Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Second_Foundation_coverWell, it took me almost a decade–due mostly to lack of interest, I’ll admit, since it’s less than 600 pages of text in total–but I finally have finished Asimov’s “Foundation Trilogy.” I know there are more books in the series, but all I ever intended to read was that main, original trilogy.

I read the first book in 2002, mainly because it was among the books I’d brought over to Korea, thinking a lack of English-language books would force me to read it. But there were more English books here than I expected, and I’m a slow enough reader that by the time I’d finished The Lord of the Rings and the first Foundation novel, I’d found more books.

Well, the speed of my reading isn’t the only reason. Foundation, that first book, didn’t do much for me. Granted, I was coming to it at age 27, and with a certain foreknowledge of tropes I’m guessing were more novel when Asimov first used them, like the Encyclopedia Galactica (a concept that had become old hat in SF by the time I was born) or psychohistory (which even not having read the books, I had some idea about). When I read the second book in the series, Mule and all, I was not much more enthused despite the noticeable improvement in Asimov’s writing. (Though it still wasn’t as entertaining as I, Robot, which I read in 2005, I think it was.) And it took me until a few days ago to finish the third book, which, again, is better than the first two, but I still find myself puzzled as to why people are so crazy about it.

Well, less puzzled than I otherwise might, of course. I’ve also been reading another book lately, which I’ll likely be reviewing here sometime soon. That book is Gerard Jones’ Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, and the first few chapters in particular are pertinent. They discuss the early readership and fandom of “scientifiction” pulps, among whom ranks Asimov definitely stood. Now, it’s important to remember Jones is sympathetic when he notes that, basically, the boys who were reading Amazing and the other pulps were “nerds” before there ever was a word for this.

Jones discusses specific cultural reasons why SF might have appealed to the young men it did — for in the days of the Gernsback pulps, it really was a community of “adolescent boys” that formed around these magazines. Jones notes also that by “community” it was not just a one-way consumer fanbase, but rather a network of fans — for Gernsback included, in his magazine’s letters section, not just the name and address of fans writing in, but indeed their whole address, which allowed fans like Forrest J. Ackerman, Raymond Palmer, Jack Williamson, and A. Bertram Chandler to get in touch with one another. Jones writes:

Around scientifiction began to grow a community of readers held together by a cause and a worldview. They taught each other about the new kind of fiction, formulated critical standards, and soon began writing cruse stories themselves, hoping to see them in the pages of Amazing but usually happy just to have their read by their fellow believers. Groups of aficionados had grown up around popular fiction in the past; Weird Tales has inspired an especially communicative body of followers. But in scope and fervor there had never been anything like this.

The fans followed Gersnback faithfully: When he lost control of Amazing Stories in a financial dispite in 1929, they urged each other to go with him to his new magazine, Science Wonder Stories. When, to distinguish the new pulp from the old, he abandoned the [word] “scientifiction” in favor of “science fiction” the fans immediately followed suit. “Science fiction would be the name of their passion forevermore. When the first science fiction club met in New York that same year, its members were required to tell “what have I done for science fiction in the past month.” Within a few years the fans had coined the word “fandom” to describe their community. When enthusiasts of other fields began to pick up the term, the science fiction fans spoke, only half jokingly, of “The One True Fandom,” They were a race apart, and wanted to be…

Science fiction was the perfect invention for America in the late 1920s. The horrors of nineteenth-century industrialism and the technological hell of the world war were fading from memory. Radios, cars, and mail planes were connection people to one another as never before and giving industrial development a new and humane face. A production economy valuing thrift and the accumulation of capital was being replaced by a consumption economy based on spending and credit, self-gratification, and the marketing of the new. In 1927 Charles Lindbergh was deified for using a modern machine to conquer space all alone, and there are surely echoes of his grace and self-satisfaction in the flying man on the cover of Amazing a year later. Politicians, advertisers, and popular storytellers all sang the praises of business, invention, America, the self-indulgent individual, and the future. For the first time, Americans were beginning to view the pursuit of novelty as an act of social duty and individual heroism.

