Forward the Foundation (all the spoilers are in here)

*spoilers – if you don’t want to know who dies, don’t read this post*

Forward the F76679oundation is my favourite book the series so far, after Foundation itself. Despite being the second book in the series chronologically, it is obvious that it was the last book Asimov wrote. I say this because there is a distinct improvement in the portrayal, and representation, of female characters in this book compared to the others I’ve read in the series.

I do find refuge in knowing that I am not alone in calling out Asimov’s misrepresentation of women in his Foundation series. I thought I might be, for when discussing the books and my opinions with my husband, who had also read the series, he didn’t share my views regarding the treatment of women in the books. He was surprised that the treatment of women and the dynamic between Dors and Seldon seemed to be my focus. He also pointed to the fact that Asimov assigned a female character as Seldon’s protector (Dors) as evidence that Asimov was not, in fact, sexist.

You know what? That’s true. Asimov could have easily made Seldon’s bodyguard a man and worked in Dors some other way. But Dors wasn’t a woman, was she? She was a robot. And Bayta and Arcadia were Controlled by male psychohistorians. And Raschelle’s only weakness was her womanhood.

We had different interpretations – which is fine, that happens – but to me the sexism and stereotyping were so blatant and persistent throughout the series, it struck me as odd that I would be the only one to see it. It seemed so apparent to me that I thought that in order to deny its existence one would have to be choosing not to see it; turning a blind-eye, diminishing or dismissing it.

Then I reconsidered: perhaps it is possible that the sexist treatment of women in Asimov’s novels stands out more to women because we, as readers, are more aware of them. Our experiences have shaped us to recognize inequalities (especially those against women) when we see them. I think this can be said about any group who has been discriminated against – members of that group are more aware of the inequalities which create obstacles in their lives, and more likely to call them out. Men have not had the same experiences as women in terms of gender-based stereotypes. Does this make them less aware of the inequalities which surround them? Is this one of those  “till it happens to you” situations?

Turning to the interwebs to see what others thought about Asimov’s Foundation series specifically within the context of the treatment of women, I was relieved to find many others shared my interpretation. Have I mentioned how much I enjoy being right? There is a great post here which echoes my sentiments (and has much better writing!), and a pretty good and balanced discussion thread on Goodreads here. If you’re interested.

There is an argument that the books should be treated as products of their time; written in the 1950s, could one really expect the treatment of women to be any different? And to that I say yes. First, other sci-fi authors from the era managed to envision egalitarian or at least gender-equal worlds. Second, considering the author identified as a feminist and was writing a futuristic novel about the evolution of society? HELL YES.

Like I said, Forward does offer some improvements – for example, two of the four parts in the book have female title-characters (Dors Venabili and Wanda Seldon) and Wanda is credited with revolutionizing and saving psychohistory. It is nice to see this kind of progression and improvement in Asimov’s writing. I would hope it comes as a result of the evolution of his own personal views, however after reading multiple accounts of how he was known for sexual harassment in the workplace (click here, here, and here), I’m not going to get my hopes too high. Interesting that Asimov considered himself a feminist…

There are some really interesting stories and ideas presented in Asimov’s Foundation series, if you can get past his issues with female characters. Obviously, psychohistory sounds hella cool. As I’ve mentioned, I believe this to be the future application, and evolution, of actuarial science. Also, the sociology of Trantor is in itself a fascinating study, as is the concept of the causes of the fall of empire and the conditions and processes by which society rebuilds. Then there’s robots, mentalics, the representation of religion and the supernatural…this is some really interesting stuff, you guys!

OKAY. BACK TO THE BOOK – Forward the Foundation. 

The book was good. It provides closure to the story lines of some my more beloved characters from Prelude, before they disappear entirely in Foundation. We say goodbye to Daneel (though I’m willing to bet he shows up again later), Dors, Cleon, and Raych (NOOOOO).

I loved Raych from the start. The little gavroche just melted my heart. I’m glad that Asimov made him a prominent character in both Prelude and Forward, providing readers the opportunity to see him grow in to an adult and find out how his story ends. Isn’t closure a wonderful thing?

I would like to know, however, where this whole mind-meld ability of Wanda’s and others comes from. That was never explained…was it a natural evolution in humans? A mutation? If it’s a natural evolution, then it is logical that it would continue to occur throughout the galaxy, and not be isolated to the Second Foundation. In this case, the Second Foundationers should be able to account for the inevitability of the Mule, or another like him, in their psychohistory calculations.

Question: Where are the aliens and other races? Twenty-five million planets and everyone is human?

Only two left!

Wait, what??

I started Forward the Foundation last night and this morning, page 21, the beginning of Ch. 4, stopped me dead in my tracks:

What do you mean you don’t understand Dors’ knowledge of robots, Hari? What do you mean you don’t understand her true relationship with Demerzel? What do you mean you don’t know why she stayed with you?

The answer to all of these questions is clearly that she’s a robot, which you deduced and confronted her about at the end of Prelude, which you also decided that you, and I quote, “don’t care!” Hari, you said that multiple times. You described her as inhuman. You told her she was different. You said you knew and that you didn’t care.

So what gives??

I know there were 5 years between the two books but there’s no way Asimov is that bad at continuity – consider the rest of the series (and his two other series which occur in the same Galaxy) as proof.

One possible interpretation is that Hari has convinced himself that he was wrong, that Dors isn’t a robot. Even that he never explicitly said she was a robot at the end of Prelude and was never sure to begin with, and now he’s decided to believe she’s human because that’s a nicer thing for him to believe.

I went back and reviewed the last chapter of Prelude to make sure I didn’t misread it. Maybe it read in to it with too much of a bias – maybe this other interpretation is possible.

Nope.

I just don’t see how Dors and Hari can have the kind of confrontational dialogue they have at the end of Prelude and then Hari can seemingly behave as if that exchange never happened. The narrative just doesn’t connect for me.

Confused, I briefly googled around to see if there were forums or posts on the interwebs which could help me understand this about-face. It looks like there are some out there, but they are riddled with spoilers of the remaining books in the series.

It looks like all I can do here is keep reading and see how this plays out.

But, for the record, I’m calling shenanigans.

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