This is a literary review episode, but it’s gong to take a while to get to the actual review.
We are a week into November. Most years by this time I would have dumped upon you all, faithful readers, a long and maybe-not-so-good pile of prose. It’s NaNoWriMo, after all, and true to form, this year on November 1st I produced a lot of words. But before I share those words with you, I want to provide a little context.
Back when I was a regular at Piker Press, I wrote a series of stories that had a golden-age vibe. The first story was called “Tin Can”, and the following stories fall into what I call the Tincaniverse. My project this month is a novella in that space. Ultimately I’d like to iron out some inconsistencies and publish the bunch together.
A classic example of a series of smaller stories coalescing into a single grander story is the Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov. If I’m planning to pull off the same stunt, best to study from the master.
Flashback! Once, on a muggy afternoon in a Kansas dormitory, I heard Jim Gunn say something like, “You can’t build a story just on dialog, although Asimov wrote a lot of stories like that.” By the tone of his voice, I don’t think he was revering Asimov’s dialectical skills.
So, the Foundation Trilogy. I found an inexpensive download of the trilogy as a single purchase and opened it up on my glowing screen. First, an entertaining intro by Asimov, written long after the trilogy was originally published, but before Foundation’s Edge (the first follow-up novel) was published, maybe twenty years later.
In that intro, I was extraordinarily pleased to read Asimov referring to Jim Gunn by name, as Isaac was searching for the proper voice for the new work in that universe.
Then there was another copy of the same essay, and finally the stories themselves. It was obviously an uncritical optical scan of a print version, as every use of the word ‘torn’ was turned into ‘tom’, and so forth. A few hours of an intern’s time could have cleared most of that up, but then I might have had to pay more than three dollars.
Anyway, the stories.
I think the most important thing to know is that Asimov wasn’t really a fiction writer, he was a puzzle writer. In much of his fiction, his characters are faced with a puzzle they must work out. The first stories in the Foundation series are very simply Men Talking and Figuring Shit Out. Occasionally a Man will travel to another place to talk to other Men and figure shit out.
Lest I disparage too greatly, it is cool that there is a whole history of the universe based on cleverness. The heroes in this story win by being smarter than their rivals.
But holy crap there’s a lot of yapping. And a lot of men. Men yapping with other men. And through the course of the entire dang series there are exactly two significant female characters, and at least judged relatively, the two women are by far the most active and interesting characters in the whole goddam trilogy.
The “trilogy” is really just the convenient container for a series of short stories and a couple of novellas. So now I’m trying to put a novella into my world of short stories. What have I learned from that example?
Not much, to be honest. I loved the Foundation Trilogy when I was a kid, but it hasn’t matured with me. But I do know that if you keep a steady arc you can build a large story out of a series of smaller stories.
But to do that you need an anchor. In Foundation there is a core component of the stories, an idea called psychohistory. Psychohistory allowed that with a large enough populace you could predict its response to stimulus, and thus guide humanity. Or oppress. One of my previous NaNoWriMo efforts was called “Math House” as was a direct response to that idea, set in a world where statistics were weaponized — and when math is outlawed, only outlaws do math.
In the Tin Can stories, the anchor is a little softer, a little deeper, a little more human. I just have to remember it with every sentence I write.
I think Apple recently announced they were going to produce a version of the Foundation Trilogy. Or maybe it was Amazon, or whoever. You can look it up if you care. Whoever it was that picked up that project, I wish them luck. And I hope they do not feel too bound by the source material. Although guys talking in a room is not that expensive to shoot.
I recall two trilogies in 60’s paperback in my father’s bookcase: Lord of the Rings and Foundation. Foundation was a lot easier to get through, and I really liked reading “golden age” Sci-Fi in the 70s. I haven’t read Foundation since, but like you, remember it fondly. I suspect like you I might find it hasn’t aged well for me. But I have been recommending it to my son Doug who likes to raid my bookshelf (Dad pats himself on back here) and has been asking for classic Science Fiction. I forwarded him this post.
Asimov is a great writer, in the sense that he’s engaging, and has breadth (as far as I know, the only author published in all 10 major Dewey Decimal sections). Asimov is an awful writer, in the sense that even high school English teachers would feel comfortable giving him advice. But as much as I want to read good writing, I’d rather read engaging writing, and I suspect there are a few folks who gave up when they washed out of MFA programs that cost the reading public some awesome books.
Foundation doesn’t hold up to adult reading at all, though. I do think a mini-series with some stiff editing could be a perfect “density” for the trilogy, though.