The action of Foundation’s Fear actually takes place within the action of Forward the Foundation, specifically between Part I ("Eto Demerzel") and Part II ("Cleon I"). Eto Demerzel, aka R. Daneel Olivaw, has vanished after leaving his post as the Emperor Cleon I’s First Minister, and Cleon, based on Demerzel’s recommendation, is pushing for none other than Hari Seldon to succeed him.
Seldon is reluctant, because he feels inadequate, disinterested, and doesn’t want to be distracted from psychohistory. His wife, Dors Venabili, is also reluctant, because her sole purpose in life is to protect Hari and that would be made harder by his being First Minister. (Among the drawbacks: Palace security would detect her true nature as a humaniform robot and have to be circumvented.) And there is formidable opposition most notably in the form of Betan Lamurk, a powerful aristocrat who wants the job of First Minister for himself.
But Cleon is Emperor and determined to have his way in this matter. Repeated assassination attempts drive Seldon from Trantor. He uses the time to try to get insights into human basic nature by merging his mind with that of a “pan” (that is, a genetically enhanced chimpanzee) and then has to embark on a head-long flight back to safety.
Meanwhile, Seldon’s assistant, Yugo Amaryl, has discovered ancient computer simulations of full-fledged human personalities (sims). The sims, of shadowy prehistorical figures named Voltaire and Joan of Arc, are of interest to Seldon and Amaryl because they can shed light on a particular ancient form of humanity and therefore provide additional data points on which to build psychohistory. They are also of interest to people on the “renaissance world” of Sark, where they will be used in a public debate on the subject of Faith vs. Reason.
But the programmers whose job it is to prepare the sims for the debate are overly ambitious and build too much capacity into them. The sims escape and vanish into Trantor’s computer network where they discover important truths about themselves, Seldon, Daneel—and other, non-human intelligences.
There are few hard sf writers around better than Gregory Benford. A working astrophysicist himself, he has an uncanny ability to translate the wonders of astronomy into fiction, an ability that matches Arthur C. Clarke’s.
Benford, moreover, is one of the people who took over responsibility for Asimov’s science column in F&SF. In that capacity, he had an essay appear every two or three issues for a couple of years, and they were worthy successors to Asimov’s work. He even ended up editing the fourth volume in the New Hugo Winners series, succeeding Connie Willis who succeeded Asimov himself, and as such gets to introduce Asimov’s posthumous Hugo-winning “Gold.”
When I first heard that other authors were going to write more Foundation books, I was concerned. Much of that concern evaporated when I heard that one of the authors would be Gregory Benford and that the other two would be Greg Bear and David Brin.
So does he pull it off? Well, it depends on what you want.
If you want a book which is meticulously consistent with Asimov’s works and which could stand as a sort of “what Asimov might have written had he lived"—well, no, it doesn’t pull it off. But then, that wasn’t what he was aiming for.
(Actually, in one respect he does succeed on this level: characterization. Characterization was never Asimov’s forte, and Benford does a wonderful job at fleshing out Seldon himself and the other Asimov characters he takes over: Dors, Cleon, Yugo, and even R. Daneel. Most of his other characters are also well-realized, with the exception of St. Joan, with whom I had trouble throughout the book. Granted, she’s a slightly degraded copy of a computer simulation of a person already long dead and shadowy by our times, and enhanced with fragments of the personality of a human woman of the far future [among other things]—but I still had trouble with her.)
If you want a book which, like Harlan Ellison’s I, Robot: An Illustrated Screenplay, lets us see Asimov’s universe as viewed by one of his peers, Benford succeeds very well indeed.
Benford is fundamentally looking at one glaring omission in Asimov’s fictional universe: it contains no intelligences other than humans and robots. In the real world, of course, we understand why this is the case. Asimov deliberately limited the early Foundation stories to humans only because John W. Campbell insisted on a human chauvinism which verged on racism and which Asimov, a Jew writing as World War II raged, found uncomfortable. And the existence of robots in the Foundation universe came only in the 1980’s, as an afterthought when Asimov started pulling his robot stories and Foundation stories together in Foundation’s Edge.
Their absence in the fictional universe is less easily explained, and Benford therefore looks at a number of things that Asimov perhaps should have included (at least by modern rights), but didn’t:
1) Computer-based intelligences, either wholly artificial or simulations of real people;
2) Sub-human intelligences, preserved as part of the legacy of Earthly life;
3) Mechanical robots (tik-toks) of limited intelligence; and
4) Non-human intelligences, survivors of a relentless campaign by R. Daneel Olivaw and the robots to make the Galaxy safe for humanity by destroying any potential rivals.
To this he adds generous helpings of Hari coming to grips with basic human nature, learning to want to rule as the best way to do good (and gaining a pinch of Machiavelli along the way), surviving machinations within the Imperial Court, and developing psychohistory.
And along the way Benford gets to make fun of effete aristocracies, overloaded bureaucracies, and silly, anti-science, academic fads.
You certainly can’t fault Benford for the book’s scope.
On the whole, he does a very good job at juggling all this. The characters are—again, with the exception of Joan—generally quite good and the leads very good. The pace is reasonably tight and the two disjoined plots dovetail nicely at book’s end. The book provokes questions and thought on the part of the Asimov fan regarding the conceptual holes in Asimov’s universe.
That’s really the fundamental point for recommendation to the Asimov fan. The book makes us think about the Foundation universe and get an enhanced appreciation for Asimov’s work by illuminating it with light of a slightly different color. This really is a must-read for any serious Asimov fan.
So much for the good news. Now the bad.
Benford doesn’t quite pull it all off. He comes close, but he doesn’t quite make it. Some of the Joan-Voltaire sections are muddled and confusing, and the whole chimpanzee adventure feels tacked on. Yes, I know it’s a fundamental part of the plot and key to his successful portrayal of Hari’s maturation as a character. It felt tacked on anyway.
The real failure of the book comes at the end, where Benford resolves the conflict between the non-human intelligences hiding in Trantor’s computers and R. Daneel in a completely unsatisfactory way. That Seldon would make a deal with them seems inevitable, and that they should exceed the terms of the deal is plausible: but that they would spare Daneel himself was forced.
There are some differences in writing style that surface. Asimov’s is notoriously clear and simple; Benford is a bit more ornate. That’s no big deal, except that Benford tends to use jargon more than Asimov (e.g., “kaff” as an early morning drink). Most annoying is his use of “tik-tok” for semi-intelligent robots; I don’t begrudge him the concept, as it’s fundamental to the book and he uses it well. I just wish he'd have used “mekkano,” a perfectly good jargon word which has the advantage of being derived from one of Asimov’s stories, “It’s Such a Beautiful Day,” one of my personal favorites.
My really big gripe is Benford’s gratuitous substitution of a wormhole-based transportation system for Asimov’s serviceable hyperspace Jumps. Granted, if anybody could pull off the former, it’s Benford, and he does it well—but I felt it was totally unnecessary. Jumps are a fundamental part of Asimov’s fictional universe, including the Foundation books where they are used as plot elements in a number of places. Getting rid of them was like having the Enterprise propelled by rocket fuel.
But on the whole, this is still a very good book, and a book any “true” Asimov fan would have on their shelves. It isn’t Benford’s best, and it isn’t as good as the better Foundation books by the Good Doctor himself, but I’d rate it well above some of the lesser ones, most notably Foundation and Earth, and I strongly recommend it.
As for me, I enjoyed it when it first came out—enough to justify buying my own paperback copy, but not quite enough to justify the full hardcover price. I even enjoyed it more the second time through.
It is, however, more comfortable nestled into the “Gregory Benford” section of my home library than the “Isaac Asimov” one.