The Foundation, by Isaac Asimov

I recently caught some episodes of The Foundation TV-series and quite enjoyed it. There’s a ton of interesting concepts, engaging characters (Empire being my favorite), good actors (I love Jared Harris), all encapsulated into a well-built world. It does have its share of trope cheese, like equating “hero” and “action hero,”1 forcing all heroes to do epic action hero things. It also milks the young-protagonist-with-a-gifted-mind cliche to a higher state of climax than even Dune or Ender’s Game.

I hadn’t read any of the books, though, but they’ve been lingering on my optimistic to-read list since I was a child. As good an opportunity as any, so I started the eponymous “book 1.”

It is a smooth and easy read, though admittedly became a bit of a disingenuous hate-reading on my part. The basic summary is that I wasn’t a big fan of it, I had all the wrong expectations. It’s one of the few instances where I think the TV-adaptation trumps the source, easily2.

One of the great masterworks of science fiction …

Yeah, I don’t know, Bob.

First let’s trace the difference between my expectations and the actual text though. It quickly became apparent the TV-series is extremely different from the book(s3), not only in content, but in structure and style. The TV-series shifts between several complex parallel narratives and stories (probably weaving in parts of the other books?), sometimes non-chronologically, whereas the book is very simple and straightforward.

On the superficial side, the TV-series’ adds a touch of wokeness by upgrading half the characters’ genders, free of charge. It became abundantly clear why they did it as I read the book though. In it, as far as can I recall, women didn’t even exist as a concept until some 80% through4. No sisters, mothers, et cetera5. It’s a book of capable, asexual men, much in the spirit of the short stories of Arthur C. Clarke6.

But that’s a trifle compared to the heavy-handed story rewrites and deep-tissue archetypal transformations the characters go through. The differences there, too, border on the comical.

Take Gaal, for example. In the TV-series, she is a super-special Kwisatz Haderach genius with unknown but seemingly unbounded mental capabilities. She is furnished with an emotional backstory: rejected by her own kind (religious luddites) for her super-special super-genius, she brings shame on her family simply by being what she is. Having solved one of mathematics’ (big?) unsolved mysteries, she arrives, dramatically, in the capital city of the Galaxy, the lavish heart of all things, on the personal inviation of the great mathematician Hari Seldon. Other clues about her special-ness are given on the journey, like the fact that her conscious mind can withstand a space-time jump, when ordinary mortals must be unconscious for the duration. She impresses the begrudging Hari Seldon with her abilities, even though he had very high expectations already. Stuff happens, politics ensue, but her path from peasant to political player is clearly delineated. She goes on trial with Hari, they are exiled. She’s hurriedly granted a love interest in Hari’s foster-son, allotted moments of heroism, and so on. If anything her story is “over the top.”

In the book he, Gaal, is just some random peasant with a fresh doctorate degree, invited to Trantor to work for Hari, a “renowned psychologist.” Beset with some vague “British abroad” mentality, his first course of action after checking in to a hotel is to ask the concierge about going on a space tour or sky tour or whatever it was. Afterwards he is visited by Hari who doesn’t seem too impressed, but warns him about the government cracking down on their project. The Hari-trial happens, as a formal question-answer excerpt. However, despite Hari supposedly having a hundred thousand people following and working under him, probably scores of lieutenants or trusted nth-in-commands, he (and the city’s government) chooses this unknown and unfaceted bumpkin boy as his prime associate. They inexplicably involves him in the trial. Hari grooms him with expositions on what’s what, explains all the things he did in the TV version. But Gaal being given a temporary central position in the plot here seems to have little to do with logic, merit, confluence or even chance; it feels a lot more like a rushed plot simply doing the readers a favor by installing him as a privileged observer. He has no story and does nothing but observe and listen to Hari, offering only the weakest and shallowest responses. He lasts about 40 pages in the book and is then promptly forgotten completely as the book jumps forward in time. He seems a nobody7.

