September 30, 2012


by Isaac Asimov
240 pages, Voyager

Review by Pat Black

You have to hand it to Isaac Asimov. Did he have his agent at gunpoint? What on earth, or anywhere else, possessed him to call this book Second Foundation? What possessed his publishers to agree to the title? It’s actually the third entry in the sci-fi series, though anyone with a grain of logic would think it’s the second.

Brief recap: Psychohistory is the mathematical process whereby the future can be accurately predicted. Small numbers of humans are difficult to second-guess; but when they are spread out across the galaxy in the quintillions, far in the future, then larger patterns are supposedly easier to spot. The original Foundation was set up by the mathematician Hari Seldon to head off what he saw as being a Dark Age lasting 30 millennia, nurtured by the corrupt, decadent and technologically backward Galactic Empire. The Foundation is a group of scientists who use psychohistory’s fait accompli to head off this Dark Age at the pass, making sure it is kept to a 1,000-year period only.

We’ve followed Psychohistory’s genesis through the first two books in the series – Foundation and Foundation and Empire – and we arrive at the third on something of a cliffhanger. One thing Hari Seldon failed to predict was the activity of a mutant known as the Mule who can detect individuals’ emotions, and change them to suit his own ends. At the end of Foundation and Empire, the Mule quickly takes control of the Galaxy and smashes the first Foundation. Yet the long-dead Seldon has planned for the unexpected, too – having set up a secret, Second Foundation, at the opposite end of the Galaxy. This group is totally hidden from view and developing along its own secret paths. The Mule knows that this Second Foundation is the only remaining barrier to his mastery of the Galaxy, and so in the first part of the book he sets out to find it, and destroy it.

But it seems that this new Foundation has developed its powers not along technological lines, as before, but psychological ones, seeking to match the Mule’s telepathic powers and turn them against him. I was almost sad when this segment of the story ended – the Mule reminded me of the Joker in The Dark Knight, the unstoppable force, the insurmountable enemy, easily the series’ most interesting character so far. The Foundation story had become too smug for my liking by the time he came along, and he helped shake things up a bit.

The second part of the story is longer but not quite as engaging. It follows the teenager Arkady Darell, daughter of a famous scientist who is also seeking to destroy the Second Foundation, smashing its telepathy-blocking technology in the wake of the Mule. She hitches a ride to the supposed location of the Second Foundation, only to find it’s not there. There then follows a game of galaxy-sized hide-and-seek as the girl seeks to find the elusive outpost where so many others have failed.

There are double-crosses and surprises galore – sometimes a little too many for their own good. It gets so that with each fresh revelation, you are braced for the “ah-ha-ha-ha!” trump card the Foundation has to play.

In small incerpts, we get to see the shadowy Second Foundation at work, plotting history through their immense, unending equations. Adepts might only provide a line of code or more for this map of history – and consider themselves fortunate. Also striking was the moral question that bothered me about the first two books. If you know exactly how things are going to turn out, and you can twist your opponents and contemporaries this way and that armed with this foreknowledge, then is this a good thing? Of course it isn’t. This book looks at the Foundation with a more critical eye, not casting them as straight up and down good guys. It was welcome, given the Foundation’s series of smart-arsed victories thus far. I kind of wanted the smile taken off their faces.

I would guess that Asimov is looking to Tolstoy for his theoretical model; it would seem that right and wrong, success and failure, triumph and tragedy, all mean absolutely nothing in the face of history. Sometimes it’s simply a current that carries some people along, and drowns others. I accept the idea that we’re all history’s victims in a way, but I’m not sure I like it. With this in mind, I think this is the last time I’ll be checking the Foundation’s sums.

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