Having determined the fate of the galaxy, our intrepid space travelers move on to the next task at hand — finding the long-lost planet where humanity was born. It's a strange trip into yesteryear, in Isaac Asimov's Foundation and Earth.
Blogging the Hugos presents day five of Foundation Week, in which we dive into Foundation and Earth, by Isaac Asimov, from 1986. (Want to see our posts on the preceding four books? Here: Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation, and 1983 Hugo winner Foundation's Edge.)
AW: And so we come to the end of the line, chronologically speaking, as Isaac Asimov takes his now combined Robot/Foundation universe as far into the future as he possibly could...and, arguably, hits a pretty massive dead end. But before we get to that, let's run down the story of Foundation and Earth. A direct sequel to Foundation's Edge, this book finds exiled Foundationer Golan Trevize, mild-mannered historian Janov Pelorat, and Pel's Gaian lover Bliss (who is, lest we forget, also a part of the overall Gaian superorganism) on a search for humanity's fabled birthplace, the planet Earth, the rediscovery of which Trevize intuitively believes will help him understand why he chose Gaia's future over that of the First or Second Foundation. Although Trevize's strange faculty for making the right decision on insufficient information led him to opt for Galaxia, every fiber of his being rebels at the loss of individuality that this will entail, and he fears humanity will lose an essential part of itself in the future he has chosen.
The search takes them first to Comporellon, which believes itself to be — quite rightly, it turns out — the most ancient inhabited world in the galaxy. (Other than Earth, that is. And even then, it's actually the second most ancient, technically speaking. But we'll get to that later.) There, Trevize tangles — both verbally and, yes, carnally — with an imposing female minister of transportation, which leads to maybe the silliest sex scene in the entire Asimov corpus...and that's really saying something. Trevize and Pelorat also meet with a professional skeptic, who cuts away the swath of superstition about the planet's ancient past to reveal a few crucial hints about Earth's location. Specifically, he tells them of the Spacer worlds, the first fifty planets colonized by humanity and a crucial aspect of the Elijah Baley robot novels. The searchers end up with three planetary coordinates which may or may not lead them to Earth's location. At this point, the book officially switches into full-on travelogue mode, as we are taken through a tour of the galaxy's forgotten corners and, in the process, about half of Asimov's previous works.
I'll admit it right now — I love Foundation and Earth way, way more than I probably should, particularly now that I'm rereading it with an encyclopedic knowledge of Asimov's earlier books. I am cautious of using the mildly disreputable term "fanwank" to describe Foundation and Earth, but there's no doubt that this book is a gift to hardcore Asimov fans, with each new section another opportunity to play "Spot the Reference!" And yet, I also remember loving this book when I first read it, when I was considerably younger and my Asimov experience was limited to the earlier Foundation books and I, Robot (which does not, remarkably enough, get referenced in this book). It's because this is all about history and archaeology, reconstructing the dead past and shining a light on obscure areas that would otherwise be long forgotten. I also, as a general rule, love books where our heroes go off into uncharted space (or waters) and explore previously unknown, often deeply strange planets (or, y'know, islands). For instance, before I discovered Asimov, my favorite childhood book was C.S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which has almost the exact same structure as this book. Basically, I can't really be objective about Foundation and Earth, because it hits me in at least three different sweet spots. It's definitely not a perfect book — in fact, if someone wanted to claim (as I suspect you might) that this is the worst of the seven Foundation books, I couldn't really argue — but that doesn't change the fact that it's the perfect book for me.
I will say one thing in immediate defense of Foundation and Earth: It does a much, much better job than Foundation's Edge did in the characterization of Trevize. To put it bluntly, Golan was a bit of an insufferable prick in Foundation's Edge, and here we find him considerably mellowed, and his quick temper is far more understandable when one remembers the entire fate of the galaxy now rests upon his shoulders, as opposed to his just being sort of generally pissed off at being exiled. Bliss, on the other hand, suffers a bit here, which is hardly surprising when one considers her entire purpose is to prove why the collective consciousness of Gaia is preferable to the individuality of the rest of the universe — in other words, why she rules and we suck (I'm paraphrasing). Bliss and Trevize's bickering in the earlier segments of the book — and her weirdly judgmental stance on his sex life — isn't a ton of fun to read, and that's problematic when so much of the book is just the three main characters hanging out on their spaceship. Still, I'd say their company is overall more pleasant here than it was in Foundation's Edge.
So then, is there anything in particular worth discussing about the Gaia or Comporellon segments — admittedly, that sex scene really does kinda have to be read to be believed — or should we head straight into the heart of the search?
JW: Oh, before we get too far into it, I feel like I should share my own first experience with Foundation and Earth, since it's markedly different from your own.
