This isn’t quite the post I thought I’d be writing when I started the book, I thought I’d be concentrating on the details of the plot or the characters. Instead there was a scene in the middle that shifted my perception of the overall arc in an unexpected way.
I’ve always thought of this book as ending the trilogy on an upbeat note – the Second Foundation has wrenched the course of the civilisation of the galaxy back on track to form the Second Empire in accordance with Seldon’s Plan. The first section of the novel is about how The Mule was defeated and changed from a conquering dictator to a benevolent despot whose empire would fall apart after his death. The second section follows a group of Foundation citizens who are searching for the Second Foundation – they are tricked into thinking they’ve found & removed it. This is necessary for Seldon’s Plan to come to fruition in part because it relies on the majority of humanity being unaware of the details of the plan. And also because “We still have a society which would resent a ruling class of psychologists, and which would fear its development and fight against it”, in the words of the First Speaker of the Second Foundation. Which is a summary of the plot of this section of the novel.
And the sentence that I’ve quoted just above is part of the scene which changed my perception of the story, and I’m not sure if it was supposed to or not. Here’s a description of the Second Empire that the Second Foundation is working towards, extracted from a longish conversation that’s part of the examination process for a new member of the ruling elite of the Second Foundation:
[…]it is the intention of the plan to establish a human civilization based on an orientation entirely different from anything that ever before existed. […] It is that of a civilization based on mental science. […] Only an insignificant minority, however, are inherently able to lead Man through the greater involvements of Mental Science; and the benefits derived therefrom, while longer lasting, are more subtle and less apparent. […] such an orientation would lead to the development of a benevolent dictatorship of the mentally best – virtually a higher subdivision of Man […] The solution is the Seldon Plan […] six hundred years from now, a Second Galactic Empire will have been established in which Mankind will be ready for the leadership of Mental Science. In that same interval, the Second Foundation in its development, will have brought forth a group of Psychologists ready to assume leadership.
So the Seldon Plan is actually the blueprint for the ruling elite of the Second Foundation to take over the galaxy. They will rule by Psychology – which is like our science of psychology but has been developed in this far far future to include mental powers. Including the ability to alter the memories and the emotions of other people, by directly tampering with their mind in a way they can’t protect against unless they too have this training and the ability to use it. The first section of the novel makes it clear that The Mule is conquering the galaxy using a cruder (mutant) version of this power, and the Second Foundation are both more powerful than him and subtler & more sophisticated in their use of these powers. The Mule is explicitly said to be able to change people from non-loyal to loyal and fix their minds there. The Second Foundation aren’t that crude, but it’s implied that’s within their capabilities just they prefer not to be that obvious. They are explicitly said to be able to alter someone’s memories such that they can’t tell it was done. The Mule isn’t stopped because what he’s doing to people is an atrocity (and I think it is). He’s stopped because he’s getting in the way.
The Second Empire will be a place where if you’re not one of the elite then your mind could be changed by an external force, against your will and without your ability to stop it – if you’re one of the elite it could still happen but you’d be more likely to know it was being done (until they altered your memory of it having happened …). The difference between it and the society of The Mule’s empire is that in the Second Empire it will be done with Science and For Your Own Good. I don’t see that as being a significant difference. So now I see the end of the book as a tragedy, the win by the Second Foundation is a loss for humanity in the long run.
But I’m not sure if I’m supposed to think that, what Asimov’s intent was. I can’t remember feeling that way about it last time I read it (20 or more years ago). I think I accepted unquestioningly that Seldon’s Plan was “the way things were supposed to work” and that it was a net good for humanity (reducing the time of barbarism between the two civilised Galactic Empires for instance). And the tone of the book still feels like that’s how I’m supposed to be reacting. I know in the later books (“Foundation’s Edge” and “Foundation and Earth”, neither of which I own) Asimov writes in a third way that’s not the First Foundation’s type of Empire and not the Second Foundation’s one either so perhaps he too wouldn’t want to live in the Second Galactic Empire? I can’t remember enough about them though to know if that addresses my issues with the mind control side of the Second Foundation’s plans (but from what I remember mind control and loss of individuality is still a part of the future of the galaxy). I think my mother owns the books, I shall have to borrow them next time I’m in Oxford and see what I think now (I certainly remember them as being stylistically more pleasing – being written in the 1980s rather than the 1950s so “current” for when I was reading them last).