Review Of Foundation And Empire, by Isaac Asimov
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/1/05
Foundation And Empire, by Isaac Asimov is the second book in the original Foundation trilogy, which won a Hugo Award in 1965 for Best All-Time Series. It follows much the same narrative structure as the first book, Foundation, save that the book has only two ‘books’, to the original’s five, which allows for less epic scene setting, and much more character development. And don’t let some of the books’ critics fool you. The characterizations in these books are wonderful, deep, and complex. They simply are not done in the usual ways. They use a characterization style I term ‘silhouetting’, wherein characters are portrayed not so much by what they do as the important things they do not do, or that which is not described in ‘on stage’ actions. This book, though, is not merely a continuation of the first book, but an expansion of its themes, which includes some more detailed characterization.
The first book set up the history of a senescent galactic Empire on the verge of tottering into oblivion and thirty thousand years of barbarism. A scientist named Hari Seldon attempts to shorten that Imperial interregnum by establishing two Foundations on either end of the galaxy, ostensibly to compile an Encyclopedia Galactica. In reality these two Foundations will be the cornerstones of the Second Empire, which Seldon’s Psychohistory- a deterministic pseudoscience, predicts will cut the interregnum down to s ingle millennium. By the first book’s end the first Foundation, on the planet Terminus, has survived several ‘Seldon Crises’ via his holographic intervention, which helps the Foundation outwit its enemies, and the work of legendary leaders- Salvor Hardin and Hober Mallow, and a few centuries in to its existence seems poised to actually take on and destroy the ruined Empire.
This is where Foundation And Empire starts. The first book is called The General, first published as the Dead Hand in the April, 1945 edition of Astounding Science Fiction, although it is prefaced by a prologue that recounts Foundation, much in the same manner as the movie serials that dominated in the 1940s, when these tales first saw daylight. In it a great general of the Empire, Bel Riose, seeks to short circuit the threat he perceives arising from the growing influence of the Foundation. He believes that the dead hand of Seldon’s Psychohistory is no match for the living mind and will he possesses. He takes two prisoners during his assault on the Foundation- trader Lathan Devers, and an old Siwennian assassin, Ducem Barr. They try to manipulate the general to prevent his success, for they do not fully trust the Seldon science. Yet, Riose seemingly bears down upon Terminus, capturing star systems in a previously flawless military maneuver called an Inclosure. Yet, an Imperial lackey named Brodrig’s eternal scheming convinces the Emperor, Cleon II, that there is a plot afoot, and that he is in league with General Riose, who is recalled, even as he is seemingly unbeatable in the field. His very strength thus works against him as the weak Emperor, perceives him as a threat- for many former Emperors were once ambitious generals, which compromises his plans against the Foundation, which triumphs over the last throes of the Empire. Seldon seems to have once again proved prescient, in foreseeing this turn of events, to the Foundation’s benefit. It is not threatened when there is a strong Emperor and weak generals, for then there is no military threat, and there is no threat with strong generals and a weak Emperor because such weakness leads generals in towards the greater riches of the Empire for conquest. Only a strong Emperor with strong generals would be a threat for then the generals would have nowhere else to seek targets, save the galactic fringes. Riose bemoans this fact:
held the empty cup as he spoke. ‘Patrician, listen to me. These are days when
the most successful soldiers are those whose function is to lead the dress
parades that wind through the imperial palace grounds on feast days and to
escort the sparkling pleasure ships that carry His Imperial Splendor to the
summer planets. I….I am a failure. I am a failure at thirty-four, and I shall
stay a failure. Because, you see, I like to fight.
That's why they sent me here. I’m too troublesome at court. I don’t fit in with the etiquette. I offend the dandies and the lord admirals, but I’m too good a leader of ships and men to be disposed of shortly by being marooned in space. So Siwenna is the substitute. It’s a frontier world; a rebellious and a barren province. It is far away, far enough away to satisfy all.
And so I molder. There are no rebellions to stamp down, and the border viceroys do not revolt lately; at least, not since His Imperial Majesty’s late father of glorious memory made an example of Mountel of Paramay.’
‘A strong Emperor,’ muttered Barr.
‘Yes, and we need more of them….’
Yet, much of this book’s action occurs offstage, but this allows for some excellent psychological oneupsmanship between the players in the Foundation, the Empire’s minions, and the Independent Traders who jockey between the two powers, and see themselves as the real force in the Foundation, not the its bureaucratic and dynastic leaders. It’s as exceedingly realistic depiction of realpolitik as has ever been penned. Of course, hardcore sci fi fans find this boring, as they have the second series of Star Wars films which, while not great works of art by ay means, are a vast improvement over the original trilogy. Yet, all the kvetching over a crisis that fails to materialize- as the Empire’s final defeat is both swift and anticlimactic, serves a real purpose: to show that both in the real world, and the book’s world, people can misinterpret a crisis that is not, all the while ignoring a greater one on the horizon.
