Thursday, September 28, 2006

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

I'm not thrilled about having to write this review. I know that Asimov's Foundation series is a beloved treasure to many long-time fans of Sci-Fi, and I'm not the kind of person who goes around stomping on other people's picnics. But as benevolent as I may want to be toward Asimov given his productive writing career and his courage to "go down new roads armed with nothing but his own vision" (to borrow a quote from Ayn Rand, out of context), I won't sidestep the obvious conclusion: if this book is any indication, Asimov was not a very good writer.

Based on the Wikipedia entry on Asimov, it appears that I am not the only one who thinks so. The entry states in defense of Asimov, "A considerable portion of such criticism boils down to the charge that Asimov's works are simply dated." Perhaps, but not mine. My criticism involves the man's command of the art of fiction, an art form that pre-dates the rise of Sci-Fi by at least one hundred years.

Here's an example of a key literary problem in Foundation: The plot is not driven by a man. It's not even driven by a machine. It's driven by an abstract idea that transcends eons. Sure, it has a name—Hari Seldon—but this is not really a character at all in any meaningful sense; it's just a moniker for a social theory called psychohistory.

This shadow protagonist is the idea that society is cyclical and can be modeled by mathematics, in other words, after some predictable period of time (?) a society must fall apart under the weight of too much success (!), then it must go through a mystical period, then it must go through a trade period, and so on.

Let's ignore the fact that this is a specious idea. When judging literature as art, the critic should consider only whether the author successfully conveys his theme, not whether his theme has merit. In this case, however, it's actually the theme itself that gets Asimov into trouble.

The theme is enormous—and beyond! The story spans 30 millennia in just under 300 pages!

In order to write a novel that does not consume every shred of wood fiber on planet Earth, Asimov had to make his story leap forward from one epoch to another. He does this by chopping the story up into a succession of mini-plots.

Since the life span of the characters is the same as that of today's humans, each new mini-plot must have its own cast. These men are like house flies that appear in summer and disappear come autumn—and are as memorable. We never care about a single one, and there's no unity between them.

This is an example of what Aristotle called an episodic story. He was not a fan.

The experience of reading such a story ought to be little more interesting than reading an encyclopedia (ironically, if you know the story), except that Asimov displays just enough story-telling talent from paragraph to paragraph that he manages to weave an engaging mini-tale over and over again. It may work if you're patient and very forgiving of the author. Still, I found my willingness to disbelieve stretched beyond its elastic limits so many times throughout the story that reading became an act of will.

Here's another problem: We don’t even see what happens to the main actors in some of the mini-plots, except perhaps through a vague historical reference dropped by some distant descendant—that is to say, by some cog of a man who, like his ancestor, is stuck in one of Sheldon's pre-determined futures. This violates a basic tenet of story-telling: show don't tell. Important events, especially the demise of a main character, should never be narrated.

And yet another problem: We expect to care about the first moving character that we encounter. We assume that he/she will stay with us throughout the entire novel and that we ought to care about him in some way. This was true of Quasimodo, Eddie Willers, Howard Roark, and even Frodo Baggins. Trouble is, Gaal Dornick (the first character in Foundation) meant nothing to the story. He didn’t even really matter to the first mini-plot in which he appeared. This is a major literary mistake. Note to self: never build sympathy for a character you don't intend to use.

As for my overall impression, I go back to Aristotle and his idea of unity. This story shows why Aristotle was right to insist on it. Maybe Asimov knew about this principle. Maybe he thought that his mentioning of Hari Seldon's name now and then would glue his story together. It didn't. The psychohistory premise creates more of a frame around the story than a thread running through it.

But really he could not possibly have unified a story around such an ambitious theme. Even a great philosopher would have had to present an enormous number of concretes in order to demonstrate the kind of change that happens just within a single culture let alone over eons and great distances. Since Asimov could not do it, his story comes off as propaganda. In fact, the ending is mostly narrated instead of demonstrated.

I found myself hoping that the book would end like one of those fun mysteries in which the investigator explains everything just before someone jumps up and declares, "Yes! Yes! I did it! I killed him!". Unfortunately, that didn't happen. The narrator ends the story with a somnambulant description of psychohistory, which leads to nothing but—of all things!—an entry in an encyclopedia.

Certainly nobody important gets killed. Too bad. I was hoping someone would find a way to go back in time and kill Hari Seldon before he could unleash his theory on the unsuspecting universe.

Labels: ,

Thursday, September 21, 2006

In Defense of Still Paintings

I've been thinking more about what I wrote on the subject of still lifes a few days ago, and I realized that I may have created a wrong impression.

A painting doesn't need to have action. It's not like literature in that sense. A subject alone (represented by some object) can provide good material to contemplate. After all, it must be worth looking at if the painter chose to paint it, right?

Well, not necessarily. The issue is selectivity. A good artist chooses to paint an object, not merely because it exists, but because he thinks that it is, in some way, important.

The problem with the still lifes and nudes that I mentioned in my last post is the complete absence of selectivity. The artist could not care any less what the object is. It exists merely as an excuse to put strokes of paint on the canvas. As I said, this approach is fine for a college course or for private practice, but it's not good art. (An interesting question: Is it even art?)

