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!

My Personal Writing Tips, or “How to Avoid Rookie Mistakes”

Proofreading and editing can be such a chore, I tell ya! Thought I’ve never been very good at proofreading and criticizing other peoples work, I find that it is when I am called upon to edit and evaluate their work that I most want to retreat into my shell. I feel selfish when this happens, mainly because of all the people I have asked to review my own work and give me their opinions. You’d think I’d be better at this aspect of it!

But of course, I know that part of the reason I hate editing the work of others is because I hate editing my own. I’ve noticed this about most people who enjoy writing, composing, and anything else that requires active revision and corrections. By the time the work is done, they want to put it down and forget about it, to let others handle the business of finding the flaws and pointing out the necessary corrections.

Alas, I’ve had to check most of that baggage ever since I started to become a member of several writing communities. In fact, I’ve even volunteered to act as a contributing editor for two major projects, one of which is the “Yuva Anthology” (begun by Khaalidah and myself), the other being the “Worlds Undone” Anthology. The latter one people might remember from a few months ago, when I was doing mock ups for a cover and happened to find some primo artwork to feature in it. Thanks again to cazzyae at deviantArt for her talent and generosity of spirit for that one! Thanks to her, Createspace’s easy interface, and the suggestions of many people at G5N, here’s how the cover came out:

Unfortunately, that has opened up a different can of worms for me. While I’ve definitely managed to overcome some of my reservations about reading other people’s work, I find that my pet peeves, or what I consider to be the marks of weak writing, keep rearing their ugly head. After reading many stories, I began to think that a tutorial might be in order to help some of the newbies avoid some rookie mistakes, ones which I have committed at least a half dozen times. Each!

I should also take this opportunity to thank Kristen Lamb, who’s impressive article “4 Writing Crutches that Insult the Reader’s Intelligence” reminded me of this idea. After seeing the title in my Inbox, I immediately zoomed over to her site to see if we shared the same pet peeves and sensibilities. Upon reading it, I could tell she was much more versed in this whole writing thing than I am! Still, I happen to share her appraisal of some bad writing habits, especially item number four in her list, “telling instead of showing”.

So, to take a page from her book (no pun!) and to make good on something I’ve been planning to do for some time now, I present you with the list of rookie writing mistakes it is best to avoid. All are the result of what I myself have done repeatedly, and have managed to weed out (for the most part) after many years of practice:

  1. Avoid Infodumping: Never start a story with a long, drawn out passage telling the reader what they need to know in order to set up the plot. For that matter, never let your story digress into such exposition either. A story is by definition a journey, with information, details, twist, and revelations provided bit by bit over time. Even if it’s a short story, never, ever simply announce what’s happening or what the significance of it is. Such actions turn what is supposed to be a tale into a description and is boring to read.
  2. Less is More: When it comes to explanations and descriptions, avoid excessive detailing. You don’t need to tell the reader everything about what’s going on, moment for moment, nor do you need to describe the scene in perfect detail. A simple, straightforward description of the scene and the interactions taking place is enough, let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest. Think of it like telling a crafty lie: if you want someone to believe it, don’t tell them a long story loaded with details, keep it simple, straightforward, and plausible. (Editor’s note: lying is wrong!)
  3. It’s called Background for a reason: One of the best tips I ever got as a writer was to “leave the background in the background.” This kind of overlaps with points one and two, but I keep it separate because of how often I see it and how it has factored into my own work. Much like explaining a scene or dumping info into a chapter, going to great lengths to establish the wider context in which the story takes place (i.e. “universe building”) is a bad idea. Stick to the story, only include that which is absolutely necessary, and let the universe build itself. In time, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get a chance to write follow-up pieces which will allow you to delve into different aspects of your fictitious world in more detail.
  4. “No one talks like this!”: If there’s one thing I learned from the Star Wars prequels and the Dune spinoffs, it’s that wooden dialogue can totally ruin a story. When drafting scenes that call for verbal interaction between characters, always keep in mind that this is supposed to sound like a conversation between actual people. Do not allow yourself to be swayed by duty to the story or the need to establish character elements. Those things that need to be conveyed are best when done with fine strokes and subtlety, and never, ever let your characters fall into expository passages where they simply say what’s goings on. Or to quote the Robot Devil from Futurama: “You’re characters lack subtlety. You can’t have people just announce their feelings! That makes me so angry!”
  5. Referencing: When writing a story that is meant to have allegorical similarities to today, or is meant to make a point about a specific issue, avoid referencing them too closely. Never say, “this was just like that thing that happened back then” or “it’s this all over again”. Let the reader infer what you are referring to with your carefully crafted, fictitious comparison. In Foundation, Asimov never directly compared the Galactic Empire to Rome, nor did Frank Herbert ever mention oil in relation to the spice in Dune. Once again, trust in the reader to make the appropriate conclusions and avoid telling them anything outright. Otherwise, you risk turning an “ah-ha” moment into an unimpressed “oh.”