At the same time, science fiction ran sharply counter to the pragmatic character of bourgeois America, its distrust of unfettered imagination and scorn of anything overtly childish. Readers who could appreciate a futuristic device described in Hugo Gernsback’s other magazine, Science and Invention, would scoff at the same device if it defeated a Venusian machine-man in Amazing Stories. So science fiction remained a marginal form, if not unnoticed then sneered at by those immune to its thrall–particularly the athletic, social, realistic boys who saw their more oddball classmates reading these spaceman-spangled magazines alone at lunch hour. The fans responded with the arrogance of the outcast: A real debate raged through fandom in the early 1930s as to whether the fan was simply a person of specific tastes or “a superior order of human,” marked as a higher rung on the evolutionary ladder by “his vast imagination and openness to possibility.” But the outcast’s arrogance, of course, is entwined with his agony.

The early fans were overwhelmingly male, mostly middle class, mostly Anglo or Germanic or Jewish, and mostly isolated, whether by geography, personality, or physical disability, until they discovered fandom. Looking at pictures of  the early fan clubs, one sees a lot of eye-glasses and a few athletic physiques. (32-33)

Now the thing is, Asimov, like I mentioned, was an early SF fan, who learned by reading SF pulps like Amazing Stories, and so of course his SFnal imagination was almost certainly informed by the pulps he read, as well as by the psychology of fandom: one can see the ambiguity of this idea of “a superior order of human” in the positive-conspiracy narrative at the heart of the Foundation novels, of course.

The irony is that SF fandom may actually appeal to certain types of people for evolutionary reasons, though not the sort that the original generation of fans suggested. I was recently loaned a copy of a book titled The Highly Sensitive Person, by the psychologist Elaine N. Aron. The premise of that book is that there is a significant minority of people (15-20% of all people, as well as “higher animals”) who, by birth, are predisposed to being more highly sensitive to stimuli–social, sensory, emotional, and environmental–than the human average. (Here’s the wikipedia page for this theoretical condition.)

Having read some of the book, well, like with all psychology or self-help books, there are parts I feel truly apply to myself, and parts I’m not so sure about. But what’s most fascinating to me is the lengths to which Aron goes in order to suggest that HSPs (as she abbreviates Highly Sensitive Persons) should be viewed not as pathological, but as simply a different calibration within the normal range of human tendencies. The epigraph to Aron’s book, again, seems to almost eerily fit not with the Foundation/Second Foundation conspiracy of the novels, but with the underlying image of themselves that SF fans likely wanted to hold, and wanted held by others:

I believe in aristocracy, though – if that is the right word, and if a democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power… but… of the sensitive, the considerate… Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet. They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos. Thousands of them perish in obscurity, a few are great names. They are sensitive for others as well as themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure…
–E.M.Forster, “What I Believe,” in Two Cheers for Democracy

It’s positively spooky the degree to which this quote, invoked in a text that seeks to promote a positive view of HSPs, recall the phrase, “a superior order of human” from the Jones passage above.

I must admit, first and foremost, that most of my friends who happen to be lovers of SF in any form are writers, and that I almost suspect that most writers are, to some degree, likely to display at least as many of the “highly sensitive” traits as I do. (And I display a lot of them.) Further, I’d guess that probably those who favor reading, or who consume it as ardently as they do other forms, are likelier to be highly sensitive than enthusiasts who focus on other forms of entertainment, who are again likely to be moderately sensitive than than those who only casually consume entertainment of any form. My final hunch is that any interest in SF at all would tend to correlate with a tendency to higher sensitivity. (That is, I expect we’d find a highly disproportionate number of HSPs in the ranks of SF fandom and among SF authors or creators.)

Those are just hunches, though I do intend sometime to attempt to follow them up with some online polling. But the hunches are predicated on the fact that Aron argues about how highly sensitive persons are more likely to be very reflective and interested in ideas to the point of thinking about them for a significant portion of their time. SF is, after all, a literature of ideas, and even media SF with its focus on spectacle tends to pack some idea-level punch.

All of this other stuff I’m thinking about is why I really decided to pick up Second Foundation and finish it. I’m thinking, indeed, of trying to mount a research project to see whether I can find any results. I’m sure if I could get a link posted somewhere prominent to a poll of my own devising, combining Aron’s HSP questionnaire with filtering for types of SF media (and subgenre preferences? why not?), there would be interesting results. But I’ll have to approach Aron for permission to use her questionnaire, and to think about how and where to set up the rest of the poll–the SF-related parts, I mean.

