Isaac Asimov’s Second Foundation – A Review

foundation_coversAt long last – after a year of reading it in small snippets between reading, writing and editing – I finally completed Second Foundation. As the third novel published in the Foundation series, it effectively ended the series, though it was followed up by two sequels and several prequels that expanded on the universe further.

However, given that it would be roughly 30 years until Asimov produced another Foundation novel and pressure from the fan community (and a hefty advance from the publisher) were the only reasons for it, many fans come to see Second Foundation as the final installment in what was effectively a trilogy.

I am one such person. And now that I’ve finished Second Foundation, I feel that the series is complete. And I’m rather dying to do a review, seeing as how the books been with me so long and it’s been months since I reviewed an actual novel. On top of all that, its taken me so long to finish this series that I feel a little embarrassed. Thank God the international society of sci-fi geeks doesn’t actually exist, or they’d kick me out for sure!

Sidenote: Before I begin, note the cover art that is featured at the top there. Over the years, many different covers have been produced, and the current cover for Second Foundation is the one you see below. However, I wanted to feature these ones since they give such a wonderful representation to the original trilogy.

In the first, you see Seldon sitting in front of the Imperial City of Trantor in the days before its decline. In the second, you see the Mule playing his instrument, sitting before a Trantor that lies in ruins. In the third and final, you see Arkady Darrel standing on a Trantor that has reverted to its natural state centuries later, the aged ruins lying well off in the distance. Once you read the full trilogy, you can see just how picture-perfect these representations are.

Plot Synopsis:
second-foundationMuch like Foundation and Empire, the book is divided into two parts, with the first dealing with the Mule’s ongoing search for the Second Foundation. This part opens a few years after the Mule’s trip to Trantor, during which time, his identity was revealed and his attempts to find the answer in the Imperial library were narrowly foiled.

Now in charge of a vast empire centered on the world of Kalgan, he sets out again, sending his fleet in all directions to locate and destroy this last challenge to his power. Knowing the a confrontation is inevitable, the executive council of the Second Foundation meets and decides to allow the Mule to find them, “in a sense”.

The search begins when Bail Channis, an officer recruited by the Mule because he exhibits an “unconventional mind”. He is sent out with Han Pritcher, an officer the Mule knows to be loyal but fears has been ineffective due to his own influence over the man. Together, they travel to the remote world of Rossem where, following clues left behind by Seldon (that the Second Foundation is at “Star’s End”), Channis believes they are hiding.

foundation_muleWhen they arrive, they find a backward, agrarian world where the locals are hospitable, but very little appears to be happening. Suspecting a trap and that Channis is in fact a Second Foundation agent, the Mule travels in secret to Rossem and reveals himself, thinking he has caught Channis and the Second Foundation off guard. However, he quickly realizes it is he who has stepped into a trap when the First Speaker emerges to save Channis.

The two do battle but in the end, the First Speaker emerges victorious by altering the Mules psyche, which prompts him to return to Kalgan and live out the rest of his days as a benevolent ruler. The story ends with another interlude in which the Executive Council celebrates their victory and now plots to get the Foundation back on track.

Part II takes place sixty years later, and fifty-five years after the death of the Mule by natural causes. The members of the First Foundation, led by Dr. Darrel, are now aware that the Second Foundation is out there and secretly discuss how they are exerting influence over their world. This is demonstrated by conducting electroneurology scans, which shows that key members of government have had their minds altered.

second_foundation_warMeanwhile, the Foundation is also embroiled in an ongoing conflict with the new ruler of Kalgan, who wants to reclaim the glory of the Mule by reconquering the Foundation and subjugating it to his will. Their fleet meets with early success and managed to cordon off Foundation space, but their fortunes soon change when the Foundation fleet surrounds them in a major battle.

In the midst of the war, the Foundation decides to send an emissary – Homir Munn, a noted Mule memorabilia collector – to Kalgan to investigate what the Mule learned about the Second Foundation in his final years. Darrel’s daughter, Arkady, sneaks aboard his ship to accompany him, since she is fascinated by the subject of the Second Foundation and Seldon’s plan, and because she is tired of being kept out of the loop by her father.

secondfoundation_arkadyIn the end, Munn is taken prisoner and interrogated by the Kalganian commander, but gives up nothing beyond stating that his purpose was to find clues to the location of the Second Foundation. Arkady is forced to flee, and on the advice of the Commander’s mistress, heads for the spaceport and flies with a family back to Trantor. To her surprise, she realizes that the mistress is a member of the Second Foundation, and that they are manipulating things on Kalgan.

