Review of Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov
Foundation and Earth
by Isaac Asimov
Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
I simultaneously enjoyed and loathed reading Foundation and Earth. This might be the best Foundation novel yet also the worst. I know I called Foundation’s Edge the best, but this one surpasses it in terms of plot. Asimov does as amazing a job of ratcheting up the tension surrounding the search for Earth as he does a terrible job of avoiding the objectification of women. Moreover, when we look at this novel in the context of the Foundation series and Asimov’s other works, it’s possible to read this as Asimov giving up on Foundation.
Yeah, this review is going to be … interesting. Trigger warnings for this book, by the way: in addition to the massive amounts of Asimovian sexism/womanizing you would expect, add a hefty dose of highly inappropriate, medicalized portrayal of an intersex person, including the use of the h-slur.
Foundation and Earth picks up exactly where Foundation’s Edge ended. It follows a classic quest structure: Golan Trevize has decided, somehow, that the planetary networked consciousness that is Gaia will one day be allowed to expand and form a galactic consciousness called Galaxia. But he isn’t happy with this decision; he doesn’t understand it. So he decides to take up, earnestly, the bogus quest for Earth that was his initial smokescreen in Foundation’s Edge. Janov Pelorat and his newfound Gaian lover, Bliss, accompany Trevize on what proves to be a dangerous expedition across the galaxy. This time, the search for Earth seems to have lesser stakes—no one really cares this time, except Trevize and maybe Pelorat in an academic way—yet it is all the more intense.
It’s worth noting that both of these novels were written in the 1980s, thirty years after the original Foundation stories were written and published. Asimov’s writing has markedly improved over that time. I spent most of my review of Foundation and Empire criticizing Asimov’s writing style, criticism I think was fair and justified but which I can’t level against these books. Moreover, whereas the earlier stories were shorter and compiled into novel-sized books for retail purposes, these two stories were definitely conceived of and designed to be unified novels. As someone who has repeatedly stated her highly subjective and personal preference for that literary form, there’s no wonder I prefer these two books to the previous ones.
So, there I was, enjoying this book thoroughly until I ran into a scene fairly early in the novel where Trevize seduces his way out of a situation. Ok, maybe it would be more accurate to say he allows himself to be seduced. However, you interpret it, the fact remains that Asimov’s writing skills have improved in every category except his portrayal of women:
The bodice flipped down, along with its sturdy reinforcement at the breasts. The Minister sat there, with a look of proud disdain on her face, and bare from the waist up. Her breasts were a smaller version of the woman herself—massive, firm, and overpoweringly impressive.
“Well?” she said?
Trevize said, in all honesty, “Magnificent!”
If that didn’t make you throw up in your mouth a little bit like it did me: the next chapter begins with Trevize congratulating himself on being such a stud. Not only did he correctly surmised that the poor, sexually-repressed woman in a position of power “would want to be dominated,” but she goes on to call him “a king of sexuality.” This is the kind of stuff I expect to read in bad erotica. Moreover, aside from being bad writing, it’s just so incredibly exclusionary—there is little doubt for whom Asimov is writing here (straight, cis men)—while the rest of us just have to deal.
That’s not the only example, of course—Asimov doesn’t seem capable of not objectifying women—just the most egregious that jumped out at me. I could go deeper into the gender dynamics aboard the Far Star, the way Bliss is portrayed as the nurturing and soft personality who naturally has to go out of her way to rescue a child (while Trevize casually advocates not just leaving the child behind to be killed but, later in the novel, genociding all Solarians because he “fears” them), the constant jokes or questions about the nature of Bliss’ relationship with the two other men on the ship.
And then we have the intersex characters, Bander and Fallom. After the promising beginning of Bander interrupting Trevize to request that Trevize stop misgendering them, Asimov quickly dehumanizes these characters by using the pronoun “it” and dwelling most inappropriately, as he does with his female characters, on their various physical attributes. We’re supposed to excuse this as the curiosity and flawed biases of our main characters, but it’s still a gross portrayal of a marginalized identity. (I should acknowledge at this point as well that there’s additional conflation happening here of sex/gender: intersex is not the same as non-binary, agender, or bigender, which are all gender identities. Many intersex people use he/him or she/her pronouns. It’s complicated!)
Indeed, this is perhaps the most striking thing for me, as a trans woman reading this book in 2020: Asimov, like so many other straight white dudes writing science fiction in the 20th century, has this brilliant imagination when it comes to a future humanity sprawled across the galaxy. He dreams up hyperspace, positronic robots, and mental telepathy; his books touch on the complexities of empire-building, linguistic drift, history versus mythology, and the Gaia theory of consciousness. Yet this same man is unable to wrap his imagination, in an empathetic way, around alternative presentations of sex and gender. And this is something that will never not boggle my mind about the so-called “great” and classic science fiction of the previous century. It seems to me that all science fiction must be queer simply because science fiction is about embracing and exploring the most amazing variety of possibilities for our future, and queerness is necessarily present among the varieties—unless it is deliberately excluded, as Asimov and others do by dint of a very limited worldview.
Finally, there’s also a sense of fatigue in this book. This comes across most stridently in Trevize’s fixation with finding Earth, but it is also evident in the rushed denouement and Daneel’s Wizard of Oz reveal. I don’t have anything against Asimov wanting to unite his Foundation and Robot novels into a shared universe. Nevertheless, the way he does this across these two novels strikes me as an interesting bit of retconning of the original premise of the Foundation books. Trevize lampshades this when he questions the legitimacy of psychohistory as a science. I’m not sure if this represents Asimov trying to revise his views after over three decades of contemplating it—certainly an author should be allowed to change and evolve in their attitudes towards their earlier works and the ideas therein—or if Asimov is just kind of … done … with Foundation and wants, at this juncture, to move on from it once again. In any case, the ending to Foundation and Earth is rushed, perfunctory, and disappointing compared to the quest that led up to it.
Two more books now to read, both prequels, one published posthumously! Will they be improvements? We will find out soon.