I freely admit I fell for the TV-series first, and that’s no doubt what shaped my preference for it. This is my own bias. In another timeline I might equally argue the opposing viewpoint, applauding the book for starting off in a much more mute and unassuming manner, detailing the perspective of some random pawn in the grand scheme of things, without immediately trying to sell us the trope of grand heroes strangled by their own rarefied specialness…

Anyway, that’s part one of the book. The book consists of five parts, the episodes I’ve seen barely covered one-and-a-half of them. The second part was likewise totally different. And there’s a ton of stuff in the series (the cloned emperors) not even mentioned in this first book; I suspect those are part of the other books in the series.

Speaking solely of the book, it’s a multi-generational epic about politics and socio-economic forces at the grand scale of civilizations. The use of religion to consolidate the power of the masses, allowing the many to overcome the few with superior firepower. The use of wealth and economy (“money power”) to further consolidate large-scale power in a technologically advancing secular age, and so on. Which sounds great, on the surface of it, but…

[..] Now what do you suppose will happen once the tiny nuclear generators begin failing, and one gadget after another goes out of commission?

The small household appliances go first. After a half a year of this stalemate that you abhor, a woman’s8 nuclear knife won’t work any more. Her stove begins failing. Her washer doesn’t do a good job. The temperature-humidity control in her house dies on a hot summer day.

What happens?

Which is taken from one of the predictable patterns of the book. Each section is structured around some “crisis of civilization” that the Foundation faces. These crises are all solved by confident, resourceful men who calmly and cleverly find some way to make the right political choice, which is, naturally, the opposite choice of the panicking mob or less cool-headed politicians. Each of them is then allocated a scene with some underling, side-kick, or opponent, cut from a denser cloth, to whom they exlpain what will happen (or has happened), how everything fits together in the grand socio-religio-cultural-economic scheme, in grating pseudo-monologues. The monologue-enabler naturally fails to see the big picture (just like us!) so the hero also gets to gloat with phrases like “you’ve missed the mark entirely my boy,” “no, that’s not it at all, you fail to understand the real issue!” or “don’t you see? It’s obvious!”9 before revealing his raw, throbbing insights and out-of-the-box-thinking. I’m no psycho-historian, but those insights also come off as a bit naive.

That’s all about the content. The language inspired a number of thoughts of their own, but they are not limited to this particular book. So I will instead switch to discussing “science-fiction and fantasy books I don’t like” (which I’ll henceforth abbreviate, as a concept).

SFFBIDLs (Science-Fiction and Fantasy Books I Don’t Like)

… is a narcissistic term, but this clearly isn’t an objective or academic “critique”—it’s a personal rant. Little of what I say can be applied universally. My main issue with books are usually on the point of language, not plot or characters or subject-matter, which is clearly not universal. And I’ve long had such an issue with fantasy (most) and science-fiction (some), without clearly tracing out what it is. I’d like to try that here.

It comes about, I think, when language is used in a “deplorably practical” way. The books are mere feedbags of words, an ugly mechanical pump, strapped to the reader’s face, pushing the language into the readers eyes and mouth as fast as they will go. After all, the whole point of it is the belly-warming plot and mouth-watering world-building, so why care about the method of delivery?

The easiest is to give examples of what it is not. I’ve had the fortune to read a lot of sci-fi of which I have no traumatic SFFBIDL-memories: works by Delany, Russ, Le Guin, Huxley, Lem… Fantasy fares a bit worse here, as Tolkien is the only example I personally know of that is not SFFBIDL. I’m not sure what it is about fantasy in particular that attracts SFFBIDL writing, I honestly don’t see a reason for it, but I strongly suspect there is a root cause even so.

A Furtive Rant

The cliche of bad writing using too many adjectives is well-known and well-condemned, but I would like to wag an equal finger at writing that attempts to cheat condemnation by crowding a dozen “theatrical verbs” onto every page. These verbs are but adjectives with Groucho glasses.