Hence, the second book, set years after The General, and called The Mule, first published in Astounding Science Fiction in November and December, 1945, tells the tale of a genetically altered mutant who goes by the name The Mule. No one has ever seen nor heard of him, even as he has started on a seven year road to conquest against the Foundation. Initially he takes over an asteroid, then a star system, and then defeats the Foundation itself. He does so by not controlling people’s thoughts, but their emotions, and developing a cult of personality that dictators like Stalin, Hitler, and Mao would envy. This single event- an unpredictable mutation, throws the Seldon science of Psychohistory into utter disarray, Yet, The Mule aims to unite the whole galaxy into a Second Empire in less than a decade, compared to the millennium Seldon thought it would take. In the end, The Mule wins- sort of, but then is found out by the two married protagonists of the book- Toran and Bayta Darrell, whom The Mule’s minions have chased through the galaxy, as they try to ferret out his secret from the ruins of the Empire’s old home world of Trantor. Much of this section plays out like an old submarine chase film. Nothing on Trantor but the University remains. A psychologist named Ebling Mis is also searching for the Second Foundation, but, just before revealing its location on his detahbed, Bayta kills him to prevent the secret from being exposed. She correctly deduces that The Mule’s real identity is that of an odd minor character, The Mule’s clown named Magnifico Giganticus, who has been overlooked, yet been fleeing with the couple. He stimulated Mis’s mind, which resulted in his dying of a terminal illness. His closing peroration is truly a wonderful piece of psychologically complex writing, for sci fi or any other genre, that dispels the notion that Asimov could not write compelling characters nor conversation. It not only reveals the solutions to earlier oddities in the tale, and what and how The Mule accomplished his grandiose task, but why, as he explains to Bayta why he felt an urgent need to achieve his ends, yet would not manipulate her emotions into loving him, as he does her, for unlike the old Emperors, he could never found a dynasty. The penultimate paragraph reads:
Magnifico shook his head. ‘I sense your revulsion, but that’s silly. It would be an artificial ecstasy, but there would be no difference between it and the genuine emotion. But things are not otherwise. I call myself the Mule- but not because of my strength- obviously- ’
The end also sets up what can only be the coming conflict between The Mule’s minions and the Second Foundation, which seems to have been part of Seldon’s plan, for the First Foundation was set up without psychiatrists, and to deal with material crises. The Second Foundation is where the shrinks went, and Seldon may have foreseen The Mule’s rise after all.
Yet, the book is relatively easy to get into- even if you’ve not read the first book. That’s because Asimov’s style of the pseudo historical work allows for quick recaps (in the old movie serial vein), and the fact that each chapter within each book has new characters and situations means that they can stand alone, even as they add to the overall tapestry. Asimov also makes a wise dramatic choice in The Mule section. By spending a book and a half showing Psychohistory’s upside, and proving its internal ‘validity’, the second half of Foundation And Empire shows the downside of lulling oneself into a false sense of security, as well the consequences that coyuld await the Foundation if it falls the same way the Empire did. The funereal descriptions of Trantor contrast vividly with the awesome complexity that opens the first book of the trilogy. Then, the Empire seemed impervious. Yet, Asimov is so good a writer that he rarely lapses into caricature. Even The Mule is sympathetic, when we understand his drive to prove himself. Even more interesting is that he seems no worse than the old Emperors, nor even the dynastic heirs of the current Foundation. With his powers his Second Empire might even be better than the Seldonian one. Yet, lacking an heir- due to his sterility. and his own powers, it would seem likely that even greater chaos would befall the galaxy upon his death.
This begs the question that seems to be central to the trilogy: ‘What place does the individual have in the overall scheme of things?’, or, more succinctly, ‘Does an individual matter?’ The Mule seems to be a resounding answer of YES! He also seemingly cuts to the dubious heart of Psychohistory, which is based upon the well known Fallacy Of Uninterrupted Trends. Because of these philosophical depths, wonderfully concise and spare writing which does not bore one silly with extraneous detail, but a lean, clean narrative line, excellent characterizations, and an ability to deliver a twist ending many mystery writers would envy, Foundation And Empire ranks as a truly great novel, even outside its genre. Only readers addicted to the modern need to reveal why everything is, in excruciating detail, and to have mere action, action, action on every page, will not recognize this as not only great sci fi, but great literature. Asimov, too, deserves the label as a great writer. As The Mule might say: On to Second Foundation!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Yet Another Book Review website.]
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