September 21, 2010

On the Second Foundation

I read the book _Second Foundation_ and finished it a couple of weeks ago. I have sat on writing the review for the main fact that I will largely be antagonistic towards a series that is highly lauded and in fact won awards for being such a fantastic trilogy. I have not read, nor do I have plans to read, the surrounding books that prop up the universe that Asimov created for the Foundation series. The following review will look at all three books of the central series

First off, I have to give Asimov credit for looking at technology as an emancipatory element. Nuclear power in the series gives those who control it a wonderful command over the physical universe. Many of Asimov’s contemporaries in the genre were much more pessimistic about the future of the technology and the human race. I am thinking here of apocalyptic thrillers and thought-exercises like Neal Schute’s _On the Beach_. In spite of my own questions about the safety and the general possibility of the scaling down of nuclear devices in this way, I will give Asimov the benefit of the doubt (even if current nuclear power only generates electricity through mechanical conversion and I have no idea how you had power a spacecraft with hot atoms).

Nevertheless, this technological element is troubling. On one side, it is fantastic that in the future cancer has been beat: people still smoke and can carry around decaying atoms with no real ill effects. On the other hand, it is difficult to look at when Asimov was creating and not criticize him for missing the computer revolution. He was able to see nuclear devices shrink, but not electronic transistors. While this may not have been a problem at the time of creation, it sticks out that travelers were having to chart out their hyperspace jumps with slide rules and that a novel device is one where the physical object of a pen translates your speech to text sounds remarkably similar to Dragon Naturally Speaking, a software program that has been out for at least a decade.

This does not destroy the premise in the writing of Asimov here. We know that the empire lasted for 12,000 years, but we don’t know what lead up to the founding of the Empire, how many galactic boom and bust cycles had to happen before generalized peace spread throughout what is assumedly our Milky Way Galaxy. Asimov brings this question up briefly in the first installment by noting the debate about where human existence arose within those stars. I will accept, with reservations, the world Asimov builds here.

I will also accept the Seldin premise. With enough data points, and enough computing power, and the right mathematical model, you can assumedly predict the future. Although, without continued monitoring and readjustment of the model, your predictions would become more and more unreliable the further you moved from your zero-point. Thus, the existence of a second Foundation is not only a narrative nicety, but also a necessity for the working of any ‘Seldin Plan’. While I like the set-up, the resolution at the end of Second Foundation does seem more like a move that is too clever by half to reinstate the universal ignorance of the Second Foundation (236). The resolution as a whole left a bad taste in my mouth, but I swished it around and swallowed.

The structure of the series, as it covers over four hundred years of galactic history, is somewhat uneven. There are characters and whole time periods that exists but fail to engage me. The most exciting section, as a reader of narrative, is the section dealing with the character of the Mule. The reader spends the last half of the second book on a planet-by-planet chase on the run, and then we are treated with a twist (that I for one did not see). Although the second text closes with a little much explanatory monologue, this part feels like the high point of the entire series and the last book is just an unwinding of the consequences of the second book.

However, the troubling aspect here is that there is no reason for the existence of the Mule. Asimov goes through gyrations to show that there have been genetic mutations all along and his existence is an unpredictable outlier, but to me he just does not fit in the universe Asimov created. This mirrors the explanation given to the explanation of how the Second Foundation speaks, moving past speech into some form of platonic ideal of communication (106). Both feel unnecessary and unbelievable. Again, this is coming from a much more advanced scientific understanding of the world than the one Asimov had in the early 50s, but one thing that troubled me is that over the years there had been no evolution from our current state. There is no evidence for evolution that I saw except for a reference to a facial feature found on the women of the inner galaxy. I just have a sense that genetic drift would have happened quickly amongst the millions of planets with vastly different climates and ecosystems to the point where speciation would have happened. I am also assuming that interplanetary travel is relatively rare and limited to the upper classes.

No, apparently I am wrong and Homo Sapiens Sapiens is the final product of evolution excepting the Mule and he was the end of his line. The Mule’s existence feels fake because he does come ex nihilo and did not have to climb what Dawkins would call Mount Improbable. I just cannot reconcile the Mule’s existence with the lack of evolution elsewhere; it just poisons the well for me. While I am picking nits and I know it, writers of science fiction have a very high level of responsibility of to keep up the suspension of disbelief, as they are not just writing a world that they know but they are instead the creators and destroyers of worlds.

A final example of the previous concerns is found in the use of language. Language changes much faster than genes do, but there is no evidence of that in the series. Again assuming the isolation and the lack of a central entertainment and news distribution network to help standardize the language (although the newspaper of Tantor may have been published everywhere), the English language that somehow won out in the remote past and is the language of empire (again!) remains identical to a mid-twentieth century English spoken in America. For this, there are not tortured explanations why it happens. Even if it is necessary for storytelling ease, it is a structural brick of the world Asimov built that rings false. While this issue was on the edge of my consciousness for the series, Asimov point out the inconsistency in the last book, referencing a dialect of an isolated people (45), which shows that he was on some level conscious of the problem but chose not to engage in an explanation of the contradiction.

In the end, the books are interesting. I can see the interest in the worlds built by Asimov and marvel at the man’s learning and prolific nature. However, his works are clearly a product of his time and the associated concerns of the time. While they may not be universally applicable, they can teach the reader much about the time they were written