October 15, 2011


by Isaac Asimov
240 pages, Voyager

Review by Pat Black

I’ve read the term “Black Swan Event” a few times this past week. It refers to things which only make sense in hindsight, shocking events which destabilise our perception of the world and can only be explained when we rationalise them retrospectively. They could have been predicted or obviated – all the signs were there. But we only see this after the event.
This phrase appeared again and again as people attempted to explain why rioting broke out in England. You could argue that what happened on September 11, 2001, was the ultimate Black Swan Event of the modern world – and I get a creepy feeling that we’re still being swept along by the tsunami created that day.
Isaac Asimov's Foundation series spins the notion of a Black Swan Event completely around. Using the pseudo science of psycho-history, the sci-fi master postulates that in the future, with trillions of people spread out across the galaxy, it may be possible to predict which direction history will take.

Asimov based his fake science on observations of gases. We can't predict what a single gas molecule will do - but put them together by the million, and you can make quite accurate predictions about how that gas will behave. Swap people for molecules, and, in theory, the law should hold true. While predicting the behaviour of small numbers of people is difficult, plotting larger trends is easier. In this world, we know where we’re going; getting there, it seems, will be the fun part.
Foundationand Empire is the second book in the series (read my review of the first on Booksquawk) and it continues to follow the predictions of Hari Seldon, a maverick scientist who plotted out the end of humanity's ruling aristocracy, the Galactic Empire.

Seldon shows how the Empire will be replaced by the more egalitarian, knowledge-based and free-trade supporting Foundation. Each critical phase of this process will come about through several pre-determined problem events known as Seldon Crises. As we enter the second book, the Empire is clinging to power, but only just. The Foundation, boosted by free-booting Traders and more advanced technology, appears to be turning the tide.
 I had my problems with the first Foundation; I didn't take to the main characters, and progress was a little dull - the whole storyline is a fait accompli, according to Seldon. So where's the surprise?
We can see signs of this in the second book, which has two distinct parts. The first – The General - sees a military hero, Bel Riose, leading an invasion force into Foundation territory. He has a strange mentor figure, an older man with a murky political past. This odd pair are joined by a Foundation prisoner, a seemingly laissez-faire Trader captured during military manoeuvres.

This part nailed down what I really disliked about the first book; there's too much of a sense of the Foundation carrying all the cards. They are sneaky, and even though we are meant to side with the Foundation against the backwards, corrupt Empire, there's not a lot to admire in their slippery dealings. And for all that the Foundation avoids pitfalls and snags through psycho-history's statistical purity, I saw a paradox in that the storyline can only ever be altered by individual characters – the zeroes on the roulette wheel. This becomes farcical in The General when a key point in the narrative hinges on a piece of distraction trickery that would have seemed silly in Scooby Doo.  

Asimov must have realised how restrictive psycho-history’s idea of predestination is – so, fair play to him for sticking a spanner in the works in the second part, The Mule. 

The eponymous character is a mutant with psycho-dynamic powers who attacks the now-dominant Foundation, turning the tables on them with only his mind. What makes the Mule fascinating as a concept (rather than a character - he is incognito until the very end) is that Hari Seldon's supposedly failsafe predictions have not foreseen him. For the first time, the Foundation is left completely in the dark.

The logic of the storytelling breaks down in both parts of Foundation and Empire. In the first, you don’t need to be a mathematical genius to work out that harbouring someone who bears a grudge against you and allowing him to team up with an enemy operative might end up causing you a problem. In the second, someone seemingly innocent latches onto our main characters, a man who is quite clearly not all he appears to be. Although there is a good explanation for why this person is allowed to mooch around, he was quite obviously up to no good, and his presence jarred me. When is a twist not a twist?

As before, if you take away the ray guns and spaceships, Foundation could be a story about court intrigue set in any era. It's A Game of Thrones in space, written well before A Game of Thrones existed. And - once again – there are a few things in the story which serve as startling reminders of George Lucas' Star Wars saga. A character named Han and a blockade that must be breached in space were just two of the surprising parallels.

A word about the editing and typesetting: appalling. Perhaps the worst I’ve seen in a book from a major publisher. It may sound picky but there are all kinds of errors, including run-ons, garbled sentences and – repeatedly – discrete sections which are cut into each other without a significant break between the paragraphs. I’m willing to blame the publishers of this edition rather than Asimov himself, but – poor show.

He steps off his upturned Pedantry Bucket, and bows to the crowd.

Foundation and Empire never outstays its welcome. It was less bitty than the first book, being two separate stories; I'm not sure this was an improvement, though, as the original Foundation's short stories structure gave us an impression of changing history and passing time. There was no one character to root for, here, and Asimov's fascinating concept of psycho-history does run into paradoxes and problems.  

Still, I'm happy to be along for the ride, and as Foundation and Empire ends on a cliffhanger, I’ll stay on board for the third volume, entitled (confusingly) Second Foundation. See you then...

Or will I?!?

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