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Audiobook Review: Foundation by Issac Asimov

Foundation (Foundation, #1)

One of my reading goals for 2021 was to re-read or experience anew the classic sci-fi series getting pop-culture adaptations — Foundation and Dune.

Halfway though 2021, and I’ve made good on part of that with my listening to Issac Asimov’s Foundation. I have to admit that listening to the novel was a different way of experiencing one of the giants of the science-fiction genre and one of the pillars (notice I didn’t say foundation) that all of science-fiction is built upon.

The good news is that Foundation still holds up. It’s a rich, episodic novel that is less concerned with space battles and space opera and more on having characters debate big ideas and moments. The Galatic Empire is failing and historian Hari Seldon says there is nothing that can be done to stop it’s fall. However, the length of the coming Dark Ages can be shortened if all of humanity’s knowledge is collected together on a single planet in a single resource.

Early on, humanity looks to Seldon to guide them through various crises, before realizing that Seldon has pulled a bait-and-switch. There is no intention of publishing an encyclopedia with all of humanity’s knowledge included. Instead, Seldon has created a group to be a beacon of light in the dark times and to possibly consolidate and wield power. And so, over the course of several thousand years, Asimov details the men who will come to power and the crises that will face civilization continuing.

It’s a fascinating series of stories — ones that never fail to intrigue me or hook me. I will go out on a limb here and say that I don’t think Foundation is quite as solid as Asimov’s robot novels, but that’s probably because I read the Robot novels first. The first entry holds up well, though it does concern me how this might be adapted for the screen since most of (OK, all of) the huge dramatic action tends to take place off-screen and we’re treated to various characters talking about what happened and the ramifications of those actions.

I’ll still be tuned in for the upcoming series, though based on the previews, it looks like they’re adapting the first two books for season one. But after listening to this one again, I don’t hold out much hope that the series can and will be as good or as impactful as the book.

Now, time to keep that resolution and start the second installment….

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Review: What Dreams May Come by Richard Matheson

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What Dreams May Come

Many of Richard Matheson’s short stories and novels take a supernatural premise and make it relatable through the use of the characters and their reactions to it.

This isn’t the case with Matheson’s What Dreams May Come. The novel is Matheson’s attempt to look at what happens to us after death and while it’s interesting, I never felt like it necessarily connected with me in the same way that other Matheson novels and short stories have.

Driving home, Chris Nielsen is killed in a car accident. After his spirit lingers in our world for a bit, Chris transcends to the next level of being. While he’s content there, he misses his wife Anne and longs for the day she’ll join him on the other side. But when Ann can’t take the pain of missing Chris, she commits suicide, condemning her to a purgatory of sorts from which her spirit can’t or won’t escape. Chris decides he needs to rescue Ann and undertakes a journey to the underworld to bring her back.

There are early passages in this novel that work very well, from Chris’ initial frustration about not being able to interact with his family and friends while “stuck” on this plane of existence. And while Matheson attempts to set up the romance and deep love that Chris and Ann share, it never quite becomes as transcendent as the novel requires. Chris’ grand gesture to potentially throw away his eternal existence to “save” Ann should feel more monumental than it does.

I found myself growing frustrated with the novel at points because, as I said before, Matheson has given us stories focusing on “love that transcends the bounds of time and space” before in Somewhere in Time. And yet as unbelievable as the premise is that a man could will himself back in time to be with the woman he loves, I found it far more easy to suspend my disbelief for that premise than I did for the premise here. Part of it is that I was a bit more invested in the characters in Somewhere in Time (aka Bid Time Return) than I was in What Dreams May Come.

But even “lesser” Matheson is still enjoyable Matheson. And while I didn’t love this novel as much as some of his other works, there are still some good nuggets buried in here.

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Review: Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain By Issac Asimov

vintage-sf-badgeFantastic Voyage II:  Destination Brain

In his introduction to Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain, Issac Asimov tells us that he wasn’t satisfied with his novelization of Fantastic Voyage and that this novel is an attempt to correct some things he didn’t like about the first novel.

