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conceptual fiction
The Foundation Trilogy

by Isaac Asimov

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

This well-known series of books captures the best and the worst
of speculative fiction in a single sweeping narrative. I will even
coin a new term—the
Asimov syndrome—to describe this
distinctive combination of the high and the low.
It’s all summed up in the dilemma
faced by the reviewer who must
figure out how to evaluate a literary
work that mixes brilliantly
creative conceptual thinking with
lackluster writing.

Isaac Asimov started writing stories
around the time he was eleven years
old, and was selling them to pulp
magazines while still in his teens. He
began publishing the Foundation
stories in his early twenties, and the
prose is much what you might expect
from a precocious youngster, glib and
shallow. The quality of the writing improves in later parts of the
trilogy, but not by much.

One seeks in vain for a clever turn of phrase, an interesting
metaphor, a description that is more than formulaic. The dialogue
is well suited to pushing the plot forward, or sketching out various
scientific or sociological ideas, but is mostly the type of canned
exchanges you expect from a 1940s radio soap opera.

I dwell on these matters not to pick on Asimov—as you will see
below, I enjoy many aspects of his oeuvre—but to point out a
syndrome that is all too common in the sci-fi genre. This literary
category was born in the pages of pulp fiction periodicals, and
struggles to this day to rise above the marks of this humble
lineage.

And yet . . . and yet . . .and yet . . . Asimov also demonstrates
(maddeningly, beautifully, brilliantly) all the greatness of the sci-fi
genre from a conceptual point of view. There is hardly a page in
this work that doesn’t develop some exciting or provocative
perspective on human affairs, group interactions, individual and
social psychology, technology or values. Moreover, the ideas are
always pushed farther than you expect, with second-order and
third-order effects taken into account, almost the way
archeologists develop far-flung implications from potsherds and
broken tools.

Asimov claimed to be inspired by Gibbon's massive and
extravagant historical work
The Decline and Fall of the Roman
Empire
. In truth, there is little comparison between the two. (Most
notably, Gibbon was a masterful prose stylist, who hardly ever
wrote a lackluster paragraph in that 3,000 page magnum opus.)
But the sheer audacity of a lad scarcely out of his teens
constructing a future history spanning the fall and rise of empires
in a multi-volume work, with constant shifts of setting, characters,
conflicts, centuries . . . well, that tells you a lot about this
ambitious author. Asimov may have changed a lot in later
decades, but never lost his zeal for covering everything—as
measured by his output (more than 500 books) or his odd, and
perhaps unsurpassed claim to be the only writer to publish books
in 9 out of the 10 Dewey Decimal Categories. Even in his goals
as a grown-up, he displayed the naïve hubris of an adolescent
who just succeeded in shaving for the first time and is planning to
fly an F-14 Tomcat tomorrow.

The only Dewey Decimal category he missed was “100”—which
includes books of philosophy. This omission is peculiar enough,
since Asimov is one of the most philosophical of the science
fiction writers. In fact, the Foundation works remind me more of
the German philosopher Hegel than Gibbon. Asimov’s
development of the concept of psycho-history is quite Hegelian,
and his whole worldview in these books is extremely dialectical.
Of course, the concepts that underpin these novels are dubious
in the highest degree, but Asimov’s ability to construct stories
that, like the Hegelian antithesis, emerge from the mixing of
opposites, is invigorating.

Hari Seldon, the great psycho-historical prognosticator, is one of
the most interesting characters in science fiction. Here Asimov
rises above the limitations of his pulp fiction background, and
creates a memorable figure—although mostly because he makes
Seldon in his own image. Seldon’s is full of brilliant insights and
conceptual leaps of awesome proportions. If he wrote books, they
would be very much like the kind Mr. Asimov has left behind.

In the final pages of the trilogy, Asimov even introduces that
greatest of sci-fi rarities: a female protagonist. Even more
striking, she is a fourteen-year-old girl, Arkady Darell, who has
fate of the universe, more or less, resting on her shapely
shoulders. (Hannah Montana, eat your heart out!) But there is an
even more
fascinating character in these books: The Mule. I will say no
more, since the specifics of this character are tied to surprising
shifts in the plot of the Foundation trilogy. But this intriguing and
shadowy villain proves that when Asimov put his over-heated
mind to work in constructing a dramatic character, rather than in
some strange technological twist, he could come up with
something Shakespearean. (Okay, maybe only Chekhovian.)

Like it or leave it, this tripartite work is the grand monument in
Asimov's oeuvre. He tried to recapture the magic of the
Foundation trilogy years later, returning to this inspirational
theme of his youth—but the mature Asimov was unable to match
the unbridled energy of this grandiose early effort. It is a flawed
masterpiece, but a masterpiece nonetheless. And, to a certain
extent, this is the heritage of the sci-fi genre as a whole. The
challenge remains to live up to conceptual brilliance of this
pioneering author, while aspiring to a literary style that breaks
free of pulp fiction formulas. Asimov only took us part way on that
journey.


Publication Date: December 10, 2008
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal


Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

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