“Foundation and Empire” Isaac Asimov

I was a bit wary about reading this book, after not enjoying the first in the trilogy very much when I read it a few days ago (post). But this one went better. I think the problem I was having with the first one was that each section had different characters & was so short that none of the characters really got a chance to expand beyond a name & a handful of traits. There are only two sections in this book, and so the characters have more room to breathe. Oddly this is most strongly the case in the second part, even tho in this story several of the characters end up under someone else’s emotional control they still feel more like people.

The plot is another couple of episodes in the history of the First Foundation. The first one deals with the last gasp of the Old Empire before it decays into utter irrelevancy. The Foundation has finally grown big enough & powerful enough to be noticed by at least some factions in the decaying Empire, who desire to put it back in its “proper” place – subordinate to the Emperor. The Foundation survives the crisis, but not really because it does anything (the story is about the people trying to do things and never seeming to get anywhere) – it’s because the Empire is now so unstable that internal politics get in the way of conquering ambition. The Foundation now has a sense of invincibility – the “dead hand of Hari Seldon” or the “Seldon tidal wave” will sweep away any & all forces that oppose it.

And that is where the second part of the book leaps off from. The Foundation is now a totalitarian state, ruled by a hereditary Mayor. Its people, in particular the descendants of the Traders of an earlier age, plot against the government. It’s predicted that a Seldon Crisis is nigh, but the authorities think the best thing to do is just to keep on keeping on – they’ll win, won’t they? And out on the periphery the rumours of The Mule grow – he’s conquering all in his path and heading for the Foundation. He does indeed conquer the Foundation and most of the rest of the galaxy (technically that’s a spoiler but the book has been out for 60 years …). Now he’s searching for the Second Foundation set up by Seldon, and just when the secret is in his grasp a woman saves the day. I particularly liked this because she wins because of who she is. She isn’t under emotional control because she’s genuinely kind – the mistake the Mule makes is to revel in this unforced kindness, rather than control her under general principles. She’s also shown as observant, intelligent and capable of doing what needs to be done, so it’s not a surprise when she figures out what’s going on and then does something about it. So having complained about the paper thin characters of the last book, it was nice to see someone whose character was shown rather than told and whose actions grew out of their character.

One other thing that struck me about this second section was how reading it from this perspective of 60 years later undermines one of the main plot points. The plot revolves around how the Seldon Plan is not infalliable – the Mule is a mutant and so was unpredictable. And his powers of emotional control mean that people stop acting like autonomous people – they are bent to do what the Mule wants. So the Seldon Plan can no longer predict them accurately, and when Seldon’s image appears he talks about the wrong crisis – the one that would’ve happened if the Mule had not been born and disrupted the galaxy. At one point one of the characters pontificates about the two ways that the predictions could fail. The first is if technology changed significantly and the second is if the nature of people changed. The first hasn’t happened in 300 years, so it must be the second. And yet looking at how technology has changed between when this book was written & now, it seems unimaginable that in 300 years as a Galaxy descends into chaos & wars between kingdoms no-one has invented a better weapon than the last of the Old Empire’s tech. So how could Seldon’s Plan have predicted anything well enough to last 300 years before being brought down by a super-powered mutant? Not that I think our current rate of technological change is necessarily sustainable, but over 300 years of “anarchy” with a power like the Foundation trying to assimilate its neighbours, well, you’d think there’d be an incentive to concentrate on out thinking them. I guess the “science as religion” trope of the last book is part of why this doesn’t happen immediately around the Foundation – but further afield you’d think it would.

And on that sort of amusing note – one major way society has changed in the last 60 years is smoking. I expect to handwave past manual calculations of interstellar navigation in a story of this vintage, but somehow the “everyone smokes” thing took me by surprise. Asimov even uses “won’t let other people smoke in his office” as a shorthand for “this character is prissy & officious”. All the other men lights up cigars here, there & everywhere, the women smoke cigarettes.

Overall this volume has aged better than the first in the trilogy in terms of storytelling & my enjoyment of it, let’s hope that’s also true for the third one 🙂