Foundation and Earth, by Isaac Asimov
In this review, I’m going to admit to a controversial opinion. You see, unlike a lot of the fandom, I actually like some bits of this book. In many respect, F&E is a frustrating work. It has glimmerings of a genuine epic. It could have been so much more.
Instead, we got what happens at the end. To be honest, the whole book is a bit like Asimov’s version of Mass Effect 3: the potential is there, and bits of it even shine through here and there, but the end result falls flat.
‘Earth’ follows on from the events in ‘Foundation’s Edge’.
Councilman Golan Trevize has managed to get himself exiled from the First Foundation’s capital-planet of Terminus. He committed the unspeakable crime that is admitting to some doubts about whether the Second Foundation is actually gone. Due process on Terminus seems to extend up to the point where you do something that the Foundation’s leadership dislikes, and even being part of that leadership is no protection. Trevize was actually on the ruling council, for all the good that did him.
Thus, Trevize has found himself sent off into the wilds of the galaxy on the ultimate wild goose chase – to track down said Second Foundation. Along with him is the scholar Janov Pelorat and, more recently, the Gaian resident known as Bliss. They’ve convinced themselves that the Second Foundation is not only real, but related somehow to the planet Earth.
There’s one slight problem, though: Earth is the galaxy’s Atlantis. It doesn’t exist. There is nowhere called Earth, there are no factual records of Earth in any books, databases, or maps. Earth exists only as folk tales amongst various populations. Serious people don’t take this nonsense at face value. (How could there be one singular homeworld? The idea is absurd. And it certainly couldn’t have a big moon, because there’s no such thing. And the sixth planet in its star system couldn’t have a big, bright ring system, because there aren’t any. And Earth couldn’t have had a diverse ecosystem, because you only get those through terraforming, not nature.)
But what if conventional wisdom is wrong?
What if there is an Earth? What if it’s being hidden? Just how powerful must whatever force that controls Earh be, if it can hide an entire planet? To do it, they must have edited every library, book and archive in the galaxy. It’s almost like someone’s pulled the flashbulb on an old-style camera, and that flashbulb wiped the entire galaxy’s collective memory.
If Earth exists, it seems there’s something dangerous and suspect about it. There’s something not-quite-right about Earth. And this leaves Trevize, Pelorat and Bliss with a big, feculent, stinking problem.
Just how do you find a planet that officially does not exist, and officially never has existed? How do you find a planet that doesn’t want you to find it? How do you find a planet that can erase itself from history?
And what will you discover if you do find it?
WHAT I LIKED
Okay, here are the things I liked about ‘Foundation and Earth’.
First of all, it’s a classic grand tour through the mysteries of a vast and ancient galaxy. During the course of the novel, Trevize, Pelorat and Bliss visit no less than seven worlds – Gaia itself (where the book starts), Comporellon, Aurora, Solaria, Melpomenia, Alpha and finally Earth itself (or rather, Earth’s Moon). If you’ve read some of Asimov’s other series, then of course some of these names will be rather familiar.
Also, if you’re clued-in on your astronomical lore, then you’ll know straight away that the team are actually in the solar neighbourhood right from the start of the book. (Comporellon orbits Epsilon Eridani, IIRC, and Aurora orbits Tau Ceti.)
The worlds that are visited are well-drawn, and the planets feel like actual plces. Their defects and differences are discussed – something which was actually a bit unusual in 70s and 80s SF. The book has a very real sense of exploration and discovery. And discoveries are made – as the book progresses, Earth goes from a myth to a disturbing reality. Humanity did indeed have a singular homeworld, and something very, very bad happened to it about 20,000 years ago.
In general the book is slow in pacing and contemplative in tone, but there are some moments of very real fear. For instance, the encounter with the wild dogs on Aurora was quite shocking in its intensity. Then there’s the moss found on Melpomenia – you wouldn’t think moss could be a source of real fear, but this moss manages it.
Also, by Asimov standards, the characterisation is passable. Whilst the results aren’t always pleasant, at least Pelorat, Bliss and Trevize do feel like people in their own right. (This is particularly-ironic for Bliss.)
For the time in which it was written, barring one or two details, the book’s science background was rigorous. (We’ll leave FTL travel and the Gaian telepathy thing off to one side for the moment.) Admittedly the astronomy is incredibly-dated now, but to be fair, the book is consistent with what was known about planet formation in the 1980s. (Awkwardly, this was basically bugger all, and so one key plot point – the scarcity of large moons – is almost certainly wrong.)
