Review Of Second
Foundation, by Isaac Asimov
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/20/06
Second Foundation (despite its title) is the third part of the original Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov, and itís a hell of a good book, as well as an extremely bleak book in its portrayal of the human future. The first part, Search By The Mule, published as Now You See It... in the January, 1948 edition of Astounding Science Fiction, concerns the search for the Second Foundation of Hari Seldon by the mutant who has conquered almost the whole of the galaxy within a few years, including the First Foundation, by dint of his ability to control the emotions of individuals. Each chapter within this section ends with an antichoros section told from the point of view of the First Speaker (of the Speakers ruling body) of the Second Foundation, as he monitors the goings on. The Mule notices some of his subjectsí emotions are being interfered with, and thus his military machineís efficiency is compromised. He sends two people, a First Foundationer he controls, General Han Pritcher, and one he does not control, Bail Channis, to search for the Second Foundation so he can destroy it. Channis is uncoverted, so that he may be able to Ďthink outside the boxí, so to speak, and the Mule hopes his natural competitiveness with Pritcher will bring out the best in both men. Pritcherís plight is all too typical of the Muleís minions:
The Conversion was not the ordinary one brought on by the power of superior reason. Han Pritcher knew that well enough. He had been changed because the Mule was a mutant with mental powers quite capable of adjusting the conditions of ordinary humans to suit himself. But that satisfied him completely. That was as it should be. The very contentment with the Conversion was a prime symptom of it, but Han Pritcher was no longer even curious about the matter.
By the end of the section the Muleís forces have seemingly found the Second Foundation, yet Channis turns out to be a Second Foundationer, who tries to lure the Mule to the remote planet, Rossem. The Mule shows up, but knows itís a trap and that Channis was a Second Foundationer. He destroys a nearby planet, Tazenda, he believes is Starís End- legendary home of the Second Foundation, due to the similar sounding names. Yet, Channis was given disinformation, and had his mind wiped clean. The Second Foundation, and the First Speaker- who shows up, have outsmarted the Mule, as their forces have now a head start to the Muleís forces, and will unconvert them and control them all before he can return to his home base. The Mule knows he is beaten, concedes, then is mentally modified by the Second Foundation, so that his few remaining years of life are that of a benevolent dictator, with no memory of the Second Foundation, and no plans for conquest. This is a far cry from his initial psychopathic state:
They feared him and obeyed him and, perhaps, even respected him--from a goodly distance. But who could look at him without contempt? Only those he had Converted. And of what value was their artificial loyalty? It lacked flavor. He might have adopted titles, and enforced ritual and invented elaborations, but even that would have changed nothing. Better--or at least, no worse--to be simply the First Citizen--and to hide himself.
There was a sudden surge of rebellion within him--strong and brutal. Not a portion of the Galaxy must be denied him. For five years he had remained silent and buried here on Kalgan because of the eternal, misty, space-ridden menace of the unseen, unheard, unknown Second Foundation. He was thirty-two. Not old--but he felt old. His body, whatever its mutant mental powers, was physically weak.
Every star! Every star he could see--and every star he couldn't see. It must all be his!
Revenge on all. On a humanity of which he wasn't a part. On a Galaxy in which he didnít fit.
The whole of the revelations of this endgame is written in perorations and expositions worthy of the best of William Shakespeare and Arthur Conan Doyle.
The second section of the book, Search By The Foundation, published as ...And Now You Donít in Astounding Science Fiction in November and December, 1949, takes place some decades after the death of the Mule, and the reassertion of political and economic hegemony by the First Foundation, who are almost paranoid about the threat that the Second Foundation poses, since their mental might can trump all the scientific material might the First Foundation can offer. They realized that the defeat of the Mule could have only come about at the hands of the Second Foundation, and believe that the Second Foundation may have been located at the Muleís former capital world of Kalgan, whom the Foundation defeats in a several months long war, then that the Second Foundation may have been located on the Foundationís base world of Terminus. They execute fifty supposed spies, and are content that the threat posed by the Second Foundation has been neutralized, just as the Second Foundation wanted. Now, with both the threats of the Mule and the First Foundationís own paranoia quelled, the Second Foundation is again free to lay the foundations for Second Empire by the end of the eon. Yet, the Second Foundationís location is the same as that of the First Empire- on Trantor, aka Starís End, due to the saying, ĎAll roads lead to Trantor, and that is where all stars end.í The First Foundationerís took a too scientific view of Seldonís claims, not realizing that Trantor is at the other end of the galaxy in two senses- a) it is where the hub of the galaxy was, as opposed to the galaxyís edge, and b) since the galaxy is a spiral, from the edge, the other end lies at its center. Much of this tale rests on young Arcadia Darrell, fourteen years old, the granddaughter of Bayta Darrell, from Foundation And Empire, whose work as a sexual spy, on Kalgan, is strong. Yet, she is scared off by an amorous warlord, and stows away on Preem Palverís ship. He and his wife are grain merchants, who turn out to be Second Foundationerís. In fact, Palver is revealed as the new First Speaker at the taleís end.