Lips twitch and quiver; eyes shine, blaze, or twinkle, but mostly squint or widen; eyebrows—sometimes also forehead, as the two often conflated into “brow” for unknown artistic reasons—will knot, wrinkle, or be raised in surprise, but they always come down frowning or scowling. There’s so much frowning and scowling. Voices harden, soften, waver, or crack. Hands are placed, clenched, clasped, opened to revelation. Unnamed body parts are forever fidgeting (hands) or shuddering (shoulders). Anger and temper are functional synonyms, as they both spark, rise, break, boil, before being subdued, reigned, masked, and controlled. Figures skulk, servants scurry; women, more than men, startle and shriek; men, more than women, grumble and growl. Heroes sometimes grin (like the Spanish), chuckle (unlike the British), or snort (in the German tradition)—all verbs which villains tend to avoid unless they can affix it with an appropriately villainous adverb (contemptuously, derisively, coldly, and so forth). Evil characters prefer to smirk, sulk (young), or condescend (adult) instead.

Certain verbs are worse than others when it comes to adverb smuggling. Smiling is a notorious one, smiling is hard to do in a single word. One smiles sardonically, grimly, wearily, coldly, distractedly, sarcastically, or to himself (rarely herself). Faces, or the aforementoined brows, are also good smugglers, being hard, soft (like voices), grim (like smiles), grizzled, weary (there it is again), or even intelligent10. Gestures are never left alone to be themselves, but always pushed to either extreme: wild, ostentatious; or hidden, furtive.

The descriptive language in SFFBIDLs is so cyclical and repetitive it can become entirely too familiar. When I was younger, reading mostly these books that I now disdain (gah, I, too, am afflicted), I thought that “furtively” meant “in an annoyed, peevish, or sulking manner.” Someone who was furtive was annoyed or irritated, usually in a somewhat childish or ineffectual way.

I blame the strongly incestuous vocabulary of SFFBIDLs. All the furtively stolen glances by peevish or sulking villains, the furtive looks by the prince at the girl he desires, annoyed by her love for another, the emperor with wounded pride who furtively signals his soldiers to attack, the child who hides in the grass to peer furtively at the strangers from another planet, the petty man furtively looking over his neighbor’s shoulder at the farming geegaw that was never returned to him, the exposed con man who furtively signals his partner for help, and so on. You see, it’s an easy word to infer from context!

I never looked up the word, even though I tend to do so with unfamiliar words. I was already more than confident in my definition. Reading SFFBIDLs it made perfect sense. I confidently used the word myself, no doubt causing comical confusion.

I wasn’t set straight until well into my late 20s, when an author of general fiction used the word in what I thought was a very strange way. I believe it had to do with a “furtive affair,” that was nonetheless sexually passionate, devoid of any love-hate peevishness that the word seemed to indicate… The shock of discovering the real meaning left me feeling a deep kinship with Crome Yellow‘s Denis11 and his love for the “romantic” word carminative.

You Must See What I See

It seems to me there’s an anxious obesession among writers of SFFBIDL to describe everything. I’ve seen would-be science-fiction and YA writers ask questions online, “What’s the best way to describe my character’s luscious red hair in a natural way? I originally had her consider it when she looked in the mirror, but now I’m having doubts. Could I have another character comment on it? Or do I simply offer a description of her in the narrative when introduced?” Or: “my character has lost an eye, how can I make her eye(s) widen without making it ridiculous?”

These kinds of surface descriptions, especially when it comes to how people are perceived or look, gain tenfold traction when it comes to how they act or behave, naming all the actions of their characters, he picked up the cup, he turned it in his hands, he looked at it… It makes me wonder if earlier drafts didn’t have sentences closer to “he extended his right arm slowly (XXX: but not unnaturally slowly?) to pick up the red cup (chipped on the side?) by its metallic handle (it was cold), admiring the glimmering nubolites below the paint’s surface (fine Qrtzyxxcyan craftsmanship - include brief history of Q. as peace-loving artisans?).”

It feels all too common among SFFBIDL writers (and readers!) to approach writing as one would approach a sort of mental cinematography or directing, showing only the most epic movies.

