Author: Isaac Asimov
Type: Fiction, novel
Part of series: Foundation (#2)
I read it: June 2014
Here is part two of Asimov’s ambitious Foundation saga. It opens with an outline of how the Galactic Empire is in the process of crumbling, and the question is how it will all play out against the backdrop of Hari Seldon’s prophetic psychohistory. The society set up as the Foundation has grown almost as corrupt and inept as the Empire itself, so waters are muddied as to who are the good and bad guys. Asimov takes pains to show characters from all corners. A third force, a loose coalition of independent traders, remain the most apolitical, yet most instrumental, at this stage of the story.
Once again, the timelines and proper names can be hard to keep a hold on. Part I of the book has some great politicking and military tactics, but the important characters arrive in Part II. The closest thing to protagonists are a married couple, Bayta and Toran, who have ties with the Foundation and do not want to see it fall the same way as the Empire. The wrench in the Seldon plan is a wayward factor in the form of The Mule, a mysterious conqueror posing a threat to everyone who is not in his own army.
The Mule is rumored to be a mutant, with the potential to throw all of Seldon’s plans for a loop. Psychohistory rests on the premise that “The reaction of one man could be forecast by no known mathematics; the reaction of a billion is something else again.” That is, individual actions hardly matter when the broad patterns of humanity can be forecasted. Yet nothing in the Seldon plan hints that the presence of The Mule was predicted. He is flipping the equation, becoming an individual with massive influence. Psychohistory does not evolve nicely with mutations; everything now has the potential to veer off course.
So, Bayta and Toran form a small company that include a cranky academic, Ebling Mis, who alone has the experience and mind capable of critially researching everything known of Seldon to find out what is going on, and whether or not a Second Foundation exists which could help slow down the relentless march of The Mule. They are also accompanied by the cowardly Magnifico, a jester to The Mule himself who escaped and is terrified of his former master. He grows an affinity for the kind Bayta, and tries to help the group when he can.
My criticisms of this book are basically the same as the first. There is just so much going on, and so few pages to explore everything. While Asimov writes conversation particularly well (there is something worth underlining every other page) he does so at the expense of the action. Crumbling worlds, battles, political unrest…these are often happening off-page. Thankfully he injects a lot of color with characters like The Mule and Magnifico, and doesn’t hesitate to reveal some of the mysteries of the story. It’s a fun read, even if it feels a bit rushed. The whole series is probably best read in quick succession so as not to lose the thread.
Now to find that Second Foundation.