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.
The artist for these style covers is Michael Whelan, a national treasure
[NOTE: This review contains a massive spoiler for the entire Foundation series.]
Though structured almost identically to Foundation and Empire in terms of it being two separate stories put together in one novel, Second Foundation does a much better job justifying the pairing. Both halves of Second Foundation are essentially about the same thing: locating the Second Foundation frequently hinted at throughout the first two books, and both are dealing with the fallout from The Mule's disruption of the Seldon Plan. Having disclaimed that, however, it makes sense for the purposes of this review to again look at the two stories individually.
The first part, "Search by the Mule," wraps up the lingering threat of The Mule. It's surprisingly short and doesn't have any truly memorable characters, not even the returning Channis, now "converted" by the Mule into a much less interesting person, but the story is entertaining enough on its own merits. It is driven almost entirely by the maddening question of where the Second Foundation is located, and for the first time, we are given brief glimpses of the Second Foundation from its own point of view.
The biggest problem is the climax, however, which gets almost farcical in its constant twist-upon-twist-upon-twist revelations between a handful of characters all trying to prove how much smarter they are than each other. It's frankly exhausting, but it does prepare readers for the Russian-nesting-doll plots of a society that can use mental powers to manipulate the course of human events. "Search by the Mule" is a more enjoyable read than the underwhelming "The General" from Foundation and Empire, but it doesn't hold up well to repeated readings. Also, like "The General," it doesn't live up to its premise as the culmination of a major battle between two seemingly insurmountable forces, and it's a disappointing end for a fascinating villain.
The alien abduction of Little Red Riding Hood was a critical turning point for the narrative
The second part, however, "Search by the Foundation," is an excellent climax for the entire trilogy, getting right to the business of pitting the original Foundation against the nebulous Second Foundation. The characters in this part are some of the best in the series, including the young prodigy Arkady, her father Dr. Darell, the Kalganian warlord Stettin and his seemingly empty-headed mistress, the stuttering librarian Homir Munn, the untrustworthy Pelleas Anthor (who begins the story by sneaking outside the window of a fourteen-year-old girl's bedroom, earning him constant suspicion), and the homey Trantorian couple who take in an important refugee and are