Critical Mass

Years ago I ran a not entirely serious science-fiction agony column, including this tasteful exchange:

Q. 'I would like to break into sf but feel that editors would be prejudiced because I have no heartbeat or respiration and pieces are falling off me. Is there any hope?'

A. 'Don't despair. You are dead, but according to Messrs Dick, Hubbard and Tolkien of the Erstwhile Authors' Support Group this can actually increase your sf/fantasy productivity! You also sound as though you would fit in well at conventions.'

Almost, one feels there should be a Hugo category for 'Best Dead Author'. (This in fact exists in the spoof 'Hogu' awards, but here the tradition is to award the uncoveted honour to a living author of moribund prose: I remember Jack Chalker being an acclaimed choice.) A promising newcomer would then be Isaac Asimov, whose lamented death in 1992 was followed by some hefty posthumous collections – assembled by others who did not hesitate to scrape the barrel – and by what surely had to be the very last book of the proliferating 'Foundation' series, Forward the Foundation.

Yet this saga continues, with an authorized 'Second Foundation Trilogy' now emerging: one volume apiece from the highly respected hard-sf authors Gregory Benford, Greg Bear and David Brin. This trio also calls itself, for reasons of impenetrable subtlety, The Killer B's. Book one of the new sequence is Benford's Foundation's Fear (Orbit hardback, 425pp, £16.99, ISBN 1 85723 463 4).

Here the page ripples and blurs, indicating a flashback to 1942 and the initial Foundation stories in John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction. Asimov's central bright idea was psychohistory, a superpowered hybrid of statistics and sociology that enables mathematical guru Hari Seldon to predict the Gibbonesque fall of a far-future Galactic Empire, and to establish the scientific Foundation which will ultimately dominate and reunify our galaxy. Each Foundation skirmish with the fragments and remnants of Empire proves in the blinding light of hindsight to have been choreographed by historical inevitability, alias Seldon's Plan. Indeed it soon seems that the Foundation cannot lose. To vary this emerging pattern, Campbell's editorial instinct suggested chucking a major spanner into the works: a mind-controlling mutant known as the Mule, unpredictable by psychohistory, who disrupts the Plan only to be eventually nobbled by Seldon's 'Second Foundation' of mental (as opposed to physical) scientists.

This first trilogy was wrapped up in novel form by 1958, and established itself as an sf landmark despite that flat, clunky, Asimovian prose which John Clute later described with brilliant tact as 'the default voice of sf'. Eventually, in 1982, Asimov began to extend the sequence with Foundation's Edge, a novel of many longueurs which introduces a sort of Third Foundation ('Gaia') and the belated suggestion that Seldon's Plan is itself a bad thing. One can imagine that Asimov, whose politics were impeccably liberal, had long had misgivings about his implied final utopia whose New Galactic Order would feature the Second Foundation's mind masters as a self-perpetuating oligarchy of born leaders.

The series went further forward in Foundation and Earth (1986) and was also complicated by efforts to establish the Foundation stories and Asimov's once entirely separate Robot sequence as part of a common future history. This led to ironies like our author – a hardline rationalist and sceptic who scoffed at conspiracy theories – having to propose for the sake of continuity that human history was manipulated for scores of millennia (between this century and the Empire's fall) by a benevolent conspiracy of mind-controlling robots.

In flashback, Prelude to Foundation (1988) and Forward the Foundation (1993) deal with the life of legendary Hari Seldon himself. Often the effect is a little diminishing: Seldon's desperate gamble on psychohistorical probabilities at the outset of Foundation is lessened by a revelation that the opposition is being steered by yet more insidious mind control, while – as one cruel reviewer put it – even the chief guru-figure of The Lord of the Rings would have been hard put to retain his awesome stature had Tolkien added a prequel with the final line 'Kiss me again, Gandalf. – Please.' But the pathos of the dying Seldon at the end of Forward the Foundation is memorable, gaining strength from Asimov's unusual empathy with the character, and his own knowledge that he too was dying.