The result is this book which is less a sequel to the original and more a re-telling of the original story and concept. Asimov tries his hardest to make the concept of miniaturization more scientifically plausible, but it’s at the the cost of making the second installment far less interesting and page-turning. The first novel took about half its page length to get the crew miniaturized and inside the human being in question to try and save life. Unfortunately, so does Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain. At several points, I found myself muttering “Let’s get on with the shrinking already” as our hero, Morrison expresses a sense of trepidation about the procedure he is about to undergo.

And it may be with Morrison that this book finds its biggest flaw. Asimov sets up our protagonist as a scientist whose fortunes and favor in the scientific community are on the decline. When approached by a Soviet agent about coming to the Soviet Union to help in an experiment, Morrison is quick to decline, despite the fact that he has no prospects on the horizon in the United States. Even when asked by his own government to go, Morrison declines and eventually has to be kidnapped and taken to the Soviet Union in order to become part of the team.

Morrison protests this treatment a lot over the course of the novel. It feels almost like Asimov wants to remind us every ten or so pages that Morrison has become part of this project against his will. This works to the detriment of the book. Part of the fun of the original was no matter who fantastic the situation, the participants were at least enthusiastic about the opportunity to travel inside a human being and possibly save his life. Here the motivation isn’t so much saving a life but not allowing a scientist to die without passing on vital knowledge that could make the process of miniaturization easier and more cost effective.

Yes, you read that correctly. One of the motivating factors for this journey inside the body of a man and to his brain is to unlock his secrets is entirely budgetary. A good reason, sure. But not exactly one that compels you to turn pages and wonder what will happen next. At least the first novel had the specter of the Cold War hanging over it to drive some of the character and plot motivations.

I kept hoping that once our team of scientists got miniaturized and injected into the subject that things might pick up. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case and the novel plods along at its leisurely pace even once we’re injected and running against the clock. The only moments of tension come when the ship is diverted by a white blood cell and later when Morrison is forced to go to extreme measures to try and make the mission a success. (And even then, he has to be blackmailed into it by the Soviet team though threats of destroying what little is left of his academic reputation.)

The book also suffers from the same flaw that several later Asimov projects do — his desire to tie all his universes together. Thankfully it’s not quite as egregious as Robots and Empire, but there’s a coda that makes Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain a stepping stone toward Asimov’s Robots and Foundation novels. It’s only a couple of pages and it’s meant to serve as a coda, so it’s a bit easier to overlook and forgive than some of the other examples from the Asimov library, but it’s still there.

Had I not read the original novel first, I might have liked this one more. Of course, had I not read the original I might not have been willing to give Asimov the benefit of the doubt I needed to keep plowing through this one in the hopes things would get better.

This one just validates my theory that 80’s Asimov output is no where nearly as entertaining and readable as those stories from his early career. I can see what he’s trying to do here, but I still think the original novel, despite all of its scientific implausibilities, is a more entertaining and enjoyable reading experience.

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Review: Fantastic Voyage by Isaac Asimov

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Better late than never, I guess. January is the Vintage Science-Fiction Non-Challenge month hosted by Little Red Reviewer. I had intended to read a few more vintage sci-fi novels during the month to participate, but the best laid plans often go astray….

However, I was able to pull a book off the TBR pile and read it, as well as watch the movie. It’s Isaac Asimov’s adaptation of Fantastic Voyage.

If you want to read what others have done for the month, check out Red’s page. You’ll find some great stuff!

Fantastic Voyage

Being a bibliophile (aka literary snob), I generally like to read the book (or short story as the case may be) before I see the movie. But in the case of Fantastic Voyage, it isn’t necessarily that simple. The novel is a tie-in into the movie and it’s likely the book wouldn’t exist without the movie. But a quick clicks of the keyboard quickly helped me discover that Isaac Asimov’s adaptation of the 20th Century Fox blockbuster hit the shelves a few weeks before the movie opened, so I felt comfortable in my decision to read the book first and then see the movie.

And I think it all worked out for the best.

