Top critical review
Good Concept, Bad Execution
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on January 9, 2014
I really did want to like this book. It has the scope of a truly grand epic - the fall of a great empire. Asimov, though, doesn't even come close to pulling it off.
The first, and in my opinion most severe, problem with the book is Asimov's writing style. I wouldn't classify this book as a novel in the normal everyday sense - it's more like a closet play. Stories are carried almost entirely on the back and forth of characters. Problems arise, are worked out, and resolved by dialogue. Now, this in and of itself isn't terrible - Goethe's Faust is a closet play, and one of the greatest books ever written.
The problem is that I'm convinced that Asimov can't actually write dialogue to save his life. His characters sound wooden, lifeless, stilted. They speak in a way that makes me think Asimov actually hadn't actually encountered a human being. On the other hand, dialogue is hard. It's deceptively difficult to write in a natural, everyday tone. But when you've chosen to make this your one and sole vehicle for the story, it's inexcusable to be bad at it.
But it isn't only a problem with style, but plotting. The characters become obvious gears in the plot-machinery until the droning, robotic back-and-forth is nothing less than a by-the-numbers plot resolution. One character knows everything, another knows nothing. Questions are asked, until finally the first character goes, "Aha!" and lays out the entire solution or situation or whatever may fit.
And there's not even any suspense in that. Another reviewer referred to the Foundation as Superman - Superman, like the Foundation, has it written into the story that he pretty much can't lose. Superman has his powers, the Foundation has psycho-history and has mathematically determined the future. I'm in total agreement with this. With one exception - and fair to say, a rather large exception - the future has been mathematically determined beforehand, and so the Foundation can never really lose. The solutions themselves (and many of the problems) are fairly contrived and uninteresting except in that glimmering half-moment before you realize that we have yet another problem that's about to be solved by the Smart Guy that Asimov has, in his wisdom, endowed with eternal victory. If you wanted to be cruel, it's almost the Geek version of Twilight - an intelligent, rational, un-characterized protagonist of the current short story who could solve any problem if people would just listen to him. An easy self-insert for the person thinking they're marginalized because of their intellect. Someone said that these characters were somewhat AynRandized, and I think that's true.
On top of all of this, we have the little details. The 1950s brought, incongruously, into a pan-galactic Empire. Women, as reviewers have also noted, are generally the subjects of casual misogyny. Cigar smoking is popular. And, most importantly, atomic everything. Atomic blasters, atomic drills, atomic starships, and so on. It's a book in the grip of the "atomic age," and it's so dated you could half-imagine little Jetson-like disks on everything. One might respond that the book is obviously dated, being more than fifty years old, but Clarke still manages to hold up in spite of everything. At one point, early in the book, it's mentioned that a nearby realm has lost the ability to produce nuclear reactors, and that its starships are running on coal. Coal. Coal-powered starships, think about that for a moment.
This underlines a number of annoying themes in the book. Technology is civilization, is one. Not "technology aids civilization," and not "technology supports civilization," but technology IS civilization. Just how an area of a pan-galactic empire forgets how to build nuclear reactors, yet somehow remembers how to make starships (what?) is a symptom of Asimov's larger view. The loss of nuclear power is directly correlated to the loss of civilization. Culture, literature, philosophy - all are nothing under the great wheel of Technology and Civilization. Even human beings, who build civilization as much as an artistic tribute to things they hold dear, are reduced to numbers in an equation. Their fates, ideas, hopes, dreams, their victories and their failures, are predicted with unspeakable accuracy. In anyone else's hands, this would've (justly) become the basis for a novel about a crushing dystopia. With Asimov, it becomes the source for heroism and the Good Cause.
That, in and of itself, explains a lot, I think. Science and Technology (upper case, as enthroned abstracts as much as anything else) are king. They can solve any problem that comes their way, can reduce the world to bits of data and produce pure, unsullied-by-reality results. My skepticism about this isn't meant to impugn science or the scientific method, but the twisted idea of it that seemed to be adopted by a rather large number of people (many of whom entered the Science Fiction field), the idea of bending the world over the bar of science and using it to conquer, rather than to understand, the world. Asimov's psychohistory is the premier example of it. What do you do with the greatest variable that we know of - at times irrational and rational, swaying from cold calculation to passionate unthinking? That's simple. We can understand everything, predict the movement of the stars, it follows that we can predict the human mind! And with a snap of the fingers, we're gone. The one character that cannot be truly predicted is considered a danger and an aberration.
That's the central problem with the book. Asimov makes clear with his poor dialogue and characterization that he's not really interested in people. His tenuous grasp of history - what makes empires rise and fall - and his conception of what makes a dark age and what doesn't suggests that he doesn't really care how human beings interact, either. In some books, where the author has a great clarity of vision towards a future world, brimming with interest, this is excusable. Not with Foundation.