From Trantor, she sends her father a message and tells him the Second Foundation are on Terminus. Once again going by clues left behind by Seldon, that the Second Foundation was at “the other end of the Galaxy”, she tells him that a circle has no end. Ergo, she concludes that they must have been on Terminus all along, where they could monitor the Foundation and Seldon’s Plan up close. In the midst of this, the Foundation fleet outflanks the Kalganians and wins the war.

With the war over and the Foundation victorious. Munn then returns to Terminus and tells them the Second Foundation could not exist. Darrel rightly then reveals that he has suspected all along that Munn has been manipulated by the Second Foundation, and conducts a brain scan to prove it. He then reveals that his work has yielded a telepathic jamming device, which they then turn on.

foundation_seldonThe 50 or so Second Foundation agents that are on Terminus are thus revealed and arrested. Reasoning that they are now neutralized, and with the war over,  the Foundation is now free to expand and build the Second Empire. However, in a final twist, another interlude takes place where the First Speaker is conversing with a student, where it is revealed that everything has proceeded by their design.

After neutralizing the Mule, the Second Foundation knew that Seldon’s plan was hanging by a thread, hence they manipulated things to ensure that it would proceed on track again. This included pushes the Kalganians into war with them, and then seeing to their defeat, and letting the Foundations find some of their agents and presume to have neutralized with them. It’s also revealed that they had a hand in grooming Arkady Darrel, and that Trantor is the real home, with Star’s End being a veiled reference to the old Imperial saying “all road’s lead to Trantor”.

Summary:
I can honstly say that after many years of stalling and waiting, finishing the original trilogy was quite the relief. And for the most part, I enjoyed the third installment in the original three-act play. However, there were some weaknesses that did not go unnoticed, and some of Asimov’s little idiosyncrasies which I’ve come to expect over the years.

For example, the first story is somewhat dry. Rather than there being any real intrigue and action, the entire section consists of a sort of final, half-hearted act made up of mind games. This certainly feels like the case when during the final chapter, where both Channis and Pritchard, followed by the Mule and the First Speaker, are embroiled in a type of mind war. It’s a constant case of “I got you”, “no, I got you!” kind of thing.

foundationAnd this is how the Mule is defeated and the greatest threat to Seldon’s Plan is neutralized. After being portrayed in the second book as the one factor that Seldon did not plan for, a titanic force that was overwhelming the Foundation and its armies, his ultimate demise seemed rather undramatic. Granted, this was something that needed to be secretive and behind-the-scenes, but it felt it rushed and kind of forced.

The second story is much better, containing plenty of intrigue, action, and crisis. And the story flowed quite nicely, beginning at a time when the Foundation feels secure in itself, but a small band of specialists understand that this is not the case, and then culminating in a war and a big reveal. And here, the twists serve a better purpose, showing how the Foundation thinks they’ve neutralized the threat, never to learn that they’ve been helpfully misled.

foundation_forwardBut once again, there was a sense of things being forced and rushed. Towards the end, people are once again revealing that they knew things all along, were better prepared than they had any right to be, and could solve everything with the push of a button or a last minute decision. This time around, its the First and the Second Foundations involved in a case of strategic and mental Jiujitsu, and it feels like there’s a few too many reversals.

However, that doesn’t detract much from the ending, which feels like a good completion to the series. After establishing the Foundation in the first book and showing to the progression of Seldon’s Plan, to throwing it into disarray in book two, by this final act, it now appears that the Plan is fully restored and all the principal actors have done their part.

hari_seldonAnd as the book states by quoting the Encyclopedia Galactica, the war between Kalgan and the Foundation would be the last major conflict before the rise of the Second Empire. Ergo, it would smooth sailing from here on in. As I said already, Asimov claimed that the remainder of the series was motivated by pressure from fans and the publisher, so I tend to think of these three books as the series in its entirety. And I think the way he ended it here was effective and satisfying. No need for sequels or prequels beyond this point!

So if you haven’t read this series yet, I recommend you get on it. While it may have some flaws and apparent idiosyncrasies, it remains a classic of science fiction and one of the most brilliantly original series available. Hence why I felt I needed to read it, and why you should too. Especially if you consider yourself any kind of sci-fi fan or geek!

Foundation and Empire

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.

Plot Synopsis:
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 General:
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 Mule:
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.

Summary:
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.