The series ends grandly, as both sections end with cat and mouse psychological games. and twists. Asimov is as good at this as any mystery writer who ever lived, and his solutions are never of the deus ex machina variety. Yet, this book, and the whole series, are a brilliant allegory on fascism- be it the Right Wing/Nazi variety, or old style Left Wing/Communism. The Second Foundation is not really a good thing, when viewed objectively, but a very scary thing; masters who care little of the human rights of the First Foundation, or any of the other galactic inhabitants- human or not. Far from the saviors that they appear to be they are many times worse than the Mule, and the First Foundation recognizes this, but no matter their struggle, it is doomed. Even Arcadia has been controlled since birth, so her mindscans show no evidence of altering since itís always been altered. The triumph of the mentalic power of the Second Foundation seemingly presages a bitter and repressive Second Empire, for not only will the galaxy be enslaved, but wholly unaware of its enslavement. Yes, the Mule was a threat to the Seldon Plan, but he was, ironically, the seemingly last hope for individual liberty. Had he defeated the Second Foundation anarchy would have reigned, but so might a hope for liberty. With his defeat, slavery is seemingly assured. Iíve not read the later books, but have read a little bit of them, yet I will take this trilogy by itself, in a further analysis.
Through my three reviews of each of the trilogyís books I have barely skimmed the underpinnings and assumptions of Asimovís Psychohistory. In short, is it real (in the context of the bookís universe; itís clearly not in the real world), and does it work? I think not, in both instances- and again, I realize that Asimov allegedly repudiated the original trilogyís claims in later sequels, but I think one can descry that just from the evidence put forth in the trilogy. As to the first part of the query it is interesting to note that throughout the three books, for all the hoopla and devotion both Foundations put in the theory, at no point does the omniscient narrator of the books (presumably the same person in all three books) ever confirm that yes, psychohistory is actually successful. We get reports of galaxy-wide machinations and wars, and we get the assumptions of many characters- both enemies and citizens of the Foundations- that the plan is working, but no irrefutable confirmation. The reader is left to decide, although most will probably assume it does.
Yet, it seems to me that not only do the interior underpinnings of the theory fail, but so do the exterior trappings. The interior underpinnings are manifest. The Mule is a seemingly unpredictable mutation who less than three hundred years into the thirty thousand years predictability curve of the theory destroys it. Granted, it seems that the Second Foundationís very existence might argue that Seldonís preparations in fact did prepare for unforeseeable events and individuals. Or, perhaps, the galaxy just lucked out, or crapped out- if one sees the Mule as the lesser evil, in comparison to the Second Foundation. But, if the mutantís superhuman powers were not predictable then what of the influence of a very ordinary human- Hari Seldon, himself? He and his theory become a virtual religion, and that proves far more powerful than a mere single superhuman. And, this religion seems destined to submit the whole of the galaxy to slavery. Clearly, all the evidence in the books suggests that this is the antithesis of what Seldon had in mind. As bad and corrupt and bureaucratic as the old First Empire was, it looks to be far more palatable than the Empire which will succeed its ashes.
Yet, that is not the only evidence that Psychohistory was wrong, and a fraud. The mere power of the Psychohistorical myth is a far greater force than any claimed predictive powers it has. Enemies of the Foundations chart their own failures even before single shots are fired. In effect, the only real power that Psychohistory demonstrates is what might be termed a sort of Conquistadorean placebo effect, that both of the Foundationsí enemies view them the way the Aztecs did the Spaniards. This, incidentally, exposes the soft white underbelly of the First Foundation, that the Mule uses in his initial conquest of it. So rapt by supposed Psychohistorical exceptionalism are they, that they have grown overweening, effete, and weak. And, after they have defeated the Mule, it is the Second Foundation that seeks to restore a belief in that exceptionalism, full well knowing its powerís ability to a) restore the First Foundationís power, and b) make it unwittingly subject to their manipulations. This placebo confidence is certainly a powerful weapon, but it does not prove Psychohistory one bit. In short, to those living in the trilogyís cosmos, the real power of the theory is not in its reality, but its believed reality.
The only real question one might ask is whether or not the galaxy shaping Hari Seldon actually believed his own theory or merely knew the effect of a good rallying cry in accomplishing nationalistic tasks: Remember the Alamo! Remember The Maine! Deutschland Łber alles!, etc. Or, was he worse? Was he really a closet fascist? The First Foundation, in a sense, is a sort of Israel in the Middle East, or a Manifest Destiny-fed 19th Century America- both comparisons have validity in differing areas, but the Second Foundation has the makings of a super-Gestapo state, Big Brother on steroids. Yet, the most insidious thing is that they really do see themselves as saviors, and a benison for the galaxy, rather than the very antithesis of all that is good and noble in human history. They not only can kill your body, but your very soul. And in all the galaxy only they have anything resembling true freedom, although it could be argued that they have already, by trilogyís end, succumbed to the worst impulses of the totalitarian.
Overall, Asimovís masterpiece (the trilogy) is one of the bleakest works of art ever put forth. While there are great characterizations within, it all seems futile, to the point that fatalism renders even seemingly tragic heroes into moot gray pawns. Most characters are even alienated from alienation. The Second Foundationers seem in firm control, the First Foundationers believe they are, having seemingly rooted out the Second Foundationís threat, and the subject peoples of the galaxy seem contented to let the Psychohistorical plan play out about them. Could this be more apt to many current belief systems- political, religious, philosophic? The only bright side that the trilogy leaves the reader is to be found in not the Mule, himself, but in what he represents- the living embodiment of the Fallacy Of Uninterrupted Trends. Somewhere in the future of the galaxy there has to be an even greater, and higher speed bump for the Second Foundation, and in that bump could lay human salvation. Isaac Asimovís trilogy is not just a science fiction masterpiece, but one of the great works of fiction, period. Yes, there are dated attitudes and science, but the trends and actions of the taleís players are recognizable from far off. And that is because they are not so distant, after all. In such parallax is great art given life. Breathe it.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Yet Another Book Review website.]
Return to Bylines