Foundation’s Triumph, David Brin

Harper Torch, 1999, 392 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-105639-1

Necrophilia is a terrible thing, but some people can do anything as long as enough dollars are dangled in front of their eyes. As I write this, the “latest-last-conclusion-we-promise!” of “Frank Herbert”’s Dune series is in stores, where it takes up valuable shelf space alongside a wholly-unneeded sequel to A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan and Spider Robinson’s “collaboration” with Robert A. Heinlein. If there’s any comfort in this sad state of affairs, it’s that these cash-in experiments thankfully fade away in time and there is little better proof of this transience than the “Second Foundation trilogy” that briefly blipped in bookstores at the end of the nineties.

This time, it’s Isaac Asimov’s corpse that is up for ritual desecration. Oh, hired writers may ward off critical sarcasm with such noble incantations as “authorized by the Estate”, “I, at first, declined the contract” and “We’re the ‘Killer Bs’ of hard SF and none of us are named Kevin J. Anderson”, but the fact remains that nobody wanted another Foundation trilogy more badly than Asimov’s estate. Self-serving rationalizations about “exploring issues left open by Isaac” conveniently leave out the fact that the entire Foundation concept was invented in the 1940s and then patched up (to growing critical dismay) by Asimov himself until his death in the early nineties. If Isaac couldn’t fix it himself, what makes you think that you’d do a better job?

I lack the patience and innate cruelty to fully review all three books in the series. Oh, I could go on and on about Gregory Benford’s Foundation’s Fear and how it was twice as long as it needed to be, with a dumb subplot about artificial intelligences that seemed cut-and-pasted from another novel. (And that’s saying nothing about another useless monkey-sex subplot. Yeah, you read me right.). I could be even meaner about Greg Bear’s Foundation and Chaos and how it was 100% too long and represented yet another of Bear’s “Bad Bear!” books. But why drive the knife even further when it’s enough to state that David Brin’s Foundation’s Triumph is the least disposable tome of a wholly unnecessary trilogy?

Sometimes, it’s not enough to say that the story is dull, that the characters are not sympathetic, that the “plot” is not interesting. Sometimes, you have to go all the way up and question the very assumptions that underly a project.

Yes, there are problems with the Foundation series. Logical problems, moral problems, political problems. As a piece of pulp magazine SF in the forties, it was exceptional. As a historical marker in the history of the genre, it remains essential. But SF has moved on since Asimov’s teenage years, and what should have been left alone wasn’t. First Asimov got the supremely ill-conceived notion of tying together all of his fiction, patching up the holes between his Imperial, Robots and Foundation series with a series of rationalization that became shakier with time. Alas, the buyer’s appeal of the “Foundation” franchise did little to dissuade Asimov from adding to the mess with later novels that became less and less worthwhile.

But death is no obstacle once scruples can be papered over with lovely green banknotes. Benford, Bear and Brin thought they could continue the story, patch over even more holes and make a few points about the human condition within an increasingly artificial Foundation universe. So they bring in another layer of conspiracies, fancy new socio-technical concepts, a nonsensical plague, artificial personalities, more robots and even alien creatures in an effort to fill in the tiny holes in Hari Seldon’s life left unspecified by Asimov’s work.

But even if some of the rationalizations are very clever (even Trantor’s population density is explained), trying to patch Foundation’s badly broken model is like putting spoilers and nitro boosters on a Model T Ford: It may look modern at first glance, but the framework isn’t built to accept the add-ons and tears itself apart during the first serious test drive. If the chief appeal of “The Second Foundation Trilogy” is conceptual, so is its biggest failing.

Alas, the trilogy isn’t really better as genre entertainment. Faithful to their respective reputations, Benford’s book is overlong, Bear’s book is dull and only Brin’s book comes closest to entertainment (although even his amiable writing style is no match for the other writers’ leaden concepts). This is easily some of the weakest work all three authors have ever produced: Little wonder if the trilogy has been practically forgotten less than ten years after publication. Simply put, reading this series is a waste of time, unless you’re fresh off the entire Asimov oeuvre and wouldn’t mind nearly fifteen hundred pages of further aggravation.

That, in a more rational publishing universe, would be a warning against literary necrophilia. But as the current state of the SF shelves in bookstores indicate, there’s still more than enough money in the SF industry to make hungry authors writer whatever desecrations are authorized by the estates…

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