Now, to move on…
WHAT I FOUND PROBLEMATIC
Sadly, quite a lot of this book has had a beating with the Stick of Suckiness.
First of all, allow me one small astronomer’s rant. Comporellon orbits a solar-neighbourhood star. The Sun would be a second-magnitude star in its night sky. In the course of 20 millennia, Dr Asimov, are you seriously telling me that no-one looked up? Literally no-one? And no-one happened to look up, look down at their star map, blink, and say, “What? Why isn’t the big bright yellow fucker in Cassiopiae on this map?” (Okay, they might not have called the asterism in question Cassiopiae, but you see the point I’m making, right?)
Yeah: bullshit to that.
Now, that rant aside, let’s look at the bits of deep crazy that let F&E down so badly.
First of all, the sexual politics are deeply suspect. Bliss is basically Pelorat’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and let’s be blunt, that’s a problematic trope all by itself. Sadly, Asimov is now known to have been something of a creeper, and it’s hard not to see that here in his writing.
In addition, Trevize basically manages to sleep his way across the galaxy. Apparently women all the way from Comporellon to Alpha somehow find him irresistible. I really couldn’t see why. (He never seems to stop to ask just why none of these one-night stands have ever turned into something deeper, either. There are some aspects of self-reflection for which Trevize has a blind spot. Also, some of the conquests are implied to only sleep with Trevize in the first place because Bliss has telepathically brain-squicked them into it. Trevize is probably not the ladykiller that he fancies himself as.)
Now we arrive at the Gaia/Galaxia problem.
Everything about Gaia is creepy. It makes a little bit of sense when you realise that it’s an extreme outgrowth from Asimov’s obsession with paternalism – Gaia’s collective consciousness as the ultimate father-figure! But Galaxia as a plausible or appealing social program? Nope, nope, nope. Gaia-the-planet has a distinct Stepford Wives sense to it; pretty in a blandly-manicured way, because it’s being micromanaged by the ultimate totalitarian system. On Gaia, the woods are watching you as you shit. And they’re probably judging you and finding you wanting while you do it.
In fairness, Gaia does get examined, a bit, during the book, with Bliss and Trevize’s continual arguments. But, the debate here is slanted toward Bliss. ‘Isolation’ is portrayed as somehow automatically-bad, and many fundamental questions about Gaia/Galaxia are simply never asked. (I can’t recall if anyone ever raises the obvious question: “What if the people of the galaxy don’t want this?” But then, as a committed paternalist, Asimov wouldn’t care about that. A “good” father, after all, lays down the law – he doesn’t consult!)
I’ll admit my bias here: I nope’d out of Gaia very early on in the book.
Moving on, the denouement of the book is real fandom-breaker here. It inadvertently raises a metric ton of questions about the rest of the setting – just how much of galactic history is Daneel Olivaw responsible for? If the robots are really such a good influence, why did the old Galactic Empire collapse? (Later books actually make that worse: in ‘Prelude’, we discover that Olivaw was actually Emperor Cleon’s First Minister for a time. Yep, he’s pesumably partly-responsible for this whole mess.)
Also, creepy as the Solarian child Fallom was, what happened to her at the end was even creepier. She’s only there so that Olivaw’s failing positronic brain can leech off of her organic one. Holy shit Batman, Olivaw’s into abusive relationships! (Incidentally, here we have another example of female-gendered characters being treated badly by the book. Granted Fallom is biologically a hemaphrodite, but she’s explicitly-gendered as a girl in the book, so she counts.)
Then there’s the issue of Earth’s severe radioactivity. Apparently the planet is actually worse now than it was in ‘Pebble in the Sky’. In fact there’s an implication that the radiation level is somehow still rising, even thousands of years after the contamination-event. This a) breaks the Second Law of Thermodynamics and b) also has some terrifying implications. If Earth has anti-entropic radioisotopes on its surface, what happens if some of those isotopes get spread elsewhere? Presumably they’ll make other planets radioactive as well.
So, umm, yeah. There’s a lot wrong with this book, unfortunately.
This book’s strengths are the sense of discovery and exploration, and the portrayal of a wide variety of alien worlds. It was also written to be scientifically-rigorous for its time. (Granted the science has dated badly, but this isn’t the author’s fault.)
The book’s weaknesses, however, are a questionable denouement and some very sketchy gender politics.
So, I would say, read this one if you care more about journeys than endings, and if you’re also happy to tune out preachy weirdness and creepy sex. If those conditions don’t apply, then this is probably one to miss, unfortunately.