FYI: this is my 400th post, people! Woohoo! I hope Asimov is flattered… Hey, a guy can dream, can’t he?
Welcome back to my ongoing review of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. Picking up where I left off last time, here we have book II in the series, known as Foundation and Empire. Much like Foundation, this book was originally published as separate novellas in 1952, and did not appear as a single volume until 1955.
As the second installment in the original trilogy, this book is where things invariably get dark. Though it begins with a sort of conclusion to the previous novel, showing the path of Seldon’s Plan and the decline of the Empire, things invariably go south with the introduction of a new and unforeseen threat. After detailing the nature of this new enemy and placing the existence of the Foundation in peril, things end with the mention of a Second Foundation, which sets the scene for the final installment in the series.
The book consists of two sections, the first of which picks up where the first book left off and acts as a sort of conclusion to everything contained within. Centuries after its establishment on Terminus, the Foundation seems well on its way to fulfilling its purpose, as foreseen by Seldon’s psychohistory. However, the Empire has not yet collapsed and the growing might of the Foundation is seen as a threat. Hence, a showdown between the two is in the works!
The second story is starkly different, throwing a curve ball into the storyline with the introduction of a new force that was unforeseen in Seldon’s Plan. This force, known as “The Mule” threatens to destroy the Foundation simply by being an aberration in the science known as “psychohistory”.
The first book, titled “The General” opens Bel Riose, a skilled and dedicated General of the Galactic Empire meeting with the old Siwennan noble, Ducem Barr, son of the man Hober Mallow visited in “The Merchant Princes from the first book.The reason for this meeting is that Barr is the closest thing the Empire has to a source on the Foundation, and his knowledge of their technology, assets and the science of psychohistory is sought.
In the course of their discussions, Barr warns that Riose that his plans are merely a symptom of the Empire’s impending collapse. Naturally, Riose rejects this and claims that the Empire is still healthy. He shares Emperor Cleon II’s feelings that the Foundation constitutes a threat which must be neutralized, though at the same time he to seize all traces of their knowledge and technology and incorporate it back into the Empire.
The focus then shifts Lathan Devers, an independent trader and agent of the Foundation who is sent to Riose’s armada to figure out how the Foundation can save itself. This, according to Ducem Barr, is a wholly unnecessary step, because the Seldon Plan has already foreseen this and everything will work out on its own. Nevertheless, he still feels something must be done and travels to Trantor in the hopes of convincing the Emperor that Riose has his own agenda. He fails, but still manages to escape and find his way back to Foundation space.
Once there, he discovers that things have worked out on their own. Apparently, Emperor Cleon II really was beginning to fear that Riose had his own agenda, and the closer he came to conquering the Foundation, the more fearful he became. Hence, Riose was recalled from service and arrested, thus saving the Foundation. As Bel Riose himself says in the story, it’s a dead hand versus a living will, and it turns out the living well never stood a chance.
The second story takes place roughly one hundred years later. The Empire has now fallen, Trantor has been sacked, and the Foundation has become the dominant power in the Galaxy. Meanwhile, the Foundation is experiencing decay and corruption, with several of its outer planets are planning a war of cessation.
In addition, a new threat has emerged which refers to itself as “The Mule”, an apparent mutant who possesses strange psychic powers. Already he has taken control of many star systems that border the Foundation and appears hell-bent on conquering it as well. Naturally, the Foundation leadership is not concerned, for they believe that this is just another “Seldon Crisis”, and that the Vault will open and tell them how to resolve it.
To their horror, during the scheduled speech by Seldon’s hologram, no mention is made of the Mule, which indicates that this threat is completely unforeseen. What’s worse, the Mule’s fleet shows up in orbit and begins attacking the planet. The main characters, Toran and Bayta Darell, flee to the border planets along with psychologist Ebling Mis and refugee clown named “Magnifico Giganticus”. There, they find temporary solace until the Mule’s forces show up again and conquer the sector with ease.
Faced with the fall of the Foundation, the group sets out to find the fables Second Foundation which they feel is their only hope at this point. In time, this journey takes them to Trantor, where the unearth the Great Library and begin searching for clues as to where the Second Foundation might be.Along the way, they are taken prisoner by agents of the Mule, but Magnifico manages to kill them using a trick involving his psychoactive music.
After days of tireless research on Trantor, which startles Toran and Bayta, Mis claims to have uncovered the location. However, Bayta has a revelation and kills Mis before he can tell them. She reveals this revelation to her husband: they’ve been in the presence of the Mule all along! She has noticed that wherever they’ve gone, people have been behaving mysteriously. The sense of defeat that was taking over the border worlds, the way their captor’s were killed, Ebling Mis’s extreme mental clarity… it was all for the sake of finding the Second Foundation! And the only person who was in their presence the entire time that they couldn’t account for was Magnifico .
When they confront him, he reveals that she is right. All along, he’s been infiltrating enemy worlds and using his psychic powers to bend people to his will. Initially, this served the purpose of making sure his forces met with minimal resistance, but when they began searching for the Second Foundation, his plans changed. He knows that this contingency group, which Seldon apparently kept a secret, still constitutes a threat to him. He declares that he will find it in time, and let’s them go as they are no threat to him or his plans.
In many respects, this book built upon the strengths of the original. In the first story, it reestablished its roots in Gibbons seminal study The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In keeping with the series’ Romanesque theme, he also adapted the tale of Emperor Justinian I and General Belisarius through the characters of Cleon II and Riose. In addition, it extended it’s commitment to the concept of psychohistory, how all things were essentially foreseen by Seldon and prepared for. The way Devers runs about hoping to fulfill said plan, only to find that it unfolded naturally, was quite apt at demonstrating this. Much like Frank Herbert’s portrayal of the prescient trap, the pre-deterministic nature of the story is interesting, even if it is at a times a little convenient and contrived.
And the story provides a pretty fitting diversion with the introduction of the Mule. After a book and a half of being told that the Foundation is pretty much sacrosanct and unassailable, Asimov throws a wrench into the works that demonstrates that the vaunted science of psychohistory is not in fact perfect. The explanation given for this is also quite interesting, in that it that it circumvents whatever pretense Asimov made earlier about the infallibility of psychohistory.
Essentially, Seldon’s psychohistory was based in part on the notion that humanity’s biological nature would remain fixed for the period his Plan accounted for. What he did not plan for was any spontaneous mutations or sudden divergence in human evolution which would allow for the emergence of individuals which psychic powers. Hence, the arrival of the Mule threw his Plan into disarray by creating a second power which could very well threaten to take over the Galaxy.
But of course, there is a slimmer of hope presented with the existence of a Second Foundation. Whereas the first was something that was out in the open that would openly abide by Sheldon’s Plan, the second was something that was meant to operate behind the scenes; their purpose was to see to the maintenance of the Plan if the worst should happen and the Foundation fell.
But just to play Devil’s Advocate here, these characteristics do open the story up to accusations of inconsistency. In one book, we are basically told that the Plan accounted for everything, didn’t account for everything, but did account for everything after all. Three twists in one book is a bit much. In fact, it would have been better if the first story had been included as part of the original Foundation since it felt like the real closing chapter to Act I.
And, to venture beyond the second book for just a second, this happens yet again in book III. There, as with here, the story is broken into two parts, with the first concluding the Mule thread and the second capping off the story. In both cases, I couldn’t help but feel that the story was cut and pasted in a way which seemed unnatural. But fixing that would have required a rewrite, not a simple case of restructuring. So in the end, this book is something you have to swallow as a whole, structure, twists and all. It’s a good read, a fitting sequel to the first book, and like all of Asimov’s work, accessible and entertaining.