I can't remember exactly how old I was when I first encountered the Foundation series, but it was when there was still a B.Dalton in Fargo and no B&N, because I recall precisely where I was standing, and the sense of excitement that came over me, when I discovered such a set of books even existed. Up till then, the name Isaac Asimov meant robots to me, and that was about it. (I knew his creations had partially inspired my favorite TNG character, Lt. Cmdr. Data.) But this...this was truly epic.
So I guzzled down the original trilogy, and then Foundation's Edge. And I don't know if it was some weird decision on the part of the publisher or if I got fed misinformation (and, of course, had no Internet to correct it), but I believe that although those four books were in print, and so were Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation, Foundation and Earth was not. I just know I couldn't find it at the bookstore, and that when I couldn't find something it was my habit to ask them to order it, and that for some reason they couldn't and ultimately I was forced to hunt down a used copy. I might have actually even skipped ahead and read the next two while I was — like Trevize and Pelorat and Bliss — searching for Earth.
Anyway, I found it and...well, let me just say I would agree that you probably like it way, way more than you should. I mean, I will qualify that statement by noting that Asimov is like pizza and sex: Even when he's bad, he's still good. And I hope you and our readers will keep that qualification in mind, as well as all the praise we've lavished on him over the last few days, and not get too upset if I vent a little about my problems with this book.
My chief issue is that man, he asks a lot of us as readers, as far as suspending our disbelief goes. This isn't new — from Foundation on, we've had to buy into a Galactic Empire of 25 million planets that somehow coheres in some kind of organized fashion, and the idea that the right math can reasonably accurately predict the movement of so many variables so many years in the future.
And that is OK; I do buy that stuff. I buy it because not just because Asimov's writing as a 21-year-old is arguably more vital than his writing as a sixtysomething (although that helps), but because, as we've said so many times, the ideas raised by these assumptions are so interesting. And even unto Foundation's Edge, there's still a goodly amount of worthwhile brain-fruit to be picked.
But jeez — Foundation and Earth is the point in the series where, as far as I'm concerned, the strength of the ideas no longer justifies the redonkulous backstory. Again: 25 million planets; still wish he'd gone with the still outrageous but conceivably manageable 250,000. And then all the clues about Earth: All of humanity still observes a 24-hour day, even though it's not quite standard on any other planet. (The logistical problems of that alone leap up and shake you furiously by the shoulders, screaming, if you stop to consider it for even a second.) Remnants of not just English but ancient Earth languages like Homer's Greek persist, and scholars can translate them but have no idea what their sources are. Just the idea alone that everyone has forgotten or put Earth out of their minds — the birthplace of the species! — and that only a few eccentrics like Pelorat care to study it! Well, Asimov papers over all those holes as best he can, making Earth the subject of strict religious taboo or invoking psychic alteration of curious minds or sabotage of archival records — but "papers over" is indeed the accurate way to say it, I think.
And then the issue of robots. So, of all humanity's technological achievements, in Asimov's future we will have cigarettes (lots of cigarettes, at least in the original trilogy), and we will have briefcases, and we will have spacecraft, and we will for some reason bring back imperial monarchy — but after we have one big fight over robots, and even after we have forgotten about the fight, we will never think of building machines that look like people again? Man, the story of the golem goes back so far; so does the myth of Galatea. Even in my callow youth, I couldn't quite believe — much as I wanted to, out of respect for the legendary master of science fiction — that we would so easily let go of an idea that stems from such basic human impulses: narcissism and the urge to create. (It's such a solvable problem, too: Just make the pre-Empire robots unique because of U.S. Robots' patented positronic brains, and have them not exist anymore. And then have really stupid robots used largely for brute labor in the Foundation's time, and myths that a "smarter, more noble sort once served all humankind.")
Like I said, this is all forgivable; the story is still entertaining enough. But it's not as forgivable as in past books, because rather than giving us the intriguing concepts he once did, here Asimov is testing our patience largely just so he can indulge in the knitting-together of his mythos.
I do totally agree with you that our characters are a lot more enjoyable to be with than in Edge. It seems like an example of that phenomenon where fictional constructs take on a life of their own — it just seems like Trevize and Pelorat are more comfortable with each other, now. That does produce the mild tension with Bliss; Trevize seems mildly jealous of her relationship with the old man. But it all rings pretty true to what life probably would be like among three folks on a small spacecraft when two were good friends and two were romantically involved. (Part of the reason Bliss comes off a little badly is that she has to be insistent about making some dumb decisions, just so that later Trevize can be all, "Oh, some nigh-omniscient mass-mind superorganism you are." I assume this was Asimov demonstrating his own discomfort with the disappearance of individuality that would come with absorption into Gaia. And I think Trevize is more relaxed because whereas in Edge, he was up against an unknown threat, and felt like a pawn in a game whose players he couldn't see, now he just has the comparatively simple task of locating Earth. And how hard could that be, when he's already uncovered one mystery planet?)