That’s all I got. Suffice it to say, I am still learning and still looking for ways to perfect my craft. That’s never going to happen, of course, but it’s the goal which provides endless opportunity for improvement. Speaking of which, more samples will be forthcoming soon as I work my way deeper into “Winston Agonistes”, “Crashland”, “Frontera”, and “Fortress”. And most importantly of all, Data Miners will finally be ready for distribution by August long weekend! Yes, after roughly six months of delays, the editing of that story is finally coming to an end. But more on that in a bit.

In the meantime, keep hammering those keys, keep working on those manuscripts, and keep reaching for the brass ring of artistic perfection. And while you’re at it, feel free to share with me some lessons that you’ve learned along the way and feel obliged to share with the newbies in your field. There’s no shortage of lessons, as there are no shortages of mistakes 😉

Utopia in Popular Culture

Aeon Flux:
Fans of this animated cult-classic are sure to understand why this show has made the list. In the futuristic setting of the show, events revolve around an ongoing conflict between two societies. On the one side, there is Brenga, a police state run by the autocrat Trevor Goodchild. On the other is the anarchist state of Monica, where the show’s main character – Aeon, a Monican agent and spy – comes from.

Much like the world of the Cold War, these two sides are locked in an ongoing state of detente, where espionage and skirmishes take place back on both sides. The border region between them resembles that of Cold War-era Berlin, where a massive wall separates the two and those trying to cross are either shot or cut down. In one particular episode, people who are missing limbs were a focal point, demonstrating just how many people have fallen victim to the border defenses.

This is a common feature in the story, as it seems that the people of Bregna (known as Breens) would like very much to live the lives of Monicans. Its for this reason that one of Aeon’s duties as an agent is to make regular runs into Bregna to get people out through a series of underground passages. It is also suggested that it is precisely because Monica has no official representatives that it is impossible for Trevor Goodchild to deal with them. He does not seem to understand how their society works, and therefore cannot bribe, threaten, or intimidate them into a peace settlement.

Avatar:
Here is a perfect example of the traditional Edenic civilization being threatened by the evil progress-driven bad guys. Though it was not my favorite movie by any means, it’s undeniable (aka. blatant) utopians themes are quite clear. In short, the Na’vi live a peaceful, contended existence with their environment, and are even telepathically linked to a planetary intelligence known as Eywa.

Borrowing elements from Native American lore, the Gaian hypothesis, and the concept of an ecological utopia, Cameron created a world where paradise was to be found by anyone with appreciative eyes. Whether it was their communion with animals, the trees, or Eywa, the Na’vi elevated the concept of living in harmony with their environment to literal levels.

Demolition Man:
Again, we have what is often classified as a dystopia, but which is made so because of its apparent utopian elements. Set in the not-too-distant future of San Angeles – the mega-city formed from the merger of LA and San Diego – the story revolves around the social experiments of one Dr. Raymond Cocteau.

In addition to being the man who invented the cryo-stasis prison system, which was central to the plot, he is also the man who pioneered the San Angelans “utopian” way of life. In essence, this way of life is bereft of violence, crime, and drug use. The people live what can only be described as a peaceful and contented existence, believing that everything that came before them was characterized by violence and brutality.

The price tag was high, to be sure. People are no longer allowed to swear, play contact sports, own guns, or eat anything remotely unhealthy. Violent and/or sexual entertainment has also been banned, as has real sex. However, the people of San Angeles seemed to accept all this based on the state of society prior to Cocteau’s “revolution”.

The proliferation of violence, chaos, drug use and venereal diseases pretty much left them thinking they had no choice.  Such is the nature of utopian engineering, in the end, where people willingly surrender certain aspects of their lives in order to achieve something better. Much like collectivization, the banning of money, or the elimination of monogamy.

Futurama:
This might seem like a bit of a stretch, but I’ve always felt that anyone who loves science fiction can’t help but notice the classic themes and elements in this show. Usually this takes the form of dystopian elements – suicide booths, career chips, the tax monster, etc. However, at other times, some decidedly cheery and optimistic tones make it in.

For example, in one particular episode (season 1, episode 8: “A Big Piece of Garbage”), Earth finds itself being threatened by a massive ball of garbage. They deduce that only a similar ball would be able to deflect it, but unfortunately, no garbage exists. Everything on Earth is now recycled, used cans are recycled to make robots, and used robots are used to make cans. Nothing goes to waste, which is why Fry must teach them how to litter!

