Welcome to the second Summer of Asimov, where we'll be examining the third of the so-called Big Three Golden Age Science-Fiction authors. We've already covered the technologist Arthur C. Clarke and the political futurist Robert A. Heinlein, so now we get to the philosophical fantasist, Isaac Asimov. Covering Asimov adequately over one summer proved to be a daunting task, especially with the pandemic, so I've had to split it into two. This year, we'll mostly be covering the Foundation series, in anticipation of the hopefully-as-good-as-it-looks television series coming out later in the year (which I will of course be reviewing). So sit back, relax, and enjoy some vintage, epic science-fiction from one of the grandmasters of the genre.
I love this cover
While it is relatively easy to discuss the five parts of the original Foundation as one cohesive story, it is much more difficult to rectify the two halves of its sequel, Foundation and Empire. The first half is the inevitable confrontation between the titular forces that happens roughly two centuries after the founding of the Foundation, a larger story detailing the biggest Seldon crisis to date. The second half jumps ahead another century and begins the story of The Mule, an enigmatic figure who seems to be able to take over whole swaths of the galaxy with ease and who has set his sights on an increasingly despotic Foundation.
The first part is, in a word, disappointing. It sets up a grand conflict, with a Foundation that no longer concerns itself with non-violent means of defending itself and a power-hungry general of the Empire who recognizes the long-term threat it represents. The characters are given more time to breathe and become more idiosyncratic than the interchangeable ones from the original Foundation, but they still fall into fairly predictable heroes and villains without too much in the way of nuance or dynamic character arcs. Unfortunately, it's all wasted on an enormous anti-climax, where the entire conflict comes to a sudden end between chapters by no help whatsoever from our apparent heroes.
Asimov's explanation is a bit too cute, with his discussion of the power dynamics between a strong general and a weak emperor (an explanation that should have been given by Seldon in the Time Vault, but for whatever reason, the characters of this age have completely forgotten about that), and it's deeply unsatisfying how we follow and root for characters who ultimately accomplish nothing. In the end, it feels like a very long way of telling a story that would be better off as a footnote, which is unfitting for what should be the greatest conflict thus far in the series. Out of all the parts of the original trilogy, this part--called either "Dead Hand" or "The General"--is my least favorite.
The Bantam paperbacks are always good
That said, the second part--"The Mule"--more than makes up for it. This is where Asimov really shakes things up, by introducing a character seemingly unaccounted for by Seldon's plan. Not only that, the other characters are stronger than ever, and for the first time in the entire series, we are given a female protagonist in Bayta, a young newlywed who gradually comes to understand that she is uniquely situated to slow down--if not outright defeat--this new threat of The Mule. In particular, I absolutely love the scene in the Time Vault, when the holographic Seldon starts discussing events that haven't happened before chaos breaks out and the Foundation's homeworld of Terminus is conquered in one stroke.
This story feels like Asimov putting all of his strengths together in one package, with a story structured like a mystery that readers can solve before the big reveal, with a lot of socially-conscious but intellectually honest subtext, and with the same historical analogues that inspired the Foundation to begin with, as the Mule has analogues in Attila the Hun, Charlemagne, and Caesar Augustus. As part of a series of stories, it turns expectations on their heads, finally breaking the tired formula of conquerers attacking the Foundation only to be defeated by socio-economic forces predetermined by psycho-history.
But again, it also has the most well-rounded characters who pop off the page, characters like Ebling Mis, the old psycho-historian who is the first to realize something is wrong and who eventually whittles away and dies in search of the answer, Magnifico Giganticus, the colorful and bizarre clown whose role is unclear until the end, Mayor Indbur, the haughty ruler of an authoritarian Foundation who is as overconfident as he is ineffectual, and Captain Han Pritcher, the insubordinant intelligence officer determined to learn all he can about The Mule and who is fully prepared to die as an assassin after everything falls apart.
There's a lot going on here
Asimov's writing is, in general, more mature here than in the previous novel (or even the previous part of this novel), and despite "The Mule" being the longest single story in the series thus far, it is the smoothest read, a real page-turner that never feels bogged down by tiresome exposition or unnecessarily detailed descriptions of the setting. It's a full-on adventure that finds a place for action and suspense but still occasionally opines about society and politics in a way that feels organic and necessary to the plot.
Near the end, the characters visit the last remnants of the Empire--the last chapters even take place on the ruins of Trantor--and as such, you can argue that it serves as a kind of epilogue to the Empire, a brief glimpse of what happened to the galactic center after General Riose's execution for trying to dominate the Foundation a century earlier. That's a generous way of tying the two stories together, though, as they have virtually nothing to do with each other. Perhaps you could look at the first part as a recap of the formula before the second part throws it into disarray, but honestly, I just can't look at these two stories and think of them as existing together in the same novel in any way that makes sense.
For that reason, it is all but impossible to judge Foundation and Empire as a novel. One half is my least favorite part of the series, but the other half might be my favorite. On balance, then, I'm ambivalent on the novel as a whole, pushed in two directions and forced to conclude that it averages out to a wash. However, because of how expertly Asimov sets up the grand conflict between The Mule and The Second Foundation that he continues in the next novel, it is absolutely essential reading and a necessary middle chapter in the original trilogy.
-e. magill 6/17/2021
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: