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Foundation and Empire
Foundation #2
by Isaac Asimov
Gnome Press, 247pp
Published: 1952

I'm reviewing Asimov's original 'Foundation' trilogy because I've reached 1983 in my  run-through of Hugo-winning novels and the winner that year was the fourth book in what became a series, 'Foundation's Edge'. I'm not reviewing it because it's currently being adapted to television on Apple TV+ because I don't give the shiny folks money, but I've heard a lot about the show.

Mostly what I've heard is reactions to the fact that they changed some things to make it more palatable to modern viewers, most obviously including some actual honest-to-goodness women. Sure, Asimov was writing these stories in the forties and they got to book form in the fifties, but I don't think there were any women in 'Foundation', none of any importance at least.

Well, there is one here in 'Foundation and Empire', who's rather a surprise when she shows up 89 pages in. I've read that Asimov based Bayta Darell on Gertrude, his wife at the time, and maybe that's why he treats her with some respect. However, it has to be added that observations of this future world that we glimpse from impressions of her aren't exactly flattering. At one point, "she walks with the freedom of a man", as if that's a shock, and, at another, she's striding with three men "like an equal", which is clearly some sort of heresy. Then again, her husband's father's first impressions of her are that "I like your woman. She's no whining ninny." That's quite the left-handed compliment!

Most importantly, from our perspective, she has a lot of promise but fades somewhat in the same way as most of the characters this time out. With the sole exception of the Mule, the one who's stayed with me from my last time through four decades ago, the characters all play second fiddle to the high-level approach that Asimov took this time out, which I'd suggest is a deliberate counter to everything he did in the first book.

For those coming in at this point, the series is about Hari Seldon's realisation that an expansive galactic empire that has ruled for twelve thousand years is doomed to fall and so puts into motion a plan that will reduce the dark age of thirty millennia to just one. The trilogy runs through chronologically, jumping generations at a time, to each Seldon Crisis, when something has to happen for the plan to continue unabated.

'Foundation' covered the first hundred and fifty years in four stories, fixed up into the novel that we know today. In each, a Seldon Crisis arises, someone is aware enough to take care of it through deliberate action and we move on into the next. And that does not happen here. What we have here are only two stories, longer ones of course, but, while the characters still think about Seldon Crises and believe that they're facing one at their particular moment in time, proceedings are not quite as simple as one man in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. And I liked that.

The first and shorter story, 'The General', does contain a Seldon Crisis and a big one as well, because the Empire is clearly on the downturn but a very capable general by the name of Bel Riose launches an attack against the Foundation. He's a man out of time, an ambitious general who wants to conquer and the only place worth conquering at that point is the Foundation. He has a notably good shot at it too: he has the ships, the weapons and the men, as well as the savvy to use them properly. The Foundation really doesn't have a chance and, what's more, they know it.

I'll spoil this story because I absolutely adore the reason why the Foundation survives and hey, this book is almost seventy years old and part of one of the most important trilogies in science fiction history. I think the statute of limitations has passed. Should I tell you how King Kong dies next? Do you need to know what Rosebud is?

Why the Foundation survives is because, quite simply, they have to. Every possibility is catered to by Seldon's psychohistory and precisely no action is required from anyone. There's no need for a heroic character to buck the trends of the time and figure out a new way forward. There's no need for action or insight or intelligence. In arguably the truest story in the trilogy, from the standpoint of its invented science, psychohistory, every factor has been considered and the unstoppable force is simply doomed to fail.

And, with that pixielike shift in the formula we've become used to, Asimov makes one more shift with 'The Mule', albeit a very different shift. This time, it's very clear to an few people that the Foundation has become corrupt and that this constitutes the next Seldon Crisis, but the Foundation thinks that it's the advent of the Mule, who is very much on the ascendant. Sure, the Foundation is too, because there's very little left of the Empire, after Trantor was sacked by barbarians, but they may face the same fate.

We also get our traditionally forward-thinking heroes to realise what the solution must be and how to apply it, but they find themselves frustrated by the anomaly that has entered proceedings in the form of the Mule, who is a mutant who's able to do all the things he does because of some mysterious power that simply can't be predicted. And that means that his presence shakes up this book like nothing else and leaves us hanging on a very uncertain note indeed.

We left the first volume knowing that Hari Seldon was a genius who had implemented a plan that's the only hope for the galaxy. No wonder he becomes revered over a few generations, almost worshipped. However, we leave this one with a very different feel about him. He only shows up once here and, when he does, he's completely wrong. It's quite a wake-up call and it makes me even more eager to dive into the third book, so I can become reacquainted with how he gets the wheels back on the road.

The other surprise for me here, after just how poorly Seldon fares in this one, is that a lot of the projected millennium long dark age is still to come. I have to wonder all over again about whether Asimov actually worked through all of it in this trilogy or if those later novels were long overdue. So much for the statute of limitations on seventy-year-old novels, huh?

And, of course, I'm now rather eager to discover whether Asimov persevered with the more anachronistic aspects of these early books in his 'Foundation' sequels, given the forty-year gap between the original stories and those returns. Maybe there are more women in the sequels and they're actually given things to do. Maybe people will have stopped printing everything out on unending paper that fans into boxes. And maybe a few people might actually have stopped smoking. It's notable here that smoking is as routine as it was in the fifties but there's higher tech to deal with it. There's no need for ashtrays when you have an atom flash built into your desk to vapourise buttends.

And, of course, given that I liked this second volume for different reasons to the first, how will the third play to me? Find out next month as I wrap up the trilogy. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by Isaac Asimov click here

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