And then again, in season 6, episode 2: “In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela”, Leela and Zapp Brannagan land on what appears to be a mysterious, Edenic planet. Here, Leela and Zapp begin living freely as if they were Adam and Eve, which includes shedding their clothes, talking to a serpent, and living off the land. Of course, it was all a ruse by Zapp who once again just looking to get Leela in the sack, but the illusion was complete!

Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri:
There’s a reason this game is one of my all-time favorites, and that is because it’s so inspired! One immediately gets the feeling upon playing this all the way through that a lot of classic sci-fi elements went into the making of it, as well as genuine cultural, sociological and scientific research.

For starters, there is the concept of colonizing a new world and the social experiments that it naturally will entail, which is in keeping with KSR Mars Trilogy. Each faction in the game represents a different take on engineering the perfect society. There are the humanitarians, the believers, the Gaians, the hive-mind people, the free-marketeers, the militarists, and the rational empiricists.

What’s more, the technology tree that is featured in the game contains many options for social engineering, the intended end result of which is a perfect society in one form or another. These include Thought Control, Cybernetic, and Eudaimonic, three basic visions of utopia which are dependent upon repression, post-humanism, and a utilitarian, social welfare approach meant to enrich the lives of as many people as possible.

There’s even the option of achieving transcendence, which is one of the victory condition’s of the game. This is achieved by merging with Alpha Centauri’s planet-wide organism, becoming part of its mass consciousness and ensuring a sort of quasi-immortality as it were. This is considered the biggest and best victory option since it ensures planetary peace, as opposed to conquering all the other factions, united them, or cornering the planet’s energy market (the three other victory conditions).

Star Trek:
When it comes to commercial sci-fi, Star Trek pretty much has the market cornered when it comes to utopian elements. Whether it was the original series, TNG, or its subsequent spinoffs, it was clear that humanity had reached a state of technical and social perfection thanks to advances made in science and technology, not to mention good old fashion optimism.

For starters, the United Federation of Planets was an egalitarian democracy where all member races were entitled to representation, a constitution guaranteed extensive rights and freedoms, and all wants and needs were addressed thanks to replicators, abundant energy, transporters and warp technology.

And of course, numerous references are made to the fact that Earth is crime free, all known diseases have been cured, and troublesome things like poverty, slavery, exploitation, inequality and human drudgery have all been eliminated. No real explanations are given as to how, but its clear it happened by the 22nd century.

Star Wars:
Though not a utopian series by any stretch of the definition, there are some tell-tale aspects of the franchise which warrant examination. For example, though the bulk of the story takes place during the “Dark Times”, when the evil Empire rules, numerous allusions are made to a time before the Empire where things are described in somewhat idealistic terms.

For example, here is how Obi-Wan describes the role of the Jedi in the good old days as follows: “For over a thousand generations, the Jedi were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic.” In addition, it is also made clear that the Old Republic was governed by an interstellar democracy known as the Galactic Senate. Between the Jedi and the government, things like slavery, conquest, blatant racism, genocide, and all other forms of behavior common to the Empire were highly illegal.

In having this era of peace and relative prosperity to compare their current circumstances with, Lucas was able to drive home the point of how the Empire was illegitimate and had seized power by unjust means. It also made the heroes current predicament seem that much more emotionally involved.

Wing Commander:
Calling to mind such franchises as Star Trek and Man-Kzin Wars, the Wing Commander series takes place in the distant future when a semi-utopian humanity is engaged in a war with a militaristic foe. As with the violent Kzin, the enemy in this series known as the Kilrathi, are a race of feline anthropoids.

Governed by a strict hierarchy and warrior code, the Kilrathi are driven to war and conquest and have been fighting humanity for generations. Though no formal description is ever made of the Earth government or human customs, many hints are given that suggest that the Terran Confederation is governed by the comparatively enlightened ideals of humanitarianism and democracy.

For instance, in the first Wing Commander it is said that Kilrathi do not place the same importance on alien life as the Confederation. Evidently not, since conquest, slavery and genocide seem to be par for the course for them! In addition, several alien species are allies with the Confederation, usually for the sake of mutual defense against the Kilrathi.

And as with Star Trek, the bad behavior of the enemy species is held in contrast to the comparatively peaceful and egalitarian behavior of humans. And as always, this is designed to illicit a point about history and human nature.

Conclusions:
When it comes to popular culture, there never seems to be a shortage of inspired science fiction elements. This is true of movies, television, and the gaming world. However, I can’t help but notice just how more common dystopian movies, shows and games are. For whatever reason, it just seems like tales of dark futures are much more popular. Is it because dark futures seem more realistic, or might it have to do with the proliferation of dystopian literature in the last century or so. Either way, believe me when I tell you that examples of modern utopian sci-fi franchises were much harder to find. No wonder Neal Stephenson challenged the sci-fi writers of the world to come up with something cheerier!