Welcome to the second Summer of Asimov, where we'll be examining the third of the so-called Big Three Golden Age Science-Fiction authors. We've already covered the technologist Arthur C. Clarke and the political futurist Robert A. Heinlein, so now we get to the philosophical fantasist, Isaac Asimov. Covering Asimov adequately over one summer proved to be a daunting task, especially with the pandemic, so I've had to split it into two. This year, we'll mostly be covering the Foundation series, in anticipation of the hopefully-as-good-as-it-looks television series coming out later in the year (which I will of course be reviewing). So sit back, relax, and enjoy some vintage, epic science-fiction from one of the grandmasters of the genre.
I love the art on this cover
[Fair warning: This review contains massive spoilers for the entire Robot/Foundation series. I cannot explain my feelings for this novel without writing about how it ends.]
Golan Trevize, driven by insights even he doesn't fully understand, has made his choice. In a desperate search for the reasons behind his momentous decision, he has undergone the quest for the mythical and possibly non-existent planet of humanity's origin, convinced that it holds all the answers he seeks. Along for the ride is his friend and ancient historian, Janov Pelorat, along with Pel's new love, the enigmatic Bliss, a woman who acts as a figurehead for the joined consciousness of Gaia that Trevize has willed to one day become Galaxia, overriding the Seldon Plan and ensuring a future without individuality. Meanwhile, in a forgotten corner of the Milky Way, something waits patiently.
The final book in the Foundation chronology, Foundation and Earth, is a direct sequel to Foundation's Edge as well as a not-so-direct sequel to the final novel in the Robot series, Robots and Empire. While the characters are from the former, some of the settings are from the latter, as Trevize and his companions visit both Aurora and Solaria along with, of course, the titular Earth. It describes what has happened to the two Spacer worlds in the intervening twenty millenia and finally reveals where Daneel Olivaw has been and what he has been doing.
The book is at its strongest when it is highlighting the adventure and mystery, with each new setting being more imaginative than the one before it, such as the seemingly dead planet that hosts an invasive mold species capable of surviving in extreme conditions, a paradise planet where the population is confined to a single tropical island where the weather is controlled and resources are abundant, and a world where people have engineered themselves to be hermaphrodites capable of harnessing massive amounts of energy through their brains.
Unfortunately, Asimov, not unlike the rambling character of Pelorat, has gotten much too wordy in his old age, and the pace is a ponderously slow one, often dragged down into repetitive philosophical arguments about free will that are more tiresome than genuinely interesting. Even the start of the novel is sluggish, intent on over-describing the inner workings of Gaia without needing to.
Worse than the boring slog is the unsatisfactory conclusion, where it is revealed that Gaia was created by Olivaw in an attempt to find a loophole in Giskard's Zeroth Law and is laughably rationalized by Trevize as being necessary to protect humanity from a nebulous threat posed by competing galaxies. Asimov spends the entire book showcasing the benefits of individuality and has Trevize act as its staunchest defender--an almost stereotypical freedom-loving guy who can't stomach the idea of sacrificing his own liberty for the sake of a hive-mind cooked up in the mind of a robot--and yet, it still ends with an unskeptical conclusion that Galaxia is the best possible future for all. Maddeningly, this cheapens the entire story of the Foundation by revealing psychohistory to be no more than an easily discarded back-up plan. It's deliberately provocative without being terribly compelling, and Isaac Asimov is capable of much better.
Perhaps Asimov finally bit off more than he could chew by trying to connect the Robot series to the Foundation series, or perhaps he painted himself into a corner by the end of Foundation's Edge and couldn't find a way out by the end of Foundation and Earth. Either way, it is a disappointing final chapter, and a frustratingly open-ended one. His failure to continue the story in a subsequent entry makes this the furthest into the future he was able to look (not counting The End of Eternity, of course, but it's not really "true canon" to the series), but the overarching story still feels like it needed more to make its purpose known.
Generic sci-fi cover No. 209
But even after writing all that, I can't tell you Foundation and Earth is anything but a great book that is worth the read, that it's absolutely essential to fans of the entire series. The Foundation books are all a meditation on free will, and even though Asimov doesn't quite nail down a final thesis here, the journey is far superior to the destination. The middle of the book contains some of Asimov's best work, the playful imaginings of a science-fiction professional who knows when to use hard science and when to discard it, and though his philosophizing is uncharacteristically weak and uninspired, the characters and situations carry the lack with ease.
It is also better than Foundation's Edge, despite falling victim to some of the same problems (most egregiously the continued reliance on the inexplicable plot device of Trevize's magical intuition). The addition of Bliss and, later, Fallom, add more chemistry and light melodrama to the crew of the Far Star, and the way it both strains and strengthens the entertaining relationship between Trevize and Pelorat is fascinating. Trevize is also mellowed slightly so that he isn't quite as abrasive as he is in the previous book. However, since the story is told almost exclusively from the points of view of these characters, Foundation and Earth lacks some of the variety that kept Foundation's Edge feeling fresh.
In the final accounting, then, I do think Asimov made the right choice in combining his series into one chronology, and I'm pretty happy with how tightly he was able to fit it together, even if nitpickers point out minor continuity errors here and there. Nostalgia does a fair amount of heavy lifting, particularly in this book, and the connective tissue doesn't feel strained until the very end, when R. Daneel Olivaw becomes an almost literal deus ex machina. Don't get me wrong--I love the character and would be absolutely incensed if he didn't appear in the novel--but I still bristle a bit at the idea that Daneel is the true hero instead of Elijah Baley or Hari Seldon, especially when his ultimate rationale feels, at least to me, a bit "choppy" in the logic department.
-e. magill 9/2/2021
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: