Wednesday, August 19, 2015


I began reading prose fantasy and science fiction, in addition to comic books, steadily at the age of 15 and have never stopped. In my first ten years of SF-reading, I probably read most of the works that early fans considered "the classics," not least the works of "the Big Three:" Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. None of them wrote the sort of fantastic fiction to which I aspired, as I soon became most enamored with the genre of fantasy, but of the three, Asimov was the one whose works I most consistently enjoyed.

Yet I did not enjoy the two books in the FOUNDATION series that I read in those days, and consequently did not bother to read the first book in the series, entitled simply FOUNDATION. Much more recently, though, my SF-book club voted to read the book. Therefore I finally read the missing chapter in the series once given a 1966 Hugo Award for "Best All-Time Series."

Harlan Ellison once gave an interview-- which I'm recalling purely from memory here-- in which he described talking to Asimov about adapting the latter's "Robot" stories into a coherent screenplay-- which was certainly not used for the later Will Smith movie I, ROBOT. Ellison claimed that Asimov cautioned him that these were all "bad stories" and wouldn't make good movie-fodder.

I've no way of knowing whether or not Asimov actually said this. But if he did, it's interesting that he would downgrade the "Robot" stories, since in my eyes the early tales are eminently good reading. They're simple, problem-oriented stories, but they have the sort of humor and lively dialogue that I found characteristic in the best works of the author.

In contrast, I still remember my extreme distaste for the two FOUNDATION novels that I did read. All novels in the series were predicated on the idea that in a far-future galactic empire, founded exclusively by humans from Earth, which was doomed to fall into chaos (Asimov was reading Gibbon's DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE at the time). However, this Empire could be saved, thanks to the genius of one scientist, Hari Seldon. Seldon creates a mathematical science called "psychohistory" that can predict large-scale future developments by analyzing the movements of the societal masses. Although the original Empire does decline and fall, Seldon's system, carried on by his adherents long after his death, manages to circumvent total galactic chaos, making possible the rise of a better form of empire, called the Foundation. 

The original book is not a novel as such, having been composed of eight interrelated stories originally serialized in SF-magazines; to the best of my knowledge, the two sequels followed the same pattern. And all of the story-arcs follow the same basic story-pattern. An adherent of Seldon encounters some obstruction to the grand plan for the Foundation's rise, and takes steps, usually off-camera, to prevent them. Then  he sits down with his opponent, and the two of them go back and forth in endless talking-head scenes, as the "Seldonite" demonstrates his superior cleverness and the inevitability of psychohistorical destiny. 

I remember thinking that the Foundation novels were just like watching chess-moves translated into vapid dialogue from cookie-cutter characters: "You thought you had me with that move, but I countered thusly." "Yes, but I knew you would counter thusly, so I counter-countered you." "Yes, but I knew that you knew that you would counter-counter, so..." Since even watching a real chess-match would probably be more entertaining than this folderol, I'm somewhat of a loss to figure out how such a series became so popular in science-fiction.

A simple answer would be that the appeal of the FOUNDATION novels is basically "Revenge of the Nerds." Characters endlessly chant the favorite maxim of Hari Seldon, that "violence is the last resort of the incompetent," while finding all sorts of ways to trick or hoodwink their opponents into defeat. The Seldonites, then, use indirect rather than direct, violent means to effect compulsion, just as the heroes of the "Nerds" movies use trickery to get around their stronger opponents. However, that by itself seems too simple an answer.

Long before reading FOUNDATION, I'd come across another critic's assertion that psychohistory was just Karl Marx's historical materialism under the veil of pretend-science. And indeed, the book ends with one of its sound-alike narrators predicting the likelihood of future problems:

What business of mine is the future? No doubt Seldon has foreseen it and prepared against it. There will be other crises in the time to come when money power has become as dead a force as religion is now. Let my successors solve those new problems, as I have solved the one of today.

This is probably the principal appeal of the FOUNDATION series: it offers a technocratic solution to all of the inequities against which modern-day man struggles.  Not surprisingly, the main opponents to the rise of the Foundation are "religion" and "money power," the same factors that Marx hoped would be nullified by the rise of the proletariat. Asimov, himself a scientist, envisions a world where 
such factors cannot affect man's destiny, which is controlled entirely by rational scientists.

I could probably tolerate Asimov's simplistic enshrinement of scientific knowledge and methodology, if FOUNDATION had put across his wonky technocracy with any wit or charm. But even though Asimov was a master at creating simple but charming characters, all of his characters in the series are walking ciphers, whether good or bad. The common world of birth, death, and family relations does not exist for them, and I don't even remember any female characters in FOUNDATION itself.  Like Marx's historical materialism, Asimov's psychohistory can only work within a universe where human beings are almost completely predictable. The only exception to this rule appears in the latter two books, as the Foundation is threatened by a psychically-endowed mutant named "the Mule"-- and he's the only character I remember from these books.

I can't fairly review the latter two books, not having read them for over thirty years. But FOUNDATION is an awful "classic" of science fiction, full of stodgy characters and preening self-congratulation.  

Tuesday, August 18, 2015


One of the most impressive feats of Roy Thomas during his last years as an exclusive employee of Marvel Comics was a multi-issue THOR storyline involving Wagner's Ring operas, the polytheistic pantheons of the Marvelverse, and the reason that Thor's daddy Odin created the Destroyer. However, as explained by Thomas in the comic's letters-column, one of the main purposes of the storyline was to bring Kirby's 1976-78 concept THE ETERNALS into Marvel continuity. Though it's clear that Jack Kirby didn't care anything about melding his creation with the other Marvel books, Thomas clearly intuited that since Marvel owned the whole concept, sooner or later someone would bring Kirby's creations into mainstream Marvel, if only within the context of some dismal team-up issue. Thus the principal purpose of THOR #283-300 was to produce a mammoth crossover that did justice to the scope of Kirby's creation, by having the Lee-Kirby version of Thor investigate this strange new breed of "gods"-- although they were only gods in terms of the names they inherited. In truth, the Eternals were not creative forces, but the creations of brobdinagian aliens called the "Celestials," with whom Thor finds himself in conflict.

Having re-read the continuity, I have to admit that the crossovers with Thor and the Eternals are probably the clunkiest parts of the long sequence, although the Celestials make for great villains. Thomas did not actually complete the entire epic, as exigencies forced him to turn over the writing duties to Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio. Similarly, though John Buscema began the sequence, the majority of the penciling was done by Keith Pollard, and may represent his best work for Marvel Comics.

Despite Thomas' legendary commitment to continuity, he drops the ball in the "Seigfried" sections in that he shows how Odin gave birth to Thor by a non-Asgardian mother-- yet somehow tries to imply that Odin's mortal spawn, the Seigfried of the Wagnerian narrative, is also actually Thor by some unexplained logic, rather than being simply the Thunder God's half-brother. Perhaps Thomas meant to use one concept introduced in issue #294, "the Celestial Axis," as a catch-all explanatory device, but if so, he failed to follow up on it, as did Macchio and Gruenwald.

Nevertheless, it's a great romp through the many worlds of the Marvel cosmos.