On to the heart of the search!
AW: Since Asimov's larger backstory is so important to Foundation and Earth, I think it's worth saying one more word about it before moving on to the story itself. Part of what makes this fictional universe so difficult to swallow is its scope — you mention the 25 million planets, which I must admit has never particularly bothered me, but there's also the fact that these stories take place 20,000 years in the future. That's an unimaginable historical distance — after all, if we use the traditional definition that history begins with the invention of writing, it's at least three to four times the length of all recorded human history. Hell, even the Galactic Empire, which lasted 12,000 years, comfortably extends far past the entire breadth of our current recorded history. And yet that's still been more than enough time for civilizations to rise and fall and be forgotten, for languages to go extinct and entire systems of writing to become unintelligible, for shockingly advanced forms of technology to fall into disuse and requires millennia to be independently reintroduced. The Indus Valley civilization of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro is a good example of this — in particular, their urban planning was of such high quality that it arguably wasn't equaled until the Romans came along, some two to three thousand years later.
There are similar historical comparisons for some of the other objections you raise. The idea of a 24-hour standard day, I think, is just meant as the baseline against which other planets measure their time — so this forgotten standard is useful for converting to the day lengths of other worlds, but otherwise I imagine the Terminans or Trantorians just count time in terms of their own natural day. It's a bit like time zones, I think, and the idea that the actual origin of this "standard" day is no longer known doesn't seem impossible to me — after all, we don't really have any solid idea why a foot is that specific unit of distance, or why it should be divided into twelve inches. Dead languages can be preserved in completely unrelated languages — look at all the Latin and ancient Greek that lives on in English, which we can assume is what ultimately evolved into Galactic Standard. And it's remarkable what linguistics can actually do, as we have even reconstructed a few fragments of the proto-Indo-European language spoken roughly six thousand years ago, before it diverged into the various languages that now dominate Europe and Central Asia.
Then there's the idea that all of humanity would forget their planet of origin. I wonder...is that really so different from humanity forgetting what part of this planet it originated on? We have our own "origin question," and it's only in the last two hundred years or so that science has taken the question seriously and been able to trace our beginnings back to eastern Africa. But for tens, if not hundreds of thousands of years, that knowledge was lost, and there's no real reason to think that the mystery mattered much to our ancestors. One might even compare the galaxywide phenomenon that every planet claimed to be one of the oldest with our own regional tendency to claim particular importance in humanity's origins, as typified by the Piltdown Man hoax. And, for the sake of comparison, it must be said that the task of tracing our origins was a far easier task than the one faced by Trevize and Pelorat — after all, we just had to scour a single planet, while they have an entire galaxy to search.
Is any of this truly comparable to what we see in Foundation and Earth? Honestly, I'm not sure. The question, I think, is whether we now live in a fundamentally different world, whether our more modern sensibilities and technologies mean that information, once found, can never be lost without some sort of cataclysmic event that flings society back to a pre-modern point. Asimov does not include that in his mythos — history and the progression of technology are presented as essentially continuous, with the notable exception of the robotic blind alley. The idea that humanity could forget — whether by choice or simply by the accumulation of time and distance — things as fundamental as its own history or the technology of robotics doesn't seem to sit well with many people...after all, that's a key objection many raised to the Battlestar Galactica finale. Personally, I do find it convincing that 20,000 years and the colonization of an entire galaxy is enough time and distance for humans to lose such crucial memories, but then I am rather dreadfully biased, and I am able to bring a lot of specialized knowledge to the subject that most readers probably can't, and it must be said that Asimov doesn't go nearly into the same sort of detail explaining these concepts that I just did. Still, I thought all this might be a rather more useful brief for the defense than simply saying, "Aw, yeah, but c'mon! It's awesome!" Although I stand by that argument as well.
Anyway, leaving that aside, let's get into the search. Once we leave Comporellon, we visit three of the former Spacer worlds: Aurora, Solaria, and Melpomenia, the first two of which were heavily featured in the Elijah Baley robot novels. Aurora and Melpomenia don't honestly give us much to talk about. The first is now inhabited only by vicious, feral dogs, and 20,000 years of weather and erosion have destroyed any usable records. The third Spacer world has lost most of its atmosphere due to failed terraforming after humans disappeared, which has allowed records to survive far longer than they otherwise might. Trevize, Pelorat, and Bliss discover a building called the Hall of Worlds, which features a giant plaque with all the Spacer coordinates on them, which finally gives them a chance at finding Earth by looking for a solar system at the center of all these coordinates...as long as they can get rid of some rather nasty, dangerous moss that is slowly taking over the planet. As a lover of history and archaeology, I enjoy the points these sections raise about the difficulty of reconstructing long-lost history, and they're mildly interesting as test cases for Bliss's idea that worlds left to languish in isolation will fall into a state of primal savagery, but I don't honestly think they have much more to recommend them.
But that still leaves the middle planet of Solaria, and that turns out to be something else altogether. You see, Solaria is still inhabited by humans...if you can call them that. After having all the Solarians mysteriously disappear in the final Elijah Baley book, Robots and Empire, Asimov brings them back twenty millennia later as genetically engineered hermaphrodites who use special lobes in their brains to gather the energy that runs their fully roboticized estates. (It's OK if you need to read that again.) When they were introduced back in The Naked Sun, the Solarians were already pathological loners, obsessed with never coming into physical contact with their fellow humans except for reproductive purposes — and now that they can reproduce asexually, they've solved even that problem.
Our heroes meet Sarton Bander, the master of one of the planet's 1,200 estates — and thus one of the planet's only 1,200 people — who might be centuries old, speaks perfect Galactic just from listening to a few hyperspatial communications, and is able to move objects with his — sorry, its — mind. I believe Bander is what you might call a posthuman, and he's a particularly interesting creation for an author like Asimov, who always struggled to pull his characters' speech patterns and sensibilities out of the 20th century, not to mention his aversion to aliens. There are few things in the entire Asimov corpus that I find quite as unsettling as this particular vision for humanity, one that has cast aside any need for society and companionship by fundamentally altering what it means to be human, one that is perfectly content to wait out the inevitable death of all "half-humans" and then spread out at last, each Solarian taking an entire planet for its own. That, if nothing else, is one hell of an idea...and one idea of hell.
JW: OK, OK, I can dig what you're saying about the standard day and the dead languages and the origin question (I am still on the plausibility of the backstory for just one more moment). But the reason I'm stuck on the 25 million planets is that the vast bulk of characters and cultures in the Foundation stories are pretty much exactly like us psychologically, sociologically, and even technologically. I mean that last one: Most of the sci-fi technologies of the Foundation stories are just amped-up analogues of things we actually have: spaceships instead of boats, blasters instead of guns, Psychic Probes and neuronic whips instead of enhanced interrogation techniques. There is, we know, no artificial intelligence, and with the sole exception of Trevize's ship (the most advanced piece of technology in the whole series), the computers we hear about are less powerful than ours. (There is the Second Foundation's Prime Radiant, which is the most remarkable technology in the series; but it is basically a magic item.)
Now, I'm not saying, "Oh, Asimov should have predicted the future better." I'm just saying that I believe when you get to the scale of a 25 million-planet empire, your society and even your people look perceptibly different from us. There will necessarily be different technologies, and concurrently, different ways and scales of thinking. Of course I know that, since he couldn't predict the future, and more to the point, since he was literally reinterpreting ancient history and commenting on the present day, it made sense for Asimov to have his characters resemble us. My problem is that, while the first Foundation stories are broadly drawn enough for him to get away with that (as they're more focused on the macro-structures, if you will), the later books start to give us a much more granular vision of his universe. And at that higher resolution, the illusion becomes harder to sustain. In Foundation's Edge, it doesn't feel egregious, because we're getting a look at, say, the enigmatic Second Foundation in the highest relief to date. But in Foundation and Earth...well, our concern has shifted. Before, the fate of the galaxy hung on the outcome of the stories; here — well, it kind of does, we discover, at the very end, but mainly we're visiting a whole bunch of worlds because Trevize has an itch to scratch.
All that said, I will end my bitching here, because you know what? I still buy it. Asimov does strain my sense of belief from Foundation and Earth on, but at the same time, when I step back and envision the universe he created, it nevertheless all hangs together in my head. And it is awesome.
The two things that stuck in my head between my first reading of Earth and this one were, first, yep, that sex scene on Comporellon with Minister Mitza Lizalor:
"He had guessed, correctly, that Lizalor, given her physical size and strength, her political power, her contempt for the Comporellian men she had encountered, her mingled horror and fascination with tales (what had she heard? Trevize wondered) of the sexual feats of the decadents of Terminus, would want to be dominated."
Just reading that forces into my mind's eye an image of Asimov — sexual animal that he was — pinning a proud, beautiful woman down on the bed in some midcentury New York City apartment, muttonchops all abristle. Which is why, yes, let's move on to the second thing that stuck with me: Sarton Bander.
"Unsettling" is right. The dogs on Aurora and moss on Melpomenia do help validate Bliss's theory that interdependency is necessary for a healthy galaxy, but she goes so far as to compare Solaria to a cancer — and it's tough to disagree with her. There's a story in Dangerous Visions by David R. Bunch called "Incident in Moderan," about a gleefully cold-blooded man-machine in near perpetual war with his distant neighbors, and it strikes many of the same ugly notes as Bander: These are creatures with whom there is no communication barrier, per se, and who are highly intelligent, but who refuse to be reasoned with. And they don't even have the excuse of being members of a hivemind! They're individuals who completely understand other life-forms' desire to live — but they actively do not care about it.
That is a creepy kind of evil — by my definition, as evil as you can get. Even Sauron was motivated by wicked passions, by feelings we can empathize with. But the Solarians would wipe out growth and change of every kind — sympathy with Bander is a rejection of what it fundamentally means to be human, even to be alive.
AW: I see we're committed to running two concurrent discussions here, as I also can't quite yet leave aside the backstory. Your point about the 25 million worlds is well taken, and of course the main way Asimov gets around it is by restricting the focus of his stories. Terminus is close to the sole setting of the original books, and the prequels restrict things to Trantor, which I think slightly eases the lack of variety problem. It's possible there are worlds out there that are very, very different from the two main examples we're presented with — and yeah, it's probably to Asimov's detriment that he didn't leave quite so many of these flaws to the imaginations of his apologists — but overall, I readily concede your point. I guess I've just never really focused on these aspects because the historical and archaeological elements that are so crucial to Foundation and Earth and the two prequels fascinate me so much.
Anyway, back to the story. Though I will never quite forgive you for putting that image of Asimov in my head, you redeem yourself nicely by really nailing what's so terrifying about Bander. What's also so disquieting is that Bander is convinced that he/she/it is an easygoing creature and actually being quite reasonable to these little half-humans — that it's really the other Solarians who force Bander to kill the humans. Bander's evil is just so casual and unmotivated, and Bander is so unwilling to take any responsibility — it's the other Solarians who require this action, and besides, the half-humans vacated any right to survival when they approached Solaria in the first place. I wish Asimov had had the opportunity to develop the Solarians further, because I think that Bander probably represents his most objectively interesting creation in Foundation and Earth, and one of his more successful late-period creations overall.
In order to save their lives from Bander, Bliss is forced to kill the Solarian, which kinda puts to rest the mild ambiguity from Foundation's Edge about whether Bliss is a robot (a point in which Asimov never seemed all that interested anyway, perhaps because it didn't affect the quality of Bliss's ass). As they escape Bander's vast underground estate, they come across Bander's child and eventual heir, Fallom, who they quickly realize will be killed by older Solarians who seek to add the Bander estate to their own holdings. They take Fallom with them, and they only narrowly escape a band of humanoid robots sent to investigate (a scene I found particularly thrilling and even cinematic, although I can't quite put my finger on why).
As we mentioned earlier, they next visit Melpomenia, where they get enough coordinates to figure out where Earth must logically be. They also discover another nearby star, which we recognize as Alpha Centauri, and it happens to have its own inhabited planet around it. Uncertain about the true threat of Earth, Trevize decides to visit Alpha first, which turns out to be an almost completely ocean-covered world with one relatively small island perched on it, the result of some rather lackadaisical terraforming. The Alphans, who quite promisingly call their world New Earth, are an apparently primitive people who are perfectly content to live on subsistence agriculture and fishing. Oh, and all the women are topless, because of course they are. This gives Asimov yet another opportunity to describe the female form, which I will say I think he does a slightly better job of here than with Bliss's behind or Lizalor's...everything. Still, we're only talking about a jump from actively embarrassing to clumsily workmanlike, so I'm not exactly going to bat for him on this one.
Again, we get some nice cultural touches even beyond all the toplessness. On the bright side, the Alphans keep the musical traditions of our own time alive, playing actual instruments instead of computers. (This, by the way, might be the most terrifying part of Asimov's entire mythos — imagine a universe dominated exclusively by synthesizers!) On the slightly less positive side, the Alphans are rabidly xenophobic and have control of an incredibly deadly virus that they use to keep any unwelcome outsiders from revealing their secrets to the wider universe. Trevize's lover (and infector) reveals the horrific truth to him, and our heroes once again flee. In a bit of neat storytelling, Asimov suggests that the Alphan woman saved their lives in part because of the beautiful flute playing by the Solarian child Fallom...although, in a move very much in keeping with latter-day Asimov, it's also made pretty clear that Trevize's raw sexual charisma played a crucial part as well.
JW: If we're lucky, someday some enterprising soul will treat us to some Golan Trevize slashfic. ("He had guessed, correctly, that the Hamishman would want him to dress up in the shiny black polymer costume.") In fact, I might work on it after I finish my unauthorized Story of Zero, in which robopsychologist Susan Calvin demonstrates to a mechanical man that humanity as a whole will come to harm if he can't manage to override his programming and spank her. Anyway...
(As for Bliss, the question of her robothood does get put to rest in this book. But her killing of Bander raises an interesting point: How human do you have to be, to be safe from a robot? Could a Solarian be so "evolved" beyond Homo sapiens as we know it that a robot thinks it's OK to kill it? And how does a robot check, anyway? Can you trick a robot into thinking a real human is actually another robot in disguise? What if a human had her brain implanted in a mechanical body? Could a robot hurt her? These are the things that keep me awake at night.)
One of the fun things about Foundation and Earth is all the factoids scattered throughout. Like, who knew binary stars were really common? OK, probably many, many people. But I didn't, and I will happily grant that one of the benefits of Asimov tightening his focus is that he occasionally tells us actual things about our universe. Like, he's careful to mention how Trevize's gravitic ship gives its passengers no sense that they're moving, since the engines are silent and everything accelerates at the same rate. That's fairly mundane if you already have a working knowledge of physics, sure; but if you're a kid who'd rather be reading SF than doing your science homework, it paints a vivid, immediate picture. And then there's a passage from the opening of Chapter 17. Trevize is speaking:
"On the other hand if the binaries are reasonably separate, there can be planets in stable orbits about each, if they are close enough to one of the other of the stars. These two stars, according to the computer's data bank, have an average separation of 3.5 billion kilometers and even at periastron, when they are closest together, are about 1.7 billion kilometers apart. A planet in an orbit of less than 200 million kilometers from either star would be stably situated, but there can be no planet with a larger orbit. That means no gas giants since they would have to be farther away from a star, but what's the difference? Gas giants aren't habitable anyway."
Not exactly gripping stuff, and certainly not breathtaking prose, but you can sense Asimov having fun here, in his element. It is interesting that he is probably the SF author best known for his science writing, too, but that the science in his stories doesn't usually poke through very noticeably. It's there — like, The Gods Themselves hinges on it, and it can be pretty blatant, like in his short "Darwinian Pool Room" — but even in a story like "Nightfall," the focus is much more on the people involved than is the case in, say, Ringworld or Arthur C. Clarke's Hugo winners, or Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars books. I mean, the high concentration of science in those stories actually tends to be the exception, even though the genre is called "science fiction," so it's not like Asimov is a big outlier. It's just that, given his capacity for geekery, the fact that he didn't indulge it more obviously stands out.
Or maybe you disagree! Anyway, I enjoy watching him reverse-engineer the solution to discovering Earth if you're coming from the center of the galaxy. (And I am fascinated by the fact that the moon is an unusually large satellite, proportional to Earth's size. Is that still true, or has someone found a bunch of Earth-size planets with big moons since the early '80s now?) The Alpha Centauri trip is a nice touch, too, because it's one of those moments where real life plays perfectly into the hands of fiction: Pelorat is sure, when he hears the system is marked "Alpha," that it must be Earth, because that's an ancient word meaning "first" or "beginning." Whoops! Can't blame him for getting so excited.
You're right about the music, and I will beat my dead horse just a moment longer to note that this is one more place where Asimov's mythos rings false to me: Why would all of humanity forget how to use real instruments? Really, Isaac? Really? It's just such a silly detail, one that rings of Golden Age visions of the future, where everything is done with electric power simply because it's shiny. OK, sorry, will move on foreal. The flute scene does, though, give us a glimpse of the human side of Fallom (or "half-human side," as Bander would say); I don't think enough of one to mitigate the weirdness of this book's ending, but it's there.
And the time-delayed infection that the New Earthers afflict our heroes with gives Bliss a chance to save face after criticizing Trevize so many times, and being wrong each time. Unlike on Aurora, when she mocked him for bringing weapons on the exploration and then had to eat her words after his neuronic whip saved them, on Alpha she's warning Trevize that she doesn't trust his new topless girlfriend just moments before the new topless girlfriend shows up to say, "Uh, yeah. We're trying to kill you." Point, Bliss.
AW: I'm right there with you on how Asimov weaves scientific facts into the larger story, and it's never better than when our heroes are on their final approach to Earth. For people who know some basic astronomy, the whole bit about Alpha (né Centauri) is going to be a big tip-off that they're on the right track. And pretty much anyone can jump on board the big reveals of Saturn and its unique ring system, and then of Earth and its impossibly large moon. I can't help thinking of certain scenes and set pieces in Foundation and Earth in cinematic terms — which shows just how decayed my imagination really is, I suppose — and that first image of Saturn, that first recognition that their knowledge and our knowledge are intersecting and we know exactly where they are...well, it's pretty mind-blowing. I can just imagine watching a Foundation and Earth movie, and that first moment when Saturn homes into view on the screen. I agree that a Foundation movie is best left unmade, but I would love to see that moment.
In any event, the whole thing is a beautiful reminder of just how amazing our own little corner of the universe is, and one of his most elegant meldings of science fiction with science fact. It's a small sliver of what is otherwise a fun but unremarkable book, to be sure, but I'd put the Far Star's final approach to Earth up there with anything else Asimov wrote. It's few and far between, but I do think the Good Doctor was occasionally able to rekindle some of the old magic in his later works, and this is one of those times.
But we must put that to one side now, because we need to discuss the ending. (Massive spoilers coming up, even by comparison to everything else we've discussed in this and the previous posts.) You see, Earth really is radioactive and completely uninhabitable, proving the worst of the old legends true. After a few days of sulking and having a minor mental breakdown, Trevize finally realizes that this impossibly large moon could be considered a world unto itself, and Bliss detects the presence of a mind unlike any she has ever seen before. So they head to the moon, where they meet...
R. Daneel Olivaw, the robotic hero of The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, The Robots of Dawn, and Robots and Empire. Daneel is 20,000 years old, has the ability to alter minds just like the Mule and the Gaians, and is the hidden manipulator behind practically everything that has happened in this book, not to mention about half the other things in the Asimov mythos. Oh, and Daneel is now on his fifth positronic brain, which is failing fast, and his only way to stave off death for another few centuries so that he can see Gaia/Galaxia through to completion will be to merge minds with a human...or, in this particular case, the Solarian Fallom. Some of these developments are hinted at in Robots and Empire, which Asimov wrote immediately before Foundation and Earth — honestly, there's a good argument that one should read Foundation's Edge and Foundation and Earth with the two new robot books in between, but we're here now — but yeah...I have no idea what a casual reader would make of all this, or what value they could really derive from it. Hell, I'm pretty sure that even long-term Asimov fans saw this as less a triumphal return and more something out of the Phantom Menace school of non-creativity.
But I have to say, as somebody whose life has already been very deeply touched by Asimov's writings, that this scene means a lot to me. Perhaps it's because we now live in a world where popular fiction is thought of somewhat differently, a world where giant superhero movies aren't just spectacles in and of themselves but preludes for an even bigger superhero movie down the line, a world where an era of Doctor Who can't end without individually revisiting every semi-major character who appeared in it. In that sort of pop culture context, it isn't just possible that Daneel would be hobnobbing with Foundationers, it's practically required. I can totally see why people would see this development as gratuitous and silly, but for me? Honestly, the whole thing brings a bit of a tear to my eye, particularly when Daneel talks about Elijah Baley and all he did for humanity after all this time. Yes, I probably need to get out more often.
Of course, I'm dancing around the real, real ending, in which Trevize finally figures out why he chose Galaxia. You see, there was a hidden assumption in psychohistory all this time, and that's that humans are the only intelligent form of life in the universe. And yes, that might be true for our home galaxy — although robots, Gaia, and Solarians certainly stretch the point — but there are other galaxies out there, and any one of them might be the home of incomprehensible aliens who could stream through at any moment and invade. Asimov leaves us with this little speech from Trevize:
"In all human history, no other intelligence has impinged on us, to our knowledge. This need only continue a few more centuries, perhaps a little more than one ten thousandth of the time civilization has already existed, and we will be safe. After all," and here Trevize felt a sudden twinge of trouble, which he forced himself to disregard, "it is not as though we had the enemy already here among us."
And he did not look down to meet the brooding eyes of Fallom — hermaphroditic, transductive, different — as they rested unfathomably, on him.
And that's where the book ends, with the only corner Asimov could never find a way to write himself out of. It's an ending so difficult that Asimov fled back over 500 years just to find an easier topic for his final two Foundation books, leaving us to wonder just where he could have possibly gone next. So, on that note...thoughts?
JW: Not too much else to say, really, except that I wonder if that ending bothered Asimov as much as it does me. I mean, I am tempted to describe it as "startlingly artful" or something like that. But it has always felt to me more like he was tired of writing the damn book, perhaps even tired of the whole series at this point, and, with so many words already committed to paper, just ready to have our heroes meet Olivaw and be done with it.
I think this is a valid gripe. Those four sentences you just quoted, after all, are truly THE END of one of the most popular science-fiction series of all time (unless there's a chronologically later story in Foundation's Friends, but even then, its canonicity is questionable), and they just...hang there. It's an odd way to cap off a set of stories that, to a one, otherwise hinge on neat resolution of the mysteries at their core. And sure, you could argue that, well, that's what makes it so cool — that the ending actually reflects Asimov's universe on the verge of turning into something beyond his, or our, understanding. But even if I agree, that doesn't mean I have to like it. It's just a very dark, insidious note on which to close a series that champions humanity's drive to thrive.
As in other places, I wish I knew what had been going on in Asimov's mind when he wrote the end of Foundation and Earth. Did he harbor any hope of revisiting the universe after Trevize's time? It doesn't seem like it. As you say, he basically wrote himself into a corner — he couldn't do Foundation stories anymore that had any heft; even if the two Foundations thought they were in charge of their destinies, we as readers would know they weren't. But a story about Gaia/Galaxia would be an entirely different creature, as it were, and the sort of project I can imagine him not having any interest in at that stage of his life.
Further, I can't really see him writing the ending much differently, not without a lot of reworking, which, again, he was probably not inclined to do at that point in his fiction career. A triumphal return to Terminus? That would hardly make sense, and it would probably just feel like an annoyingly long denouement. So where to go?
I can think of only one possibility — and forgive me, I know this is waaaaay self-indulgent: me, Josh Wimmer, unknown blogger, suggesting how Grand Master of Science Fiction Isaac Asimov might have concluded his magnum opus, the Foundation series. But hey, if one can't indulge in outlandish thought experiments on an unconventional SF blog, where can one?
Given Bliss's hyperspatial connection to Gaia and the unlimited possibilities offered by Olivaw as a deus ex machina with tens of millennia to devote to any problem, I can vaguely envision a short section at the end of the book, in which our heroes go on a mission to the surface of ruined Earth itself...for the purpose of rejuvenating it. You know, like, Olivaw has had robots hard at work trying to clean the planet up for thousands of years, and they've brought the radiation down to an acceptable level. But they can't do any more than that. They need Gaia to mindfully invigorate some biological processes, even just by using the microbes the travelers have brought with them. And hey, even Fallom can help, by using her transducers to magnify and accelerate Bliss's abilities!
It would have taken a little rewriting, but I think it could have been done, and it would have been a magnificent enough feat to merit the last few pages of the series. It would have provided a sense of macro-structure, too, echoing the careful design we see in so many Foundation stories, with Terminus (in the form of Trevize and Pelorat) "saving" humanity in the grandest way imaginable, by restoring its first home to life. And I think the doubts about Fallom and the future could still have made it in there.
AW: While we may be traipsing a bit into fan-fiction territory here — although after devoting 25 million words (rough estimate) to the Foundation series, I think we've earned it — I actually quite like your idea. I'm not sure it's quite in keeping with Asimov's style, but at least it offers a hopeful, thematically resonant note for the series to end on. It does seem like a pretty basic problem of this book that, after devoting so much time to talking about Earth and even putting it in the title, Earth itself barely figures in the book at all. If it were called Foundation and Robots, the ending might feel a little more organic (pardon the possible pun), but as it is? Yeah, I'm a bit bummed that we don't actually get any real Earth content out of this, and it's pretty bleak to hear our home planet is irretrievably dead. I'll also say this — your idea is way more sane than my plan, which involves a trilogy featuring time travel, aliens, archaeology, parallel universes, and every Asimov character ever coming together for one big climactic discussion in a comfortable room. Call me, Asimov estate!
Sadly, I think we're at a point in Asimov's life that is not well documented, certainly not compared with the huge amount of ink that Asimov devoted to chronicling his earlier years. I read on one site (unsourced, naturally) that Asimov wanted to make the Solarians the big bads of a sequel book, which could have been interesting, even if I have no clue how he would have pulled that off. Foundation's Edge pretty much made the Foundations irrelevant to the affairs of Gaia, so that potential line of conflict seems dried up. The only other option, I guess, would have been to do a full-on intergalactic alien invasion. Which would have been totally badass, but also a massive departure from Asimov's oeuvre.
I do have to agree your gripe is valid, and that the end of Foundation and Earth — however good the rest of the book is, which of course we've got rather different opinions about — is indeed a down note to end such a great saga, particularly one that so thoroughly champions humanity. The only good news, I guess, is that this is not quite the end, and that perhaps the two prequels can offer a more fitting conclusion to this story. So let's head back in time and talk Prelude to Foundation, shall we?
"Blogging the Hugos" is a series examining the Hugo Award–winning novels in (more or less) chronological order. Coming tomorrow: Prelude to Foundation, by Isaac Asimov, from 1988 — which didn't win a Hugo but which has a whole bunch of close relatives that did. Subscribe to the RSS feed and follow @blogginghugos on Twitter for updates.
Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. Alasdair Wilkins lives in Los Angeles and is a reporter for io9.