Second Foundation

Author: Isaac Asimov

Type: Fiction, novel

Part of series: Foundation (#3)

Published: 1953

I read it: January 2015

second foundation

The first thing that struck me about this last volume of the original trilogy was how focused Part I turned out to be. (Well, that was the second thing. The first thing that struck me was how confusing it is to have a third book entitled Second Foundation. But anyway.) At the end of the previous book, the Foundation is in tatters and The Mule reigns. Now, he obsesses with finding the Second Foundation so he can destroy it. He enlists General Pritcher, a former enemy who is now under emotional control, as well as another young man, who is not under control. The Mule hopes this combination of people with different motives can work to reason out where the Second Foundation is hiding.

With a huge plot and characters, this initial drama is delightfully contained. The strongest part is how Asimov chose to humanize The Mule, who was a villain in the previous book. By this point good and bad are blending into the gray, and you’re not sure whether you hope The Mule succeeds or not. When another powerful character expresses sympathy about The Mule’s destructive tendencies, he does so out of pure rationalism: “Your emotions are, of course, only the children of your background and are not be condemned–merely changed.”

This concept of changing hearts and minds is the intellectual core of the book. Can The Mule be defeated and stay defeated as long as the Second Foundation has similar psychological powers, enough to keep him at bay? What does it mean to be under the control of another? Can anyone trust themselves? Part II introduces remaining members of the Foundation who are also searching for the Second Foundation. Interestingly, they also view it as a threat. They are not sure whether “their” Foundation as set up by Seldon is destined to carry humanity to its brighter days, or whether the Second Foundation is watching and controlling everything. Does it even exist? Who knows.

Even in the grand sweep of the story, it’s nice to experience the small human moments that Asimov creates. A father is sick with fear for his daughter who has become a stowaway to satisfy the curious adventurer in her. This girl is Arkady, the granddaughter of the now-famous Bayta Darrell. She plays a rather large role in the plot, and also experiences the tangible fears of homesickness. Her being lost and alone in a bustling travel station is personal and realistic.

Your enjoyment of Second Foundation will rest on your patience with switching from these personal stories to the large ideas of the series, sometimes explored mathematically in true hard science fiction fashion. A lot of it has to do with a mental science superceding the standard physical sciences, which Asimov constructs as an inevitable advancement. My favorite parts are the characters discussing the limitations of human societies, in which “every human being lived behind an impenetrable wall of choking mist within which no other but he existed.” The Second Foundationers are on a righteous mission to bridge the lonely gap between humans who only have the blunt tool of language with which to connect.

There are also a lot of great questions raised about predestination and the power of the secret, almost godlike conclave of the Second Foundation. As one outsider puts it:

To us, all life is a series of accidents to be met with by improvisations. To them, all life is purposive and should be met by precalculation.

On that point of precalculation, there are twists and turns down to the last page. As soon as you have an original idea about where the plot might go, Asimov tackles it in the next couple pages. It’s a whirlwind of bullet point philosophies, written with the fleet glee of a mystery story. I’m not sure how much else is packed into the later sequels and prequels, and only a few characters from this trilogy remain memorable, but its grandiose nature and ultra-smart plotting should make the Foundation experience hold up for a while.

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