Saturday, December 08, 2018

Upon finally reading Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy

“Hurry Seldom tells me you just finished reading Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. Is this true?”

“Yes. In fact Seldom knew this would happen because of his expertise in psychohistory, the principles of which I will proceed to explain to you even though everyone in the Galaxy is aware of them.”

“You fool! The Seldom Plan does not predict the behavior of individuals. And may I ask, why are you reading this classic series only now, instead of doing so at the age of 15, when you should have?”

“Precisely because I did not read it then, First Speaker. And here I am in my 50s, having taught two large classes in science fiction, preparing to teach a third, and I have been feeling like the Shakespeare scholar who has never read King Lear. You know well from your encephalographic research how susceptible academics are to Imposter Syndrome. I am certainly not immune. And you also know, though I will proceed to tell you as if you did not know, the story of how I began my first class five years ago. I told my sixty students that I was not a specialist in science fiction, even though I have read a good deal of it. And I confessed to them that twenty years earlier, I was offered the science fiction course at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. According to my department head, the recently-retired person who had been teaching it had set a fairly low bar, and he assured me that anything I would do would constitute an improvement. Furthermore, he said, it would give me the chance to teach a class of 150 students, almost all nonmajors, which he thought would be good for me—it would broaden my teaching experience considerably. And it might even recruit some students to the English department.”

“You would have underpaid teaching assistants, of course.”

“Of course. And probably a podium and a microphone too.”

“And you decided not to take him up on the offer.”

“As you remember, I thought about it for a couple of days and then came back and said, ‘I’m 32 years old. I honestly don’t have the self-confidence to walk into a classroom in which many of the students will know more than I do about the subject.’ I told him I imagined the class would be nearly all male, with some students wearing Star Trek uniforms (red, of course—it’s always the engineers) and insisting to me that I am wrong, the quantum flux drive does not emit a telltale trail of positrons when the ship re-emerges from hyperspace.”

“And you said all this to your students in a 100-level gen ed class twenty years later.”

“Yes, with this closing twist: I told them that now I was 52 and that I just don’t give a shit. ‘It is absolutely going to happen, in the course of the semester, that one or more of you is going to know more about something in the course than I do. I can promise you that when it comes to 2001: A Space Odyssey, I am one of the leading obsessives on the planet. But sooner or later, one or more of you is going to able to tell me something I don’t know, and you know what? That will be a good day. That will be a day on which I learn something from you.’ And it did happen, more than once—about the Drake Equation, about the Voyager missions, about Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama—and that was great. Those were two of the most successful and well-received courses I’ve taught.”

“So now you have been reading all this dystopian fiction for the past couple of years, and right after finishing Octavia Butler’s Parables, you decide to plunge into the icy bath that is the Foundation trilogy, just so you don’t feel like a complete fraud. Is that it?”

“Yes, First Speaker, that’s pretty much it.”

“Was this wise? Was this well-considered? Did no one warn you that the books would consist largely of dialogues between two men, one of whom is cleverly outwitting the other until, thanks to a sudden reveal, it turns out that the outwitter is in fact the outwittee? Did you not know that Asimov would repeat that formula a few dozen times with a few dozen characters over three books covering a four-hundred-year time span? And tell me, were you adequately prepared for the pervasive misogyny, and the surprising paucity of imagination suffusing a far-future scenario in which men smoke cigars and wear ties and read newspapers?”

“You well know that the answer to all your questions is no, and yet you ask anyway. I am beginning to think you are a man of the Second Foundation, except that if you were, you would probably want to delude me into thinking that you are a man of the Second Foundation, so that I would speculate that the Second Foundation is on the planet Calgon rather than on the planet Tantrum, where you would expect me to suspect its location to be precisely because it would be the least likely place to occur to me, who was born on Tantrum, unless of course the Second Foundation does not exist, in which case you would not be a man of the Second Foundation and you would not have asked me those questions in such an impertinent way, which proves that the Second Foundation does exist and that the Galaxy is on Orion’s belt.”

“You have learned much about the Foundation trilogy, no-longer-young Skybérubé. And yet you have said nothing about how the one character with disabilities, the mutant, throws a wrench into the Seldom Plan and conquers the galaxy because he is so pissed off that he is a mutant, and sterile.”

“Yes. Reading that, right after reading Sami Schalk’s Bodyminds Reimagined and her awesome discussion of intellectual disability in Butler’s Parables, was very much like returning to a more primitive era in a dark corner of the Galaxy, where people are still relying on oil and coal for energy.”

“And yet, for all that, it is a classic trilogy in the genre, winner of a one-time Hugo Award for Best Series Ever. Its influence on postwar American science fiction cannot possibly be overstated. Why, with its Galactic Empire and its rebels, its capital planet that consists of one massive, densely-populated city, its wise-cracking, swashbuckling traders and its one admirable female character … you know where I’m going with this. We couldn’t have Star Wars without Foundation.”

“Quite true. I never really liked Star Wars.”

“Apostate! You have no business reading or teaching science fiction. I will blast you into atoms.”

“You will not, you fatally overconfident interlocutor, because the one thing the quantum flux drive does do is render blasters inoperative. Had you taken my class, you would have known that.”

The end.

Next on the get-to list: N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series.


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