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Illustrated Corner,
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Second Foundation
Foundation #3 (Chronological Order #5)
by Isaac Asimov
Gnome Press, 210pp
Published: January 1953

The original 'Foundation' trilogy by Isaac Asimov, because it was a trilogy for a quarter of a century, collected eight short stories originally published in 'Astounding' into what are known as fix-up novels.

The first four became 'Foundation', with some original writing to set it all into motion. This established the sweep of the series, a realisation by Hari Seldon that the Galactic Empire would inevitably fall; the use of his science of psychohistory to fashion a plan to reduce the dark age between that fall and the rise of a stable replacement from thirty thousand years to a single millennium; and how that plan works out to a tee across the following couple of centuries.

'Foundation and Empire' was more interesting to me, because that formula changes. It comprises two novellas and the first is a surprising exercise in inevitability. It doesn't require an enterprising fellow in Seldon's increasingly far future to do the right thing at the right time to ensure the continuity of the plan, as predicted and orchestrated. It simply has to be. If everything went right in book one, there's no possibility of this not going right in book two.

The second is where it really kicks off, because the plan goes wrong. The Mule shows up and changes everything, because he's a mutant and the psychohistory of Hari Seldon, thus far infallible because it worked successfully against large masses of people, turns out to be completely unable to cater to an individual with powers hitherto unknown. This was a great way to wrap up book two, because everyone who read it surely felt a need to dive right into book three to find out how things work out.

Well, that's this book, also comprised of two novellas, and it's fascinating to see how a solution is found that is at once new and catered to all along.

The first continues the story of the Mule, who has conquered everything in sight, thus establishing a Union of Worlds that could be considered a new Galactic Empire earlier than Hari Seldon planned, but not in the sustainable form that he required. His realm includes the Foundation on Terminus, as he had conquered it last time out without an effective fight. However, he hasn't yet conquered the Second Foundation, the one that Seldon established at the other end of the galaxy, because he hasn't found it.

And that's what the first novella here is about: the Mule's search for the only power in the galaxy that might stop him: the fabled Second Foundation, about which nothing is known and whose existence is often doubted. Certainly, up until this point, every single Seldon crisis has been handled by the first Foundation, on Terminus, or was inevitably surpassed. The Second Foundation hasn't done jack in three hundred years. It's fair to wonder whether it even exists, or whether it was a clever decoy of Seldon's.

Of course, we have to assume that it's real because, if it's only a decoy, then Seldon's Plan has failed, destroyed by the Mule. Given that the series pretty much hinges on a base assumption that Seldon was right and his Plan will succeed, we therefore have to extrapolate that the Second Foundation not only exists, but that it does so as a sort of error-checking mechanism to ensure that, even in the event of an unpredictable sport like the Mule, something can be done to correct the momentum of the galaxy and the continuation of the Plan.

Another factor that we can't ignore is that the Plan is a work of applied psychohistory, providing the bedrock to the series, yet there wasn't ever a single psychohistorian on the entire planet of Terminus or anywhere to be found within the Foundation. If we're requiring an error-checking mechanism to take care of the Mule, then that surely has to be done by psychohistorians and, if there are none to be found in the Foundation, it isn't a huge stretch of the imagination to expect them to be in the Second Foundation instead.

So, we have expectations coming in that unsurprisingly prove to be accurate, but that doesn't mean we know how they do what they do and what form what they do will end up taking. I adored that mix of "well, this has to be..." and "how the heck can it be...?" and, quite frankly, that's why this is such an enjoyable book. If there's a flaw, it's quite an inevitable one, and that's that, even though the concluding volume is titled 'Second Foundation', that establishment remains elusive throughout. No, Asimov is unable to truly convince us that it doesn't exist, but he absolutely keeps its secrets as long as he possibly can, in part until the very last page.

It's telling that there's another major female character and a fascinating one too, who appears to serve as the protagonist of the second novella. She's Arkady Darell and she has a heritage, being the granddaughter of Bayta Darell, who had played such a major part in 'Foundation and Empire'. We're told that she's going to become an author with massive popular success but, when we meet, she's a couple of days past fourteen and a lot older than that in her own mind. I adored Arkady and her adventures, but I simply can't talk much about her because of what part she actually plays here. I think it's fair to say that it isn't what she thinks it is, thus making her an odd protagonist.

The biggest achievement of this novel is to get things back on track and we knew it had to do that coming in, but we expected it because we're on board with Seldon's Plan and restoring its path after the anomaly that was the Mule isn't the only way that the book gets things back on track. Enter Seldon's First Theorem of Psychohistorical Quantivity, namely that any population under scrutiny by psychohistory must remain oblivious of the science itself. If it gains an awareness of what's being done to succeed, then it will change what it does and invalidate everything. And, really, that's what this book does above all: restores that oblivion.

I liked it a lot, though I may prefer the middle volume, as I often do with trilogies. As I remember feeling when I first read this as a trilogy in the mid-eighties, it just seemed odd that it ended. After all, Seldon's Plan aimed to run for a thousand years. When this one ends, we're shy of four hundred years into that millennium, and, it seems natural to wonder how things went over the next six. Asimov didn't seem interested in letting us in on that until the pressure on him by fans and editors and, eventually, the size of the payment offered by Doubleday for him to write another 'Foundation' book turned his head enough to actually do it.

And that fourth book in the trilogy, now a series, is 'Foundation's Edge', which won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1983. That makes it the next winner in my runthrough of Hugo Award-winning novels and the reason I dived back into the series. I realise now it was highly appropriate that I did that, not just to re-ground myself in what was often described as the greatest science fiction series of all time but to align myself with the First Theorem of Hari Seldon. If 'Second Foundation' gets everything back on track, it's surely appropriate that I'll follow it with 'Foundation's Edge' and get that runthrough back on track. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by Isaac Asimov click here

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