The scenes’ exterior actions are described moment-to-moment, but if the reader is granted access to the character’s thoughts and feelings, it is by contrast unlike any moment-to-moment subjective experience. The contrast—or rather, the lack of contrast between outer and inner—can be startling. The thoughts of SFFBIDL characters never stray from what is immediately relevant, follows naturalistic cause-and-effect laws, and remain fixed by the exterior of the scene. Their inner lives are but the scene interpolated inward. Even when the plot calls for anxiety, doubt, and vicissitude—chaos!—they will barrel down on it harder and more stubbornly than Dostoyevski’s Raskolnikov. SFFBIDL characters have an ADHD diagnosis rate of 0.0%.

And because the diagnosis rate is probably reversed in readers, we have the mania of over-attributing spoken dialogue. It’s clarity gone mad. The authors usually limit the number of characters appearing on the stage together. Otherwise the text would have to laboriously attribute all dialogue with repeated “he said,” “said Grynnyk,” “said Budwoein,” “said Mmmumleif,” and so on, wouldn’t it? Lest there be confusion! But sometimes the script calls for three or more people to speak in the same room though, necessitating a solution.

And the solution is again a verb cheat. He growled, she hissed, he spat, she all but shouted, he barked, she cried, he lamented, he admitted. Characters start to declare, observe, and offer all their lines of dialogue. This, on top of all the descriptive trills like “with a scowl,” “wincing,” “with a sardonic smile,” “while trying not to laugh.”

I imagine many SFFBIDL authors started out by constructed some kind of mental spinwheel of adjectives, adjectives, verbs, and so forth, which can be used for generating these pseudo-random artistic choices. Lesser artistry such as alliteration, surprising collocations, suggestive connotations, etc. is necessarily stripped away. Yet isn’t this the language of the mechanized intelligences SFFBIDLs were enamoured with mid 20th century12? In general fiction I’d grant slight differences in meaning between a person’s expression being “tranquil,” “calm,” or “serene,” but I don’t extend that trust to SFFBIDLs.

This mistrust seems to be mutual. SFFBIDLs seem to get terribly anxious that the readers won’t “experience” the movie in the same way, or see it the way it’s intended to be seen13. And they definitely do not trust the reader to figure out tone or sarcasm for themselves, or allow a different interpretation. Is it a matter of canon or control? If the authoritarian author intends a character to be empathetic even though she’s forced into making tough and brutal choices, we cannot have her being thought of as callous by anyone! Those readers would be wrong!

Tone is not fool-proof. And it takes long to establish and familiarize the reader with even when it can be applied. It can hardly be justified when there’s the entire galactic history to go through, or a fifteen-year D&D campaign spanning three continents! It’s more economical to steady his voice, reply with a blank expression, disguising his fear, masking her anger, mutter under his breath, give a sarcastic laugh, snort contemptuously, or, of course, a favorite of The Foundation: smiling sardonically.

It takes a lot of effort to make characters alive to the point where readers, especially casual ones, can be trusted to know those characters. To know them to the point of being able to tell their mood from just a few words on a page that carry no picture or sound on their own. So signals are needed; SFFBIDLs just err on the safe side—far, far on the safe side. That’s a rather unique feature of SFFBIDLs: you can pick up a new book, open it at a random page, and still be fully informed of the emotional state of the characters, visually up to date, as they cower, shudder, sheepishly admit, hold back tears, and give a booming chuckle. Every new paragraph constantly updates all the external data relevant for the mental screening. Just as you can walk in mid-plot of a movie and plainly see that the character is sad.

Hardin had almost gotten out of the habit of laughing14, but after Sermak and his three silent partners were well out of earshot, he indulged in a dry chuckle and bent an amused look on Lee.

