Review of Foundation and Empire by

Book cover for Foundation and Empire

Whoaaaaa, it has been five years since I reread Foundation! I didn’t realize how long it had been. I’ve had Foundation and Empire, and most of the other books, sitting in a pile in my old bedroom for a long time. For some reason, I had it in my head that Second Foundation, the one book I was missing, was the second book in the series (I wonder why); I was waiting and waiting to find a battered, old copy of it at my used bookstore and never did. Eventually I broke down and bought it new, only to discover I could have kept going with the series anyway….

I was 23 when I reread the first book, and now I’m nearly 29! I feel like an entirely different person from 23-year-old Kara, let alone whatever delicate age I was when I first read this book. My key takeaway from this reread? Isaac Asimov is actually a crap writer. Strap in for a fun ride (or, if you are an Asimov diehard fan, maybe just … close this tab), because I am going to pick this thing apart.

Whereas the original book was a collection of short stories that, together, formed a larger plot, Foundation and Empire collects two novellas, “The General” and “The Mule”. Set some time after the first book, these stories tell, respectively, of the Galactic Empire’s last strike against the nascent Foundation, and of the rise of an eponymous mutant whose very existence throws off Hari Seldon’s precious psychohistorical predictions for the Foundation’s ascendance and safeguarding of the galaxy.

I see in my review of the first book I observed that it was mostly dialogue, and maybe that’s why it escaped the criticism I’m going to level here. Asimov’s prose is just bad. Like, someone did not restrain his access to the adverb vault. This is particularly egregious in the way he tags dialog. He has a great aversion to said, and when he must resort to it, he never fails to pair it with an adverb. Here’s a representative sample from a single page:

After a while, this started to grate on me. But it’s still possible to overlook it, right? I mean, writing style isn’t everything, as long as there is a good story….

Foundation and Empire isn’t all that impressive, story-wise. In “The General” we’re treated to an ambitious but frustrated eponymous antagonist: he yearns for the days of conquest, and going after the mysterious Foundation seems like the best way to reprise those. The story suffers for lack of a strong protagonist, though; the two characters who come close spend most of their time bickering about whether or not the Foundation will get through this without doing much to actually effect any change themselves. In “The Mule” there is more action and decidedly more setbacks; it is definitely a more interesting story. Yet it suffers from issues of pacing and characterization, with decidedly over the top bureaucrats.

This is by no means an original observation, either, but there is a conspicuous lack of women in this book. The first female character, Bayta, appears halfway through the book (at the beginning of “The Mule”), and Asimov describes her this way:

She wasn’t beautiful on the grand scale to others—he admitted that—even if everybody did look twice. Her hair was dark and glossy, though straight, her mouth a bit wide—but her meticulous, close-textured eyebrows separated a white, unlined forehead from the warmest mahogany eyes ever filled with smiles.

So she’s hot, but not too hot compared to other hot women, but still pretty hot—got it?

Anyway. I would be more charitable here if there were a really compelling story happening beneath these layers of sexism and purple prose. Asimov obviously has some intriguing, big-picture ideas here. But I’ve been reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s novella collection The Found and the Lost concurrently with this (and other) books. And Le Guin does this kind of so-called “soft SF” so much better. Her Hainish works deal with galactic societies over long timescales, yet she digs deeply into individuals’ stories. There is definitely a place for the shallower, flash-and-talk storytelling that Asimov is doing here, and I know it captured a lot of hearts and imaginations when it first came out. But as far as its place in the classic canon goes? Foundation as a series or an idea might deserve it, but Foundation and Empire is not particularly memorable or laudable, in my opinion.

Engagement

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