My research leads me to believe that Asimov had to be talked into adapting the movie’s script for the printed page and that he agreed to do it if he could be allowed to at least bring some put some science in the science fiction of the plot and premise.

And you can certain see Asimov trying to put some credible science into the concept of miniaturizing a top-secret, top-of-the-line submarine with five people inside down to the point where they can be injected into the body of an injured man. The man in question is a high ranking scientist who is defecting and could help keep the balance of power in check for both sides during the Cold War. The Enemy (they are always capitalized by Asimov) try to take him out on the way to the top-secret installation where he will reveal his secrets to our side and help us either keep up with our Enemy and maintain the balance of mutually assured destruction.

Just as the film spends the first half hour or so setting up the situation and the characters, so does the book spend its first third or so setting up the background. As I said before, it’s interesting to watch as Asimov attempts to reconcile the fantastic premise with real-world science of the day and to speculate on if this could or would happen in the future. The concept of shrinking down people to go inside a person and help break up a clot in a near inoperable place is a fascinating and intriguing and it was apparently very influential. Most genre shows worth their salt will feature a story with character shrunk down a bit — in fact, Doctor Who did it at least twice that I can think of during the classic series run.

Interestingly, Asimov’s book inserts a bit more drama to the situation by emphasizing that this is a race against time — not only to help break up the clot and help reduce any permanent damage to said scientist but also because there is a limit to how long the sub and crew can be miniaturized before the process wears off and they began to revert back to normal size. There’s also the intriguing idea that the passage of time will FEEL different to our heroes in their miniaturized form as opposed to how time is really passing for all of the normal sized people on the outside. The movie does give a nod or two to this, but it doesn’t feel quite as pressing and weighing on everyone as much as it does in the novel.

There’s also the angle of a saboteur being on board the ship and wondering who it might be. Again, the movie brings this up, but it’s not quite as pervasive as Asimov makes it out to be in the novel. Of course, it could be that reading the novel takes a bit longer than watching the film and that allows time for these ideas and turns of events to sink on the reader, rather than just being another obstacle to overcome on-screen.

And while the mission is fairly straight-forward on the outside, once inside the body of the scientist, things go a bit awry. Both the movie and the novel have to come up with a crisis point every few minutes or pages to keep our heroes on their toes. And it’s probably a good thing because it would be rather dull if they just zipped right to the clot, broke it up and got out again without any complications. It’d also make for a shorter book and movie.

Honestly, I have to say that I enjoyed the novel more than the film. The film is good and I can respect and admire how ground-breaking and spectacular the effects were for the time. But there are large parts of the film that feel like stretches of Star Trek: The Motion Picture — we’re supposed to sit back in awe and wonder of what’s unfolding because holy cow, this is fantastic and amazing. And while I’m all for stunning visuals, I still think there should be a plot driving these visuals.

It’s also interesting to see that Asimov expands the ending a bit more — he gets out two love-crossed heroes together (sort of) and we get confirmation the mission was a successful one. Watching the movie, I guess we can figure that it worked because our heroes remove the clot and escape before they revert back to regular size, but the movie doesn’t confirm this for us. Instead, everyone is shaking hands and congratulating our heroes on a job well done and ignoring the fact that we left one guy behind for dead and the sub breaking up inside the scientst. After putting so much emphasis on why we had to get out in time, the movie seems to say — well, it’s OK cause those white blood cells took care of it all. Asimov at least attempts to explain why it’s OK in his version of events.

One thing I find interesting is that outside of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, this is probably his best known work. And while part of me wishes that his Robot novels were better known, I still can’t help but think this book is a good entry point for readers who want try some Asimov but not necessarily feel like they want to take on his Foundation series just yet. It’s a good entry point book. And the fact that you can go out and see the movie after you’re done reading is probably another good selling point.

Is this great Asimov? Probably not.

Is it good Asimov? Absolutely.

It also intrigued me enough to make me want to pick up Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage 2: Destination Brain and read it. I’ve read that it’s less a sequel to this on but instead more of a re-telling with Asimov trying to put better science into the science fiction.

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