Sunday, September 13, 2015

Isaac Asimov's Foundation

I spent much of the week at a meeting in Tasmania. On the last day I had time to browse a book store and finally bought the first Foundation novel after I had only found sequels and prequels at the local book fair so far.

It is not so much a novel as a compendium of several shorter stories, each with their own characters and representing several stages of the development of the eponymous Foundation. I have written before about some of the other books in the series (Foundation and Empire, Foundation's Edge). Although my observations on this book are similar to those on the later ones, somehow it doesn't feel quite as blatant.

Misogyny, for example. I wrote then that Foundation and Empire annoyed me a bit with its treatment of the major female character. Well, Foundation itself has virtually no female characters, so one can't see them mistreated. Really there is only one, she has few lines, and she is something like an aristocrat and thus wields some influence while forced into an arranged marriage. That seems plausible and defensible enough.

The only other women I remember in the whole book are not characters but types: receptionist at government office and Korrellian peasant girl, and they each only appear in one scene. It is assumed as a matter of course that 100% of all scientists, politicians, soldiers, priests and traders in any existing human society are male, and in the case of the scientists it is made explicit: there are the scientists working on the Encyclopedia Galactica, and then there are "their women and children". As indicated above, Asimov later got better about this as society changed, at one point allowing even the leader of the Foundation to be a woman, but then his descriptions and treatment of female characters started to appear a bit creepy.

This is all merely part of a bigger problem, which is that Asimov's vision of the future was remarkably unimaginative. It is basically the US-American society of the early 1950ies or so transplanted one to one into space. There is a meeting, people offer each other cigars. There are scientists, administrators, politicians, police, all precisely as today, or if a society has regressed then perhaps politicians like in the Middle Ages. In later books, it becomes clear that ten thousand years in the future there are still the same human 'races' as today.

It is as if Asimov could really not imagine anything changing except that instead of aeroplanes future humans would use spaceships, instead of projectile guns they would use atomic blasters, and instead of fossil fuels they would use nuclear power. That's it. No physical changes to humans, no mixing of the 'races'. No evolution of society (compare ethics and administrative structures of 8,000 BCE to those of today to get a feeling for how odd that really is). Nobody offering a guest Draal Tea or a taste of the Gobun Pipe or whatever; it has to be a cigarette. No curiosity whatsoever about how life on other planets might have evolved and look like - it is never even mentioned or described.

But of course all that wasn't the point. Where other Science Fiction authors and directors may take one contemporary trend and explore what the future might become if it was realised and/or taken to its extreme (world peace and complete equality, eugenics, trying to predict if somebody will become a criminal in the future, terraforming), Asimov was apparently writing a parable on the fall of the Roman Empire and to promote his own understanding of history and sociology: individual people, even great leaders, can do little when great socioeconomic forces are at play, and the very solution that solved a crisis may cause the next crisis thirty years later. (In the case of the Foundation, both religion and a plutocratic trade empire are important steps towards strengthening the growing state only to ossify and threaten its very existence at a later time.)

It is not that I don't agree with these messages (although I do disagree with what appears to be his view of what causes a society to stagnate and collapse). It is just that this scenario of "exactly as in the early 1950ies, only with a few people saying 'atomic' from time to time" make for less interesting Science Fiction than the works of authors who dare to imagine major cultural, societal, governmental, technological and biological alternatives. At least in my opinion.

No comments:

Post a Comment