Dune, The Foundation, The Wheel of Time, the Malazan books, Night’s Dawn trilogy, etc15— they all give a vibe of being… transcribed? As if they started out (epic) theater plays or films from the author’s private movie studio, and then later made into a book. Then again, maybe most of fiction writing is like that? Polished transcripts from the imagination. So then what—

A sort of militant misapplication of show-don’t-tell? “So what you’re saying is I shouldn’t tell the readers my character is happy, I should show it? Hm, so I guess I will make him laugh or something? Or smile or—the clack, clack sound of a spinwheel losing momentum—give his eyes a mischevious twinkle… Hey, you’re right, this is good stuff!” In every paragraph, for as long as the emotion subsists! May every action show its telling! Amen.

Does It Have to Be This Way?

INT.: A tavern in a destitute part of the land.

Early afternoon, still bright. Thin smoke fills the room, piss-colored swill is served as mead, the late-autumn rain blows heavily against the windows; it appears bitterly cold. The fireplace is recently lit, not yet warm. The early patrons are all quiet, sitting apart, avoiding eye contact. No one is talking this early.

There’s a scene, taken from an arbitrary fantasy universe. Peasants, miners, never mind the stereotype. Uneducated and consigned, faceless men whose lives play the same role as women in The Foundation. I.e. they are merely referred to obliquely (or en masse), in service of world-building some sadistic king or whatever.

Collate and compare a dozen imagined SFFBIDL-descriptions of this scene. The hero walks in, sits down, and, looking around at the poor-folk who surrounds him—what? Try to capture the mood that envelops him.

Weary, tired, or haggard men? Miserable? You’re given free reign to use words like “abject,” “gloomy,” and “despondent” if you deem it necessary16. Just mind we’re not exactly talking about a “writhing in hellfire” kind of misery here, but the grey misery reflected in the weather outside. How do we draw a circle around the emptiness of drinking piss mead early in the afternoon?

How many authorial voices would come up with something distinct, or even surprising? How many are merely writing down permutations of the next writer with varying synonyms?

Consider: “All around them men drank alone, staring out of their faces.”17 This sentence isn’t mine, nor is it from a fantasy or science-fiction book. But what’s stopping SFFBIDLs, in particular, from coming up with such sentences in their own style?18 Nothing, except that SFFBIDLs rarely have any detectable style. For all their colorful adjectives, adverbs, and verbs, the voice tends to be colorless: flat, authoritarian, and monotone.

Instead it’s basically what I’ve outlined above: heavy-handed, but plainwoven: the piss-colored swill, the weary, haggard men, the grizzled faces, eyes peering out suspiciously from under heavy brows, the disheveled, threadbare garments, et cetera, et cetera, with synonyms permuted appropriately.

And that’s where the D comes in.

  1. This action hero obsession seems to be American TV’s eternal priapism.

  2. Other easy examples are /American Psycho/ and /The Rules of Attraction/.

  3. Of course, I can only speak for book #1, The Foundation. I imagine the series borrows non-linearly from the all the other books.

  4. However, when gender does make an apparance, it is definitely with a boom!

    Mallow drew gently out of an inner pocket a flat, linked chain of polished metal. “This, for instance.”

    “What is it?”

    “That’s got to be demonstrated. Can you get a woman? Any young female will do. And a mirror, full length.”

    “Hm-m-m. Let’s get indoors, then.”

    Remember, this is (probably) the first time—and how—the book acknowledges women exist. From there on, for the last 60 or 70 pages, several women are mentioned though. An unnamed daughter is used to euphemistically speak about wartime rape, the insouciant hero gives a smart-aleck reply as to why certain details were left report out of a report by asking if they want the name of his mistress too, and so on. The only wife to make an apparance is a fully-fledged Shakespearian shrew, who does nothing but belittle and emasculate her much-older husband (who seems to hate-desire her in turn).

  5. Addendum: no, I recall now (later) that it was actually briefly mentioned in a sentence early on, where Hari Seldon talked about his followers, saying they had families, and perhaps the word women was even used.

  6. Who at least acknowledge that women exist, even if they’re just a “necessary evil,” sirens calling men away from the the noble pursuit of science.

