Friday, 22 November 2002

Isaac Asimov: Foundation's Edge (1982)

Edition: Granada, 1984 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1132

Foundation's Edge was the first science fiction novel Asimov had written for a decade, most of which he had spent concentrating on non-fiction. It had a mixed reception, composed on the one hand of the desire to extend a welcome to an old friend long absent (which brought it the Hugo award for 1983), and on the other of the feeling that it was a sequel which failed to live up to the classic Foundation trilogy which it follows.

Reading Foundation's Edge now, after the fuss has died down, and doing so just after revisiting the original trilogy, I am more inclined to the former view, changing my mind after first acquaintance twenty years ago. This is because the earlier books have now come to seem dated, like a lot of Asimov's early fiction.

Foundation's Edge is set about halfway between the creation of the Foundation and its predicted establishment of a new empire a thousand years after the fall of the old one. (This little piece of chronology makes it clear just how large a scope Asimov had left himself for a sequel.) The Mule is long defeated, and the Second Foundation has returned to obscurity, convincing the Foundation that it too has been destroyed. Seldon's plan is back on course - and this eventually provokes suspicion in both Foundations; after so great a disruption as the reign of the Mule, how can centuries old predictions suddenly become minutely valid once again? This prompts both Foundations to begin searching for whoever or whatever has caused this, and this search is what Foundation's Edge is about.

Asimov's science fiction revolves around two great ideas: the laws of robotics and the science of psychohistory. In practice, the main interest of the plots he devises using these ideas is the ways he finds to circumvent their limitations - almost all the robot stories are about attempts to bend or break the laws of robotics, and the Foundation stories are about applying the laws of psychohistory to small numbers of individuals (because novels need to have personalities in them), something explicitly forbidden by the statistics on which the rules are supposedly based. (Alternatively, he allows an individual like the Mule to overturn the predictions, using precisely the justification that it is impossible to apply psychohistory to the actions of individuals.) One of the biggest problems that the original trilogy has, it now sdeems to me, is that the tension this produces is not fully integrated into the plot; in Foundation's Edge, it is handled much more expertly, as befits a writer with thirty years' more experience.

Asimov's characterisation is generally pretty perfunctory (the most obvious exceptions being Elijah Baley and the members of the Black Widowers), but here it is rather better than usual, the personalities of those involved playing an important part in the way that the plot is resolved.

The greater maturity of the writing should ensure that Foundation's Edge dates more slowly than its predecessors (though they, of course, first appeared over four decades ago). However, it is still the idea behind the series as a whole which is of central interest, much more so than the merits of the individual novels. The sweep of galactic history and the interest of psychohistory will probably mean that the original trilogy continues to be read for some time yet.

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