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Book Review – The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

I pulled this dusty relic off my shelves a few days ago because I needed something I knew I would like, and it had been several years since I last read it.

The three novels in this collection were written before I was born. I bought my first copies as paperbacks about fifteen years later. I no longer have them. All my childhood paperbacks were abandoned along with my common sense and virginity when I left home to try to make it on my own. The copy on my bookshelves is a replacement — for the books, that is. Common sense returned slowly on its own and the other thing is lost forever and not something I really wanted to hold onto anyway.

The edition I currently have was printed about thirty years after the original copyright date. It has now been about sixty years since the stories were first published, and they are still in print and available in several editions. That’s staying power for a science fiction story. It has survived when others in this genre have not. The reason for this is simple. It’s a damn good story.

You’re probably familiar with it. It is the story of the Foundation. Some may say it’s about Hari Seldon, but it’s not. Seldon is the psycho-historian who foresees the collapse of the Galactic Empire, but the main character in these books is not a person. The main character is the organization that Seldon establishes to minimize the amount of time humanity will exist in a relative state of barbarism due to the decline and fall of the Empire. It is the Foundation that we care about when we read these books, and it is the Foundation that we hope will prevail.

There are spaceships and whiz-bang gadgets, but this is primarily a tale of human psychology and history, a story about human behavior, about humans being human in ways humans have always been human before. This means that, at the macro level, their behavior is theoretically predictable.

In the parlance of science fiction subgenres, this story would probably be considered ‘soft’ science fiction because the ‘hard’ sciences are not the focus of the ‘science’ part of the story except in how the ‘hard’ science of mathematics is applied to the ‘soft’ sciences of psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, and history. This is the basis of psycho-history and it is a true science in that it provides highly accurate predictions when its theorems and formulas are applied to large populations. Asimov capably conveys how immensely complex such a science would be, how susceptible it must be to anomalous factors, but he makes it believable.

This is also a ‘classic’ science fiction story in that it is positive, hopeful, and optimistic about humanity’s ability to overcome setbacks and to progress in the long run. In this respect, there is genuineness about it that is consistent with actual history. Wars happen, empires fall, dark ages come, but humanity has always gotten past these things and gone on. That’s what people do. They suffer bouts of collective temporary insanity, but they get over it. This story takes that long view and allows us to appreciate it.

The story has aged well. It remains interesting and compelling. There are places where its age shows, of course, but they do not detract from the story. There are references to microfilms and other tech that was probably futuristic when Asimov wrote this. And, like in the 1950s, everyone smokes, and there are ashtrays everywhere, although those in the books instantly vaporize any bits of trash tossed in them. In some ways, things like these add some ineffable quality to the setting that makes it more colorful. Or maybe I just think so because I remember microfilm and tapes and ashtrays.

I’m going to put this book back on my shelf now. I’ll probably dust it off in another ten years or so if it and I are still around, read it again and think, ‘that’s a damn good story.’

Book Review – The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

I thoroughly enjoyed this sequel to Old Man’s War. Jane Sagan is back in a supporting role, but this novel stars Jared Dirac, a cloned and genetically modified elite soldier in the Colonial Defense Forces’ Ghost Brigades. He is the unfortunate host for the memories of Charles Boutin, a brilliant scientist turned traitor who is helping an alien species, the Obin, in their war against the CDF.

Dirac’s inner conflict for self-identification is a central theme. Who is he? What is he? Is he truly human or just a manufactured killing machine? Is he a unique individual, or is he just a copy of Boutin? Does he have true choices? Can he decide who and what he is? Dirac explores these and other questions and, at the end, finds his answers.

This is also a story of mankind’s quest for the stars, their need to expand and diverge. But although space may be limitless, prime planets suitable for life are not, and humanity has found itself in conflict for them with a large number of alien species. This is why the CDF exists — to defend human colonies and sometimes to remove the colonies of others.

This is not just your typical ‘action packed’ military science fiction story, though. Nor is it ‘hard’ science fiction that relies significantly on whiz-bang gadgetry and prose peppered with heaps of techno-babble. There is a high-tech medical and genetic component, of course, but this novel is primarily ‘soft’ science fiction. Its focus is on the ‘soft’ sciences, such as psychology, sociology, culture, and politics. This is where the true conflict is, both within humanity and between species. There is real depth to Scalzi’s characters, and their interaction highlights some of the best and worst of humanity.

I recommend this book, but read Old Man’s War first. Then continue with The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale. That’s it in this saga for now, but I hope Scalzi will write another. If he does, I’ll read it.

Book Review – Hybrids by Robert J. Sawyer

  My Rating: 3 Stars

The third book in The Neanderthal Parallax series returns to the soft science fiction theme of two cultures colliding. This final book has a single antagonist, a racist (or would it be species-ist?) bigot who wants to take the unexploited and unpolluted Neanderthal world for Homo sapiens. Of course to do so will involve a minor case of genocide but he has the tools and he has the technology, kindly provided by the Neanderthals themselves.  Mary, the geneticist heroine from the last book, has to stop him. She is still annoying and she is still a bag of internal contradictions but her hard to understand romance with the Neanderthal, Ponter, is demoted to a major subplot rather than the main story.

I have a hard time with the Mary character because she simply does not make sense. She is described as a devout Catholic and accepts that the Pope speaks for God but she doesn’t seem to agree with Catholic doctrine on pretty much anything including divorce, homosexuality, contraception, abortion, or celibacy for clergy. So why, I kept asking myself, does this woman identify with this particular faith when, in fact, she doesn’t agree with its stand on most issues? Why does she get defensive when Ponter questions her about religion? She is supposed to be a brilliant scientist and self sufficient woman but she comes across as intellectually and emotionally weak for not asking herself these questions a long time ago given her positions on these issues.

The main scientific flaw that continues to bother me and which makes it hard to really suspend disbelief enough to go with the flow of the story is the reliance on the assumption that human consciousness, a particularly tenuous and inexact concept, emerged suddenly 40,000 years ago because of a shift it the Earth’s magnetic field. There is finally some techno-babble to explain this but it is far from compelling although the whole scientific community in these books seems to accept it as established fact.

I do like the contrast Sawyer draws between the ethically enlightened Neanderthals with the selfishly competitive Homo sapiens. This shines the light of inquiry on our species and all good soft science fiction must do that in some way. But this contrast, I think, would have been clearer and more believable if the Neanderthals were described as ethically, philosophically and even perhaps artistically more advanced while Homo sapiens retained the clear edge on technology and science. Giving the Neanderthals an arguable advantage in almost all areas made them simply too good to believe.

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