Friday, March 31, 2017

Review - An Asimov Companion: Characters, Places and Terms in the Robot/Empire/Foundation Metaseries by Donald E. Palumbo

Short review: An encyclopedia of characters, locations, events, and objects found in Asimov's metaseries. There is also an essay linking chaos theory and fractal geometry to the metaseries.

First, came the Robots
Then, the Galactic Empire
And last, Foundation

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: An Asimov Companion: Characters, Places, and Terms in the Robot/Empire/Foundation Metaseries is, for the most part, a reference work. The bulk of its length is taken up with what amounts to an encyclopedia covering essentially every notable character, location, object, and event found in Isaac Asimov's extended metaseries (and pretty much every non-notable character, location,, object, and event as well). Every entry gives a brief description of the subject, offering at least a sentence or two outlining who or what the entry is, and an explanation of how the subject fits into the larger body of Asimov's work. These entries are informative, but like Asimov's actual writing, have a tendency to be a little dry.

The opening section of the book consists of an introductory essay by Palumbo outlining the structure of the Robot/Empire/Foundation metaseries, and attempting to connect the metaseries to chaos theory and fractal geometry. For those who do not know, in the 1940s and 1950s, Asimov wrote three "trilogies" of stories: The "Robot" series, consisting of Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun and the short fiction contained in I, Robot. The "Galactic Empire" series was comprised of the books Pebble in the Sky, The Stars, Like Dust, and Currents in Space. The "Foundation" series was made up of Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. For many years, these series were, at best, only loosely related. In fact, the books of the "Galactic Empire" series were only loosely connected to one another, let alone to the books in the other two series. This changed in the 1980s when Asimov wrote a group of books consciously attempting to connect these disparate works together into a somewhat coherent whole. The added books - The Robots of Dawn, Prelude to Foundation, Forward the Foundation, Robots and Empire, Foundation's Edge, and Foundation and Earth - provided links intended to knit the earlier works together. Short fiction from two additional works, Robot Dreams and Robot Visions, was also woven into the metaseries.

Given that books such as Pebble in the Sky and I, Robot were originally published in 1950, while books like Foundation's Edge and Prelude to Foundation were not published until the 1980s, and most of the books don't seem to have been originally intended as part of a single imagined future history, the entire metaseries is a rickety structure at best. This makes Palumbo's attempts to evaluate the series as a coherent whole somewhat less than convincing - it seems far more probable that the recurring themes in Asimov's metaseries were the result of the fact that Asimov had a relatively limited bag of plot tricks that he would return to than that it was the result of an intention (or even just a happy accident) to create a nested fractal set that uses chaos theory as an organizing principle. Even when the books in the series are laid out in a chart purporting to provide a graphic representation of the fractal architecture of the series, the end result simply isn't convincing. The Robot/Empire/Foundation metaseries is a chaotic mess, but trying to force that mess into a fractal self-symmetry requires doing the equivalent of jamming a square peg into a round hole. This doesn't mean that the essay isn't an interesting read, but rather, like the metaseries itself, it is a structure that simply doesn't really hold up to close examination.

Palumbo's essay, as comprehensive as it tries to be, only takes up thirty pages of the book. As noted before, the bulk of the book is essentially an encyclopedia of the Robot/Empire/Foundation series, providing an alphabetical listing of pretty much every single person, place, object, or event found in the series. Every entry is accompanied by a a description that both details what it is, and also gives some context from the series. Although the text explaining each entry varies in length depending on the importance of the subject, they are all very much capsule descriptions, and in general offer only a cursory summary. Anyone who is not familiar with Asimov's works would almost certainly find the material presented in this book to be entirely opaque - I have read some similar reference works (most notably some of the Tolkien-related works of David Day) in which a reader who had not read the original works could piece together the story from the text provided. This book does not share that characteristic - I have read all of Asimov's works and some of the entries were almost unfamiliar to me - and as a result, this book is essentially of no real value to anyone who has not read or is not intending to read, the books that make up Asimov's metaseries. That said, for someone who is interested in the metaseries and desires a handy reference work, this book will fill that need quite effectively.

As far as I know, there aren't very many reference works for Asimov's oeuvre in general, and none that focus on the massive and ramshackle metaseries constructed , and consequently this book fills a niche that is at the very least sparsely populated. For those who are interested in the recurring themes in Asimov's work, Palumbo's essay is likely to be of interest, and for those who are in need of a reference to follow along with Asimov's Robot/Empire/Foundation metaseries, the rest of the volume is likely to be quite useful. Though this book is definitely more practically valuable than is is aesthetically pleasing, it is a handy volume to have around, and for an Asimov fan, well worth having.

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