Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Review - Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov

Short review: The hunt for Earth is on, but it turns out not to matter very much, because the omniscient robots have been guiding us all along.

A search for lost Earth
Travels to spacer planets
Is that Olivaw?

Full review: Late in his career, and apparently running out of ideas, Asimov returned to his greatest works and decided to expand them, and eventually merge them. The less than impressive results are the collection of Foundation sequels and prequels. Foundation and Earth seems to want to tie as many of Asimov's books into the Foundation sequence as possible.

Following on after the events in Foundation's Edge (read review), Trevize, Palorat and Bliss all decide to find Earth. They stumble about, eventually figuring out which planets were the "Spacer" planets - from The Caves of Steel (read review), The Naked Sun (read review), and The Robots of Dawn (read review) - and land on several, including Solaria. On Solaria they find out that the inhabitants have seemingly redefined humanity so as to circumvent the Laws of Robotics - anyone who isn't a Solarian isn't human and can be harmed or even killed by a robot. They escape, and take with them an immature (and thus not yet "human" by Solarian standards) child named Fallon.

Using clues found in a Spacer database, they find a terraformed planet around Alpha Centauri, and then finally, Earth itself. Earth is a lifeless rock, but they land on the moon and find R. Daneel Olivaw waiting for them.

And this is what makes the book, and pretty much all of the subsequent Foundation books mediocre at best. Apparently, Olivaw is responsible for all human history since The Caves of Steel. Citing the Zeroeth Law, Olivaw has been working to benefit humanity for millennia, causing the settlement on Alpha, the development of psychohistory, the establishment of the Foundation, the settlement of Gaia, and pretty much everything else beneficial that happened in any of the Foundation books.

While I can accept that the development of Galaxia (as repugnant as the concept of a hive-mind version of humanity seems to me) might be seen by some as desirable, the introduction of a god-like shepherd of humanity in the form of a nigh-immortal robot (not completely immortal, in the climax of this novel, Olivaw binds his brain with Fallon's because his own brain is dying after millennia) drives the book off the edge of silliness. Introducing the robots as a benevolent, almost omniscient force to the story, to me, robs the books of a lot of their impact. Instead of humanity struggling to survive a galactic disaster, we have humanity manipulated by a small collection of well-meaning dictators. Plunking Olivaw into the later books was, in my opinion, a huge mistake, and one that makes this, and the subsequent prequels featuring him, average books at best.

Previous book in the series: Foundation's Edge
Subsequent book in the series: Prelude to Foundation

1987 Locus Award Nominees

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  1. Damn, I thought George Lucas was the only moron to have destroyed his body of work so disastrously. That's kinda scary. Does it mean that if an author gets to a certain age and wants to continue his masterpiece, the result is very likely to suck?

  2. @Anonymous; I don't know if it is universal, but it certainly seems to be the case for Asimov that his later works became mediocre at best.