  7. Hari doesn’t seem to have a foster-son in this universe, so no love interest either.

  8. This is from the last part of the book, when women have been introduced as a concept.

  9. This is somewhat reminiscent of stuff like Jubal Harshaw’s speeches in Stranger in a Strange Land: speeches held forth to some weak interlocutor who must usually concede to the wisdom and intelligence of Jubal (roman-à-clef), or at least bear it out.

  10. What are intelligent faces, anyway? I read about them constantly, but still not sure what they look like. Asking for a friend who suspects he has a stupid face.

  11. A fantastic extract:

    ‘It’s a word I’ve treasured since my earliest infancy,’ said Denis, ‘treasured and loved. They used to give me cinnamon when I had a cold - quite useless, but not disagreeable. One poured it drop by drop out of narrow bottles, a golden liquor, fierce and fiery. On the label was a list of its virtues and, among other things, it was described as being in the highest degree carminative. I adored the word. ‘Isn’t it carminative,’ I used to say to myself when I’d taken my dose. It seemed so wonderfully to describe that sensation of internal warmth, that glow, that - what shall I call it? - physical satisfaction which followed the drinking of cinnamon. Later when I discovered alcohol, ‘carminative’ described that similar, but nobler, more spiritual glow which wine evokes not only in the body but the soul as well. The carminative virtues of burgundy, of rum, of old brandy, of Lacryma Christi, of Marsala, of Aleatico, of stout, of gin, of champagne, of claret, of the raw new wine of this year’s Tuscan vintage - I compared them, I classified them. Marsala is rosily, downily carminative; gin pricks and refreshes while it warms. I had a whole table of carmination values. And now,’ Denis spread out his hands, palms upwards, despairingly, ‘now I know what carminative really means.’

    ‘Well, what does it mean?’ asked Mr Scogan, a little impatiently.

    ‘Carminative,’ said Denis, lingering lovingly over the syllables, ‘carminative. I imagined vaguely that it had something to do with carmen-carminis, still more vaguely with caro-carnis, and its derivatives, like carnival and carnation. Carminative - there was the idea of singing and the idea of flesh, rose-coloured and warm, with a suggestion of the jollities of mi-Careme and the masked holidays of Venice. Carminative - the warmth, the glow, the interior ripeness were all in the word.’

  12. Not mechanized, but far surpassed: GPT-3

  13. C.f. as a small example, Dune‘s incessant reteration about the Fremen’s blue eyes. The blue eyes—no white at all. No white at all. Blue-within-blue. No white in their eyes. No white at all!

    Chill out, my dude. I kept waiting for some meta-insert like, “Hi, it’s me, Frank. Frank Herbert. Sorry, I don’t mean to jar you with this meta-narrative interruption, but these eyes, the eyes of the Fremen, they’re just really, /really/ blue, OK? I can’t impress upon you how blue they are, and how spooky it is seeing them. I now I just keep repeating the same phrases whenever they appear, but I’m not sure what else to do. It feels important to me that you’re as impressed as I was when I saw them in my dream. It really freaked me out, and I’d really like to capture that feeling. There’s really no white at all—at all! It’s so disturbing seeing human eyes that way. If you saw it like I’ve seen it, you’d know what I mean.”

  14. A barefaced lie.

  15. Want to add Ready Player One but that has its whole other slew of problems. There’s definitely also parts of Heinlein and Ian M. Bank to be mentioned… But my memory is hazy.

  16. Though for some reason SFFBIDLs tend to stay away from the word “depressing” or “depression.” Is depression not colorful enough?

  17. from Angels by Denis Johnson, by way of a note of David Foster Wallace mentioning five underappreciated novels.

  18. Case: Delany’s writing, for example, is densely woven with these unassuming sentences heavy with meaning. “He thought his own thoughts, occasionally glancing to wonder what hers were.” Or this little exchange:

    “[..] is it all right that I remembered your poem; and wrote it down?”

    “Eh…yeah.” He smiled, and wished desperately she would correct that comma.