Thus the Foundation scenario, ramified and tangled over half a century from its first component story in 1942 to Asimov's last book in 1993. Greg Benford's task in Foundation's Fear is to slot a new novel into the continuity, telling a complete tale but leaving openings upon which Bear and Brin can build. As a seriously ambitious sf writer, Benford can't help but engage with some of the series' contradictions – not to mention its implausibilities like psychohistory itself, which bothered him from the very start. In a 1979 interview he confessed to the existence of 'all kinds of science fiction which I've been unable to read' and in particular named 'the Asimov Foundation series; I couldn't read those even when I was a teenager. They just didn't seem true or real; my memory is of saying, This is obviously not the way things would be.'

The Benford vision of the way things will be (as exemplified in his long-running Galactic Central sequence) tends towards a dense and dour intricacy, larded with cutting-edge scientific speculation and contrasting strongly with Asimov's sweeping simplicities. Hence parts of Foundation's Fear conjure up the sense of a complexly polyhedral peg being jammed into an all too plain round hole.

This new storyline happens between the first and second sections of Forward the Foundation, a period of Hari Seldon's life in which he's a well-known academic becoming gradually and necessarily entangled in Galactic-Imperial politics on the capital planet Trantor, while finding what time he can to develop the equations of psychohistory. By way of narrative compensation for the basic lack of drama in mathematical research, Benford follows Asimov's lead and harries Seldon with assassination attempts, pursuit/escape sequences and interludes of tasteful sex. You can think of it as either a timeless dramatic trope, or a jarring turning-back of the clock of sophistication by some 40,000 years, when Seldon escapes one gang of murderers by wrenching loose a ceiling panel and vanishing into the dusty crawlspaces of the Imperial Palace. But this younger Seldon does emerge as a clever fellow, someone we can believe might be a genius, and who thinks his way out of awkward situations in preference to (as on one or two regretted Asimovian occasions) socking the foe on the jaw.

One successful innovation is Benford's answer to the question of why there are no aliens in the Foundation galaxy. The real-world reason was partly that Asimov's widescreen thought experiment was based on specifically human history, and partly because he didn't want editorial battles with Campbell's dogmatic views about the inherent inferiority of alien gooks. The new suggestion arises all too logically from the incorporation of the robot stories, with robots as millennial secret guardians of humanity. Driven by the First Law of Robotics, the need to protect humans from even potential harm, robots have apparently traversed the galaxy ahead of us and purged it of alien life in a wave of multiple genocides. A few immaterial survivors (we've met this kind of intelligence in the Galactic Central books) still exist as parasite presences in the Empire's data net ... full of hatred and yearning for revenge.

Building up to this revelation, Benford drops in a long subplot whose contact with Seldon is minimal. This is a thoughtful and very Benfordian meditation on simulated AI personalities. With inspired daftness, the two intensively researched simulations dug up to participate in a public spectacle – theological debate as mass entertainment! – are Voltaire and Joan of Arc. They dominate half the book, and after escaping into the imperial net and learning to survive there, they find ...

A slightly less successful addition to the Foundation universe – although it makes for a good interstellar chase sequence – is a galactic transit system of spatial wormholes. These have the advantage of being just about respectable in terms of 1990s physics (see Stephen Baxter, passim), but don't cohabit very convincingly with the doubletalk 'hyperspace Jump' consistently used by Asimov.

Yet another fresh plot strand concerns the world of 'pans', mysterious primitive cousins of humanity who are exploited by scientists and tourists via equipment allowing a human to ride a pan's mind. In Foundation's Fear the pans are mainly an interesting distraction camouflaging yet another assassination attempt, but one wonders whether Benford is laying groundwork for development by David Brin of 'Uplift' series fame. Similarly, some canny mentions of chaos theory in the psychohistorical context may point towards Greg Bear's imminent sequel, Foundation and Chaos.

(The detachability of the 'pan' segment is indicated by its prior publication as a non-Foundation story, 'Immersion'. It turns out that Benford had also published much of the Voltaire/Joan material in anthologies several years earlier, and – in the manner of A.E. van Vogt – forcibly incorporated it into the Foundation universe.)

Overall, Gregory Benford has done a good, honest job here. But – to praise him with faint damns – he writes too well, thinks too complexly, to fit comfortably into that old-fashioned Asimov mould.