Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Isaac Asimov

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a little about re-reading and the ways that books can strike you differently each time you open them. That seems particularly true for books you first read as a child. The combination of inexperience and susceptibility to new ideas can make even a mediocre book seem fresh and exciting, and a truly good one can seem world-changing.

Knowing that, I put off for a long time re-reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. When I read it as a teenager, I thought it was the best thing I’d ever read. I pressed it on my friend Ryan, who, if I remember correctly, agreed. It was thoughtful and smart and exciting, the product of a mind so ambitious that he needed to stretch the story over millennia.

But as the years went by, I started to wonder. Was it really that good? Could Asimov possibly have made such a silly concept as “psychohistory”—the prediction of the future from sociological and psychological premises about the behavior of large masses of people—even remotely plausible? Was Asimov actually a good writer? I suspected that I might find Foundation wanting, which is part of why I waited nearly twenty years to read a Foundation book again. And, sad to say, my older self was right. Each question gets answered with a pretty resounding “no.”

The first problem that makes itself evident with Foundation is that it is abruptly episodic, more a set of short stories than a novel, each story concerning a crisis about to strike the Foundation, a think tank engineered by late genius Hari Seldon to replace the failing Galactic Empire. More than a hundred years ago, Seldon through the science of psychohistory foresaw these crises—and in his planning he used each successive crisis, which he predicted would become so acute that only one solution would be possible, to nudge the Foundation closer to the future he imagined for it. Hours after each crisis, a sealed vault reveals a hologram image of Seldon, congratulating the members of the Foundation on making it through the crisis—but offering them no hints of the ones to come, for foreknowledge would ruin the predictions of psychohistory.

As you can see, this is all fairly preposterous. Which would be fine, if Foundation offered other charms. But between the pedestrian prose, the constantly changing cast necessitated by the lengthy timespan of the narrative, and the fact that the smart-mouthed, iconoclastic, and insightful heroes are more or less interchangeable—each, I suspect, bearing a more than passing resemblance to Asimov’s own image of himself—there’s little here to make me willing to put up with the pseudo-science or the idea of a purportedly heroic (but actually creepily god-like) all-knowing super-scientist watching from beyond the grave as his puppets act out his secret plans.

Foundation might have at least been somewhat rewarding if the solutions to any of the crises had been foreseeable, if there’d been any point in trying to guess what the best course of action might be. But instead, the solutions, though obvious (even inescapable) to the heroes, appear to the reader to come out of nowhere—and in the non-Asimovian universe seem unlikely to actually work. Trying to play along with Asimov’s plotting in Foundation is a bit like reading a set of Encyclopedia Brown mysteries, but ones with impossible-to-discern solutions and where the generally inoffensive Brown has been replaced by an arrogant, self-absorbed know-it-all who is astonished at your lack of perception. Or like sitting in on a lecture by the least forthcoming scholar ever, one who simultaneously proclaims that he’s the only person to have ever studied this topic and makes fun of you for not knowing the answers already. It’s the heart of Asimov: he’s smarter than you, just like he’s smarter than everyone—deal with it.

When I discussed Foundation with my friend Bob on Sunday, he pointed out that Asimov’s mysteries share that tone, too—and, looking back, I think his Robot stories are probably the same way. Which actually may have brought me back to thinking of a way that I could still enjoy Asimov. I mentioned to my coworker John how disappointed I’d been in this re-reading, and he said he’d felt the same way when he read Conan Doyle as an adult. Now, I’m a Conan Doyle fan, but I do see that some of my complaints about Asimov could be applied to the Holmes stories. Holmes, after all, is exceedingly arrogant, and the mysteries are almost always unsolvable without the benefit of Holmes’s esoteric knowledge—and even then, the solutions aren’t necessarily as clear-cut as Holmes presents them. They’re not, after all, elementary; you can’t really play along at home.

But with Holmes that’s not a problem for me and Stacey, because the solution of the mystery isn’t where the fun lies. For us, the joy of Conan Doyle comes in Holmes’s very arrogance and absurdly overdrawn personality—it’s in knowing that every story will allow Holmes to be himself, in full, unfettered and unapologetic glory, and that we’ll get to ride along, like Watson. We spend the stories marveling simultaneously at Holmes and at the creator willing and able to unleash him. It’s a different joy than what comes from being caught up in the reality of a story, but it can still be a real pleasure.

Asimov has no recurring character anywhere near as much fun as Holmes—but Asimov himself is a far more powerful and inescapable presence in his books than Conan Doyle is in his. So maybe it’s possible for me to enjoy Asimov that way: less for his creations themselves than for the overpowering sense of their creator lurking behind them. That’s the way, after all, that Bob and I have always enjoyed Asimov’s laughter-slaughtering Treasury of Humor, from which we’ve derived far, far more fun by using it as a way of thinking about Asimov, the arrogant and self-regarding, than anyone could ever have gleaned from its truly dreadful jokes.

Maybe I’ll have to go ahead and re-read Second Foundation after all. But not, I suppose, until some crisis forces my hand. Asimov has surely predicted no less.


  1. In defense of the short-story-like nature of the novel, bear in mind that it was originally published as short stories, and only later gathered as a novel. That they were publised in popular sci-fi magazines might also explain the gimmicky endings of each chapter - more like a familiar treat in thee magazine format.

    Conan Doyle, though paid by the word, took some time to choose some nice ones and put them in proper order. Asimov, in his rush to author or edit 400 books in one lifetime, never once came close to creating any elegance of prose. But give the man credit, at least, for his popular science works, written by an atheist-humanist, for the common superstitious man. And not ALL of the jokes in the Treasure are bad... I sometimes tell the one about the fellow playing golf when a funeral passes by...

  2. You're right, Bob. I'm being a bit unfair. I'd forgotten that they began as short stories (which would explain one in the middle that does absolutely nothing to advance the overall narrative).

    And I should have mentioned that I remember Second Foundation being better than Foundation, both picking up the pace and widening the scope of the story. Anyone else remember that? And should I be willing to commit an evening to giving it a try?

    Oh, and Asimov wrote 470 books, not 400, says his bio.

  3. I know Levi had very good reason for linking to the Powell's page for Treasury of Humor, but I would like to point out that the "Surprise Me!" link on the Amazon page is great for when you need a dose of anti-humor.

  4. The last couple of pages of the second book, the story of "The Mule," are touching.

    "Foundation" is lousy literature, but it provides some useful conceptual shorthands, such as The Mule as the exemplification of ultimate unpredictability. While it's not a good series to read, it's a good one to have read.