There’d probably be at least an interesting paper, if not an interesting book, in the subject. At least as interesting as Second Foundation.

Which is to say–since I should return to the subject of that book–it was, yet again, still better than the book before it, and I’m willing to guess Asimov improved with each fiction piece he published, but I still, personally, don’t quite get the appeal. Then again, I wonder sometimes how much my own stories will appeal to someone two or three generations from now. I’d hope they would appeal a little, but I suspect it’d be mostly in the way of historical curio.

In any case, I suspect the people who have read and loved the Foundation trilogy were reading it for some very different reason than I usually read fiction. It’s like Rudoplh Valentino’s singing: if you blast it over loudspeakers and try to use it to send an army into battle, you’ll get way less response than if you’d opted for bagpipes. I think that I can see what are likely the virtues in the text for those who enjoy it… but that doesn’t make me enjoy the novels too much more. Nonetheless, reading the last book with Jones’ description of fandom in mind, and Aron’s theory, got me through it.

4 thoughts on “Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov

  1. :) Something like that. His essays aren’t bad, though. And I’m inclined to wonder whether he did indeed improve a lot in later works. I imagine he must have.

  2. I know of several economists who were inspired or influenced by Asimov’s Foundation – including a Nobel winner (Paul Krugman. He blurbs Charles Stross’s laat Merchant Prince Book). I guess I could go on defending Asimov for several pages, but since I have an overdue project, I’ll just give the outline.

    1) Foundation brought history as a tool into SF (though one can argue Wells did it first). The vast outline of the first and second book is explicitly based on the Fall of Roman Empire. In this sense, it is a “historically-based” SF. (As opposed to slipstream).

    2) it’s a series of great puzzle pieces. Each of the sections in the trilogy (except the first introductory story) is set up as a puzzle piece. (Also consider that, originally each of those sections were published as short stories, so they ended as cliffhangers). The final puzzle, of course, being the location of the Second Foundation. It’s the same appeal of the first Robot short stories.

    3) Compared to the post-50s and 60s revolution in literary style in SF, the book may be plainly written, with run-of-the-mill stock characters, but at the time, “just-tell-it-like-it-is” style is refreshing. (Writers and stylists, obviously, may have a different point of view).

    Obviously, the traditional SF’ers (Analog, Baen Books…) are still very much influenced by this approach. You see Weber’s Honor Harrington Books taking this approach, and working it very well.

    In my opinion, Asimov’s best work, a good meld of ideas and literary approach (one may argue that it’s the only Asimov novel where he experimented with “new-wave” style writing – though he does not take it too far) is “The Gods Themselves.” Because it is not a part of his Robot or Foundation series, and because he was being overtaken by newer writers, I think the book is unfairly overlooked.

    1. Junsok,

      Heh, well, don’t worry about defending Asimov too much. I think we’ve established you and I read SF for different things. The stuff I’ve read isn’t my cup of tea, is all. (Same for most Analog stories and a lot of Baen’s stuff.) But as to your points:

      1) Bringing history to SF: That’s interesting. Of course, it also makes for all kinds of problematic stuff, too. I am not a big fan of the whole “transmute history into futuristic scenarios” approach either. I can’t imagine galactic empires functioning (or falling) in any way comparable to the Roman Empire. But I see your point, in terms of SF history.

      2) Yeah, the stories having been published as individual short stories, the cliffhangers. I can see how the puzzles would intrigue some. I wonder, though, if the problem is I’ve seen puzzles like it since? When someone is doing something for the first time, I’m inclined to let aesthetics slide a bit, or be distracted by the novelty. But I’m coming at this so many years later, that I think some of this approach has been absorbed by storytelling in general. So maybe that point doesn’t work for me because of my own reading background.

      3) Plain style. Well, yeah, but… it’s hard for me to see this as plain style, because the flatness of the characters distracts me from the simplicity. I’ll admit, though: other than Lovecraft my readings in early SF are scant.

      Of course, as a litcrit-poisoned reader, I can say there’s not such thing as “tell-it-like-it-is” in fiction — only the contrivance of telling things like they are — though I have wondered aloud whether the plainness of style was a reaction to melodrama in mainstream popular culture and books at the time.

      Ironically, the only non-Foundation novel I have by Asimov is Pebble in the Sky. I suspect I won’t like it much. But I’ll keep an eye out for The Gods Themselves

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *