Sunday, 29 July 2012

Foundation and Patriarchy

This post is about Isaac Asimov and the Foundation series. Before I go further I'll point out that I like Asimov, and greatly value what he has done for science fiction, as well as his contributions to science, science popularisation, skepticism and humanism. If I appear to become quite critical, bear that in mind. Also, Spoiler Alert, for anyone who has not read the Foundation trilogy. So, on with the rant...

I recently finished reading Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy, his epic galaxy-spanning tale of conquest, survival and rebellion after the decline and fall of the first galactic empire (I'm focusing on the three books of the original trilogy, not the sequels and prequels he wrote much later). In general, I found the series to be excellent, with many interesting concepts, both in terms of science and how people deal with it. It was fascinating the way that technology, in the first book, is turned into a kind of religion, in order to spread it to people without them being able to understand the science behind it, and then of using it to control those who revere its mystic qualities. There were interesting ideas in the third book concerning mind control, namely if someone was influencing your desires and altering your loyalties, would you be able to tell; and if your mind was compromised in such a way, would you still be the same you? One of the bigger themes, pervading the three books, was the way people might behave if they thought the future was pre-ordained, and the faith and complacency they feel when they believe they are destined to win no matter what.

However, it became obvious mid-way through the first book ('Foundation') that every single one of the characters was male. Not only all of the lead characters, such as the rulers of the Foundation or their adversaries, and the rogueish merchant traders, but pretty much anyone they deal with. In a whole galaxy, that seems a bit lop-sided. There are two exceptions, whose appearance was conspicuous given the obvious omission so far. One of these is the wife of a planetary ruler, acquired for diplomatic purposes, being the daughter of a neighbouring warlord; whose entire dialogue (her existence spans only a few pages) seems to consist solely of nagging at, moaning about, or generally belittling her husband, in some kind of clich├ęd 50s stereotype. The other female character's presence is even more fleeting, her entire purpose being to go "ooh shiny!" when some heroic space-trader presents her with a high-tech necklace. In all, not a particularly flattering or considered portrayal of half the population of the galaxy; and the perception of space as a massive boys' playground was wearing rather thin by the end of the book. Not that any of the men had particularly deep or developed characters though, each being rather single-minded and flat: but that's partly down to the way the book is written, consisting of a series of short segments of the Foundation's history, spaced decades apart.

Things seem to get somewhat better in the second instalment though ('Foundation and Empire'), with the introduction of Bayta Darell (see - I can actually remember her name). She is one of the main characters of the book, albeit primarily because she happens to be the wife of a figure involved in the democratic rebellion. She's a reasonably strong character, though much of her purpose revolves around being the understanding, compassionate, fragile, weak-but-caring trope. Her actions are pivotal to the end of the novel (really, spoiler alert), where her quick thinking (after a few chapters of muddling along) in shooting the old psycho-historian, just on the brink of the big reveal, is pivotal in the development of the whole story arc. So while her actions consist mostly of following her husband from planet to planet and being all wifey, she is at least a female character that exists, with some importance to plot - or so it at least seems, but we'll get to that...

The third book ('Second Foundation'), for the most part, continues in a similar vein, with good old space men zipping around the galaxy being all daring and wise, or plotting their cunning treachery as the plot gets ever more complex, never quite knowing who the good guys are (actually, for most of the book I was convinced there were none). Here is perhaps the best potential for a strong female character, where Arcadia (14 year old daughter of a prominent scientist and grand-daughter of the above-mentioned Bayta) shows some actual courage and determination, eager to be part of the action and basically have an adventure. She goes as far as managing to acquire high-tech listening equipment (in the time-honoured method of flirting with the nerdy kid) to find out what her father and his mysterious associates are up to, then stows away on a ship to see for herself, and to be part of the action. It seems that the female hero has finally arrived, albeit with rather a lot of being scared, followed by pretty much running away to a quiet corner of the galaxy until everything is alright (admittedly she has fairly sound reasons for doing so, but still). She still manages to be quite pro-active in achieving what she needs - namely, getting a message across the galaxy to her father, without knowing who she can trust or who might be under the influence of the mysterious Second Foundation (achieved by profiteering in a massive war, incidentally, but that's fairly standard by now), and so basically saved the day, or so it would appear.

But all this cunning and bravery can't be natural, right? The girls and women can't really be that clever and daring, can they? Indeed, no: and this is the point at which I got properly annoyed about the whole lack-of-actual-women-in-the-whole-of-space thing. It turns out that Arcadia, and Bayta before her, were acting as they did because they too had been under the subtle influence of the Second Foundation. Yes: they only actually showed any initiative, bravery, aggression, or sense to run away because they were being mind-controlled by a conspiracy of psychologists on another planet in order to maintain the thousand-year plan for the next empire. OK, that's all valid plot-wise, and the long time-scale over which the grand plans unfold is a major (and fascinating) theme of the books - but this also gives the impression that Asimov considers women to be pretty much incapable of anything noteworthy, unless they happen to be made artificially heroic by not-entirely-explained psychological manipulation. This third book actually lessens the regard which I had for characters in the second book, when things started to be looking up.

I should mention for completeness that there are a few other women in the third book - the one that is not a fairy bland housewife / maid is the clingy, needy, pathetic mistress of the ruler of a strategically important planet. Her purpose seemed to be to annoy her man with inappropriate pet names and be chastised for it, and desperately latch onto any form of contact with another female. Or so it seemed, for it turned out she was an agent of the Second Foundation, merely playing the part of a pathetic weak-willed hanger-on - her identity is revealed when her disguise slips momentarily, since she considers Arcadia too stupid to notice. So at least women are capable of being lying and manipulative members of this secret and highly advanced gang of psycho-historians.

So in all, the trilogy doesn't paint a very good picture of the author's consideration of women (I'm not saying he hated women, or was fundamentally misogynistic - just that he didn't deem it necessary to actually write any decent ones into these books). Now, obviously, this trilogy was written in the 1950s, so we perhaps shouldn't have too high expectations; it is pretty much contemporaneous with The Lord of the Rings, that other epic trilogy in which women, for the most part, are content with being wives, queens and signposts. But still, this is science fiction, set thousands of years into mankind's (oh, I mean humanity, how did I forget...) future - so the thing which I find most odd is that Asimov, while capable of thinking up the most fantastic vision of the future of the human race, as it spreads out amongst the stars with an array of fabulous technology, assumes that societal organisation will remain totally unchanged. Without exception, all of the societies in the Foundation trilogy, on innumerable planets through five hundred years of history, are modelled in the same patriarchal way as a 50s nuclear family, or worse as dynastic monarchies typical of medieval history and fantasy epics.  Again, this has to be seen in its historical context, but even so there had been vast progress in women's liberation and rights in the decades preceding these books, with women's suffrage, the right to actually be considered human, and the rise of second-wave feminism being reasonably recent occurrences, with progress showing no signs of slowing down by the mid 50s - so I am confused as to why Asimov did not extrapolate this further, or even play with the ideas in the various future cultures he invokes. In fact, Asimov considered himself a feminist, and regarded the education of women as a key need for society, in part in order to reduce the rapidly growing population - so it's not as if he would have been alien to such ideas.

Of course, the above is based entirely upon the three books of the Foundation trilogy. I've not read much else of his work, so it might not be a particularly fair sampling. Indeed, the other three books in the series - added many years later - may redress the imbalance; and I can't vouch for the content of his hour hundred or so other novels. However, it's worth noting that the Foundation trilogy is his best known work, and the books he wrote during that period generally remain his most popular.

One of the only other books by Asimov I've read is The Stars Like Dust, which has quite a similarly disappointing portrayal of women. One of the main characters (I forget her name) is a princess-like daughter of one of the main planetary rulers. As important as her actions may be to the plot, her main purpose seems to be as a love interest to the protagonist, and to tag along on his adventure. From what I recall she isn't portrayed in a particularly enlightening way, with plenty of "oh you know what women are like" moments. The main things I remember about her is that at one point it's necessary to attach a separate living pod onto their tiny spaceship to house her (while being on the run, or on a secretive mission, or generally in a bit of a rush), lest she have to be indecently close to the males present, and because she needs a lot of space because... well, woman stuff, or something. I read Stars Like Dust a few years before Foundation (twice actually, without realising), and remember back then being struck by his less than egalitarian portrayal of the major characters; and so this further bolsters my impression of Asimov's writing having a disappointingly misogynist slant.

Again, this was written about sixty years ago, and so are very much a product of their time - so I don't hold it against Asimov particularly. Then again, as I alluded to above, while his writing, being science fiction, is predominantly about futuristic technology and its consequences (and perhaps can't be expected to do the whole social justice thing as well), science fiction has always really been about people and society; so when quite a large aspect of society is assumed to be completely static, it is quite an obvious omission.

It's interesting to compare Asimov to other science fiction writers of the time. I recently read The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard, and the level of misogyny there was appalling, with the sole female character being generally described as listless, unreasonable, hysterical and generally incapable (often referred to simply as "the girl"). This would have been even more striking if it weren't for the bizarre neuroscience woo pervading the book, and the horrendous levels of blatant, unjustified racism - and so things could definitely be worse. My limited experience of reading Brian Aldiss and Ursula K. Le Guin hinted at some better things, with a sprinkling of key female characters, with no particularly memorable instances of sexism to complain about. Arthur C. Clarke's books (the Odyssey series in particular) fared rather better, with there being plenty of characters involved in the plot, who just happened to be female. This is especially pronounced in the later books (though these were written decades later), set in the near and distant future, where women are spaceship captains, engineers, scientists and so on, without that being a particularly remarkable thing - just as one would hope society would develop, given its trajectory so far.

Even though Asimov's Foundation books were written quite some time ago, and we can perhaps forgive him for merely reflecting the prevailing views of the times, I still think it's something worth mentioning. This is classic science fiction, and has had a big impact on a lot that followed, both in books and film, so it's important to realise what it got wrong as well as what it got right. Given the sexism, racism, and classist attitudes prevalent in many books of the time, and earlier (both in science fiction and in literature in general - I'm looking at you Conrad and Doyle) things could have been worse, but when trying to imagine the far distant future, things could have been better. It's always worth bearing such issues in mind when considering the genre often called 'hard' sci-fi: while it may well appear as scientifically rigorous as possible, it isn't always so thorough in other matters.


  1. Have you read much Iain M Banks? I just finished reading 'Matter', one of his novels set in the galaxy-spanning 'Culture'. Highly recommended all round, and I think you'd find the portrayal of the genders considerably more balanced...!

    1. No I haven't yet, but have been intending to since reading an interview with him in New Humanist (the Culture stuff certainly sounds intriguing). That's reassuring, I will investigate...

  2. Before he died, Asimov wrote about his female characters and their context: 1) the fact that he was strongly influenced by the pulp science fiction stories that he read while growing up in the 1930s, 2) he modeled his "future history" on Edward Gibbon's "History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", written in the 1700s, 3) when he started writing the Foundation stories, as bookish nerd he had meager personal knowledge of women and 4) there were crippling constraints under which he wrote the Foundation stories for John Campbell (who had fixed ideas about European male superiority) in the 1940s. Given these constraints, Asimov may have done about as good as can be expected in how he wrote the female characters of the Foundation Trilogy.

    If you get a chance, try reading Asimov's "The End of Eternity", "Prelude to Foundation", "Robots and Empire", and "Nemesis" where the female characters reflect his more mature style.

    1. Thanks for that, very interesting. Good to hear he was aware of it, and I understand there were mitigating circumstances which led to the books being as they are. Like I said, it could have been a lot worse, and don't blame him really - but still think it's worth discussing.

      I certainly intend to read the other Foundation books (and I have an enormous stack of his other novels waiting to be read), so it will be interesting to see how these ideas develop.


Join in! Say things!