first sentence: Hari Seldon – born in the 11,988th year of the Galactic Era; died 12,069.

The blurb:
For twelve thousand years the Galactic Empire has ruled supreme. Now it is dying. But only Hari Sheldon, creator of the revolutionary science of psychohistory, can see into the future–to a dark age of ignorance, barbarism, and warfare that will last thirty thousand years. To preserve knowledge and save mankind, Seldon gathers the best minds in the Empire–both scientists and scholars–and brings them to a bleak planet at the edge of the Galaxy to serve as a beacon of hope for a fututre generations. He calls his sanctuary the Foundation. But soon the fledgling Foundation finds itself at the mercy of corrupt warlords rising in the wake of the receding Empire. Mankind’s last best hope is faced with an agonizing choice: submit to the barbarians and be overrun–or fight them and be destroyed.

The story of the creation and maintenance of the planet Foundation starts out with Hari Seldons idea to preserve all human knowledge in one place so that once the Empire destroys itself – as it inevitably will – the human race doesn’t have to start completely from scratch but has a chance of becoming great again. In only 1000 years instead of ten times that. The idea is intriguing and very well explained in the first part of this five-part book.

After this introduction, we jump a number of decades in each new part and are introduced to a set of new characters. While each of these governemnts, traders, princes and merchants may be likable and vivid, we spend too little time with them to really get emotionally involved. I found myself caring more about the idea of the Foundation, the planet itself and what it represents, than of the actual inhabitants.

What Asimov does fantastically though, is create problems for the Foundation. Be they political, economic or religious in nature, they lead to major crises and it’s up to the people on the Foundation to deal with them as best they can. Reading about their approach and solutions was a lot of fun. Sometimes, Asimov had me at the edge of my seat, trying to figure out how Foundation could possibly get out of the new trouble that’s been brewing. Unsurprisingly, Foundation’s inhabitants always do and there’s still some time left for the complete destruction of the Empire.

I didn’t engage fully with the characters and the language was somewhat underwhelming. But I am a huge fan of Asimov’s idea and I will definitely continue reading this series. These books are all quite thin and I should probably have read the first three books as one.

THE GOOD: Great idea, constant conflict keeps the plot full of suspense.
THE BAD: Episodic and maybe a little too short. Then again, it’s only the first in a series.
THE VERDICT: An interesting start for a story that promises to grow even bigger in scope.

RATING: 5,5/10  – better than avarage