A good artist—a Romantic one in particular—willfully selects an object that he wants to represent, then he selects the right context (or setting) to amplify it or set it off from its surroundings, and finally he uses the many tools of the painter's trade, such as certain color or lighting tricks, to draw all eyes to that object—sometimes even to just one aspect of it if he's especially clever and competent. Again, he does this, not to practice his technique, but to show what he thinks is important.

The truth is, displaying only scenes of action on the walls of a house or a gallery creates its own problem. At some point, the effect is frenetic. It brings to mind the halls of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books where the pictures all move and talk. It's almost creepy when fifteen pairs of eyes are staring at you while you walk down a hallway and when four different battles are raging on the walls of your living room. A calming picture of, say, a well-kempt horse farm surrounded by a vast sea of emerald grasses and manicured forests would be a pleasant alternative.

Labels: ,

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Stampedes of Nudes, or Why I Don't Like Still Lifes

Here's a humorous selection from a short article in The New Yorker, March 20, 2006. It's just one of several ideas that the author, Jack Handey, suggested for improving today's art:

Stampedes of Nudes

The trouble with most paintings of nudes is that there isn't enough nudity. It's usually just one woman lying there, and you're looking around going, 'Aren't there any more nudes?' This idea solves that.

What has frightened these [stampeding] nudes? Is it the lightning in the background? Or did one of the nudes just spook? You don't know, and this creates tension.

I laughed when I read this, but the truth is, Mr. Handey is onto something.

As for me, I've never enjoyed looking at still-life paintings. You know the type: a standard white bowl made of bone china and filled with pears, grapes, and an apple, plus an empty vase and a single pear resting on the counter beside it. Oh, and a pair of spectacles.

Why always spectacles? Are they symbolic of — let me guess — curiosity? And why pears? Why not something really symbolic, like pomegranates?

Anyway, the only time there's any tension in these paintings is when the artist, through lack of talent, makes the table look as if it's slanted forward.

Have you noticed that a lot of paintings of nudes are the same. The nude is just standing/sitting/lying wherever it happens to be easiest to see him or her, meaning all of him, meaning the whole tamale, as it were. But what's the point of that? Photographs are much better for this purpose, and they're readily available on the Internet. Some of them even move and have sound.

Back to still-lifes: Whenever I look at them, I always feel like I'm back in art class. Worse, I feel like I'm an art student who's snooping over some other art student's shoulder, perhaps taking a peak at his final exam sketch. I want to say to him, "That's a nice...grape."

If I'm going to have a bowl of china with fruit in it, I want to see that bowl being thrown across the room by an angry housewife, shards flying, fruit bouncing, husband ducking, and dog hiding under the table. Or if it's a nude, I want to see his arms flailing against the angry Furies or him leaping skyward with his arms wrapped around his lover and his eyes aimed at the heavens. A lot of nudes stampeding would be fine, too, as long as I can determine what spooked them.

At the very least, make the nude tell me something meaningful, say for example, by means of a well-planted foot, a plaintive reach, or a furrowed brow. That way I don't have to spend all of my time focusing on his or her pleasant but otherwise standard parts, and instead I can ponder something more important — and more rare.

That is art; everything else is just a painting.

[Edit: I learned that still lifes are even more boring than I imagined. I'm told that the spectacles aren't symbolic of anything. They just provide a reflective surface, which is difficult to paint. (I also fixed the links to Orestes and Psyche).]

Labels: ,

Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Republican Prince

Alas! If only I lived in the UK, I could have attended the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in order to watch this interesting-sounding play: The Republican Prince by a young playwright named Henry Afton.

On second thought, maybe I don't want to live in the U.K. There's that messy business with Britain's Racial and Religious Hatred Act, not to mention the notorious NHS. Never mind, then. I'll take our version of a mixed economy over theirs. Even so, had I known about this play earlier in the year, I might have used it as an excuse to visit London.

I have no idea whether the play is worth seeing. But the premise! The premise!! (Did I mention the premise?!) How often do we get to see a modern play that even attempts to tackle such a theme? Rostand has been dead for 88 years now, Hugo for 121 years, and Shakespeare for 390. It's been a very long time. (I mean no offense to the delightful and talented Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, W. S. Gilbert, and Arthur Sullivan; it's just that I never quite understood the early and mid 1900s, especially the technicolor frivolity of its musicals.)

As for me, I'd love to see more challenging and Romantic plays make it to the stage, even if it means listening to a bit of hackneyed dialog or stilted acting coming from early efforts. I am personally mindful of the fact that a writer has to begin somewhere. After all, I'm still in the middle of that period of writing myself.

Naturally — or unnaturally, as it were — the critics found nothing good to say about the play. Here's what (new) critic Anna Kay wrote about it in the Edinburgh Guide:

"The supposed heroic climax of the piece is ridiculous and idealistic, rather than in any way feasible."

Sounds good to me! Mr. Afton, ignore those tripe-chomping, mud-wallowing, belly-slithering cynics. Give it your best shot and keep writing!

(—hat tip to Medworth)

Labels: , ,