Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Returning to Isaac Asimov's Foundation Saga: Reflections

I suspect (partly because of my own expectations from way back when) that when a great many readers pick up Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels, they expect from the premise the melodrama of an empire's fall and the aftermath--harrowing scenes of chaos and destruction, the glamorous pageantry of feudalism, the brutal exoticism and exotic brutality of barbarism, and the swashbuckling adventure to which all of the above lends itself so well --and then are disappointed that there is so little of such stuff, especially in the earlier part of the narrative. To the extent that they are there they are generally alluded to rather than depicted--part of the background rather than what for him is the main event. Rather this consists of dialogue-heavy maneuverings among older functionaries in court rooms, conference halls, offices. Of course, the quotient of adventure gets higher as the story proceeds. The second book, Foundation and Empire, has its space battles, but these are mentioned rather than depicted, and when the Foundation falls Asimov does not depict his principals' escape from the invading forces, but only closes the chapter and in the next shows them in their exile, with the events in between reduced to exposition presented in a brief, chance remark. ("[T]hey say she had the most tha-rilling escape--had to go through the blockade, and all--and I do wonder she doesn't write a book about it" one character says of Bayta Darell--but Foundation and Empire isn't it.)

The comparative unimportance of the derring-do in particular is not just a matter of what Asimov writes, but the manner in which the plot progresses. "Let us leave heroics for the fools who are impressed by it" one of Asimov's characters says. Still more harshly, "[v]iolence is the last refuge of the incompetent" says another (repeatedly, to the point of its becoming his catch phrase). After all, as still another says, the Foundation's founder "[Hari] Seldon . . . did not count on brilliant heroics but on the broad sweeps of economics and sociology." And indeed these remarks prove not supercilious dismissals of men of action by men of reason, but how things actually go over the course of this saga. Through the first book especially the plot turns on the leaders of the Foundation outthinking the barbarians, nipping their brutish resort to brute force in the bud at every turn. And when in the second book the Foundation, under a leadership whose quality has degenerated considerably, is forced to fight (the incompetent taking that refuge), the results are often less than dazzling, while those characters in the story's cast, when looking to play the hero, find themselves all too often failing or irrelevant. Thus when in the episode of "The General" Ducem Barr and Lathan Devers clonk their captor on the head and set off to save the day it turns out that their personal heroics matter less than the cunning of history, while Captain Han Pritchard's attempt to assassinate the Mule is similarly pointless. Indeed, the only really effectual piece of violence on the part of the Foundation's defenders (through the end of volume two) is exceedingly unheroic--the cold-blooded murder of a comrade on the verge of entirely innocently revealing critical information in front of an enemy--while it is later revealed (in the third book) that this, too, was not what it seemed, the physical act merely a riposte in the duel the telepathic psychohistorians fought with the Mule, whose role in its way exemplifies Asimov's principles. Hari Seldon's plan did not see the Mule coming, and the consequences of his coming were thus unpredicted and unallowed for. But the Mule's career, dramatic as it was, changed very little in the end, while the Foundation, and history, ground on, and might have managed to do so as long as the Foundation survived his coming to continue realizing the work of Seldon--which, in line with the principles of science to which he adhered as the rest of the galaxy forgot them, was never treated as finished and closed off for all time.

As might be guessed from all this--and true to Asimov's reputation (of which I had only the haziest ideas when I first picked up the books)--the novels concentrated on and the stories were driven by ideas rather than "character," with plots turning on rational problem-solving, and, like the "psychohistory" on which the Foundation was established, more interested in "men in their masses" than in individuals; in the line of events rather than the minutiae along the way, in contrast with so much of conventional literary expectation.

Still, as that rising adventure quotient implies, Asimov does, depending on one's view of conventional literary standards, either make more concessions to them, or embrace them in the course of becoming a more mature and skillful writer--as we see when comparing the first "Foundation" to "The Mule," and still more the narratives of the third book, Second Foundation, Asimov shifting from merely dramatizing his ideas with a portrayal of the climax as seen from the top to telling stories of those crucial events from a wider variety of viewpoints, more thoroughly fleshed out generally and more attentive to character--and to characters, likewise of more varied type--particularly. Indeed, in the concluding installment, "Search by the Foundation," Asimov devotes much of the proceedings to the misadventures of Batya Darell's fourteen year old granddaughter, with the opening scene leisurely beginning with the girl writing a paper for school. Still, in the end he adheres to his saga's intellectual premises and the literary approach it broadly dictates, and it is less the conventional literary pleasures than the intrinsic interest of his ideas, Asimov's skill at concocting compelling "scientific detective" stories (less satisfactory than in his Robot stories, but impressive nonetheless), and his focus and economy as a storyteller, that carried the memorable narrative. And speaking for my own part, if not finding the books quite what I had looked for on that first read, I find that I have become much more appreciative of this way of telling a story since--the more in as others seem to be appreciating it less and less than they did in the past, alas, for reasons that have not been healthy ones for the genre or anything else on the whole.

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