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and now, for something completely different.

Second Foundation – Book Review

Second Foundation, by Isaac Asimov

Another installment in the wonderful Foundation series by Isaac Asimov (I don’t number it because there are several ways to count them), Second Foundation tells the secret story of the other half of the Seldon Plan.  In humanity’s distant future, Hari Seldon, pioneer of  a branch of mathematics called ‘psychohistory‘, predicted the decline and failure of the galactic empire centered on the planet of Trantor.  The prediction was based on the equations and theories behind psychohistory.  To call it a prediction is maybe not quite accurate; the decline was more like a very high probable outcome based on the understanding of a complete cultural, polictical and socio-economical system.  Indeed, many (including the emperor) thought that Seldon possessed the ability to foretell the future, when in reality he could only predict massive scale trends and say nothing about the individual:  so, he could predict the fate of the empire, but not how prosperous you or I would be in life.

Psychohistory also predicted with a high probability that following the empire’s collapse, the galaxy would be plunged into a thirty thousand year decline, where anarchy would reign and much of human progress (through science and intellect) would be lost before a second empire could be established.  Seeing that the decline of the empire was inevitable, Seldon and his followers used psychohistory to try to reduce the length of the inevitable decline by manipulating the galactic system.  To that end, Seldon and his followers created the Foundation and the Second Foundation.  The Foundation was to be a storehouse of knowledge, a bastion of science and technology that could protect knowledge and progress in the decline.  The Foundation was created in the full visibility of the galaxy.  So, everyone knew about it.  This book is about the Second Foundation, which Seldon and his followers created in relative secrecy.  Through psychohistory, the planned creation of these two foundations would reduce the inevitable decline of the empire and the subsequent unrest and barbarism of the galaxy to a mere one thousand years.

This book is separated into two distinct stories.

The first is the story of a monkey-wrench in the works of the Seldon plan, as it were.  In Foundation and Empire, a man is born with a mutation that allows him not only to accurately detect human emotions, but also to control them.  Essentially, The Mule (as he is known) can completely control human sensibilities.  Not even the Seldon plan could have predicted the appearance of such an extreme mutation in the human element.  The Mule reaches out in conquest to destroy the Foundation and claim the galaxy for his own, but in doing so learns rumors of a supposed Second Foundation, a secret foundation.  As a counterpoint to the hard scientific base of the Foundation, the Second Foundation is supposed to be a bastion of intellect.  Psychologists honing their understanding of the powers of the mind, developing skills not unlike the abilities of the Mule himself.  The first half of the book centers on the Mule’s search for the Second Foundation.  He figures if he can take them on, then he can assure his conquest of the galaxy, thus reducing the predicted run of the Seldon plan from one thousand to three hundred years.

The second is the story of the re-establishment of the prosperity of the first Foundation.  In its rebirth, the hard science of the Foundation also starts to delve into psychology as a hard science.  In doing so, a select few start to wonder also what the Mule wondered about the Second Foundation:  were they being controlled by some strange force of the psychologists of the Second Foundation?  Seeing advancements in brain pattern analysis, the scientists of the Foundation begin to detect where the minds of some of the major figures appear to have been tampered with.  They decide that the Second Foundation must be a threat, and so decide to go out in search of it in secret, and to destroy it.  The rationale is that the Seldon Plan provided for the Foundation to carry humanity forward, and that the Second Foundation should not be allowed to manipulate that.  The Second Foundation, therefore, is seen as an opponent rather than a partner in the Plan.

Asimov has an absolute knack in the Foundation series for creating a complete mental game.  It’s like one giant logic puzzle of events and thoughts that need to be deciphered to uncover the truth.  As with Treasure Island, I’m struck with how just a few decades in this case really change the flavor and the pace of storytelling.  Asimov retains the massive scale of the universe that many modern space operas employ, with about half of the pages.  Asimov’s writing is at once simple and straightforward, and at the same time complex and interwoven.  He takes the obscure themes and logic of the Seldon plan, and explains it as if it were some simple and obvious breakthrough that “just works.”  He’s also very good at creating instantly likable characters, I don’t think there was one character in the book that I didn’t like.  Sure, there are good guys and bad guys (sometimes), but even the bad guys you can’t help feeling sorry for, half the time!

The vision of the future as far as technology goes is also quite interesting.  His galaxy of tens of thousands years distant views atomic energy as the penultimate level of technology and achievement.  Declining worlds are almost mocked at still burning coal to create energy.  Personal technology is also very amusing when compared with modern capabilities.  For instance, the idea of “book-films” is so interesting… even today, the idea of a “cartridge”, or some physical object that we insert into a playback device, is all but dying.  Data and information lives in the cloud, and is replicated a million times over.  In Asimov’s galaxy, individual copies still exist.

At the end of it, Asimov’s writing always seems to be about understanding sociological nuance and logic.  The themes are just surrounded by the technology of a distant future.  His books about robot psychology are similar – when you create simple rules for an automata to function and live by, is it impossible that the automata cannot find different ways to interpret and apply those rules?  It’s part a discussion of technology and artificial intelligence, and the part a discussion of human decision making.  Second Foundation touches on the human emotions of ego and paranoia, and highlights their strengths and weaknesses.  In the end, it all comes down to fear of the unknown.

There’s a reason Asimov’s universe is considered a classic and masterpiece in science fiction.  The scale and imagination of the work is excellent, as is the presentation.  If they ever make a movie out of these books, it will be very difficult.  I Robot (another Asimov staple) was made into a movie, and the movie actually has nothing to do with the book of the same name.  There are some similarities in theme and some scenes, but the movie itself appears in no work by Asimov.  Hopefully the same fate isn’t in store for the Foundation series, as it would be a shame to cheapen such rich source material.  The books are such remarkably fun and simple reads!

At the end of it, Asimov always seems to wrap up his stories in no more than a couple pages.  There’s conflict and climax and… resolution.  So that’s what I’ll do here, I’ll just wrap it up.  It’s a great book, you should read through the series.

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