Three Monkeys - Ten Minutes : Presidents Page August 2000

I always find the writing process interesting even when it can sometimes be difficult. This month I set out to write a "prez page" with a bit of comment, a bit of news, a bit of gossip, perhaps a short review and maybe an interesting web page. Instead of that it came out as the following short essay/review. Just how does that happen? Whatever the process, this is what I came up with. Let me know what you think.

I have just finished reading a very interesting and fun collection of essays by David Foster Wallace called A supposedly fun thing Iíll never do again. During one of these essays, Wallace touches upon the notion of "timeless writing". When he was in school a teacher had admonished him to avoid references in his work which would cause that work to be dated. He should avoid modern ephemera and use timeless references. Wallace contends that no writing can be truly timeless as all references in writing must have some historical framework in which it exists and furthermore that since he is writing now he should use a contemporary framework.

Although the essay did not explore the issue in any further depth, it did get me thinking about it. My first conclusion was that timelessness is not a simple yes or no type of attribute and that there are probably many factors which contribute to it. The second conclusion I came to was that it is a valid concept to consider in Science Fiction even when the fiction is set in a time very different from ours. Regardless of when a book is set, there are still referral points to our own time because that is when both the author and the audience exist.

A good example to illustrate this is to be found in the Foundation series of books by Isaac Asimov. The original Foundation trilogy was published as a series of short stories and novellas in the Ď40s. Asimov also published most of his famous robot stories around that time. Both series of stories were not touched from 1957 until 1982 when Foundationís Edge was published. During the rest of the Ď80s Asimov attempted to complete the earlier Foundation series and unite it with the robot stories. He wrote novels that followed on from the original trilogy, ones set just before the trilogy and novels set just after the earlier robot novels.

If you look at the earlier works and compare them to the later works you can see that Asimovís conversation based style of writing has changed little. However the technological and social references are markedly different. Many of the things that Asimov wrote about in the Ď40s simply had no technological basis at the time, but by the Ď80s many of the things he had written about had already been developed, sometimes beyond what he had imagined back then. Asimov was faced with a choice of either writing about obsolete technology, or trying to reconcile the two eras in his work. He chose the latter route as you would probably expect of a scientist. The point is that he was reconciling two times in this century - not the times of his future eras. You can also see that social changes between the Ď40s and the Ď80s are reflected in the way his characters behave.

The Foundation example came easily to mind because I have recently read Foundationís Triumph by David Brin. This constitutes the third book of "The Second Foundation Trilogy". The other books are Foundationís Fear by Gregory Benford and Foundation and Chaos by Greg Bear. These books were written in the late Ď90s and are designed to fit in between Asimovís pre-foundation novels and the original Foundation trilogy. Again you can see that the Killer Bs (as they are known) have written novels which reflect the time in which they are written. Changes in the technology and social attitudes of the world are evident in the work along with the obvious differences in style brought to the page by the different authors.

As for the works themselves, they are a very mixed bunch. The Benford work is the first of the trilogy and is probably the weakest of his career. In the first place, he has completely failed to capture the spirit of Asimovís work. Ostensibly the book is about the establishment of the first Foundation (the one on Terminus) and the way the psychic powers of the Second Foundation come about. By picking up on one of the worst failures of Asimovís robot work and trying to use that as a basis for this work he has made a mistake which limits what the book can achieve. To compound the folly, he has tried to change the basic world building that Asimov had built up. For example, he has changed the way faster than light travel is accomplished in the Asimov universe. I can see no reason for this apart from an ego driven one whereby he gets to use his own personal favourite system. The final result of this book is to add confusion and inconsistency to the Foundation story.

So the question you might ask about the second volume is, how well does Greg Bear handle the hospital pass given to him by Benford. The answer is that he does it brilliantly. Based on their respective collected works, it was always my expectation that Bearís contribution to the series would be the best of the three. What I did not expect was just how good a job he made of it. Foundation and Chaos tells the story of the trial of Hari Seldon. This is an episode alluded to briefly in the introduction to the original Foundation trilogy. Not only does Bear tell this story very well, but he does it in a way which ties up the strange directions taken by Benford while linking back to the original. He even managed to restore the space travel method back to the way it should be. As a further bonus the writing is in a style that is consistent with Asimovís own way of writing - only better. Not that I really wish to disparage the great man, but Isaacís fiction prose style could be pretty pedestrian at times.

It was too much to ask that the Brin contribution would match the previous work. But he is a good author who has produced many enjoyable books over the years, so there was plenty of cause to hope for something worth reading. On balance, I did enjoy Foundationís Triumph but I did have a few niggles. In particular, he has perpetuated a tendency that he has shown in his recent work to introduce too many characters which are not sufficiently well defined or differentiated. Otherwise the story is competently told with some interesting new ideas which give very plausible explanations for why things are the way they are in Asimovís universe. The writing style is not particularly consistent with that of Asimov or the other two authors and more than either of the other there is no appearance of any attempt to do so.

A final thought about Foundationís Triumph is that it is clearly not the final work. Brin leaves so many loose ends, that it is clear that there is more to come. It will be interesting to see how long it takes before the next Foundation novels are written and whether they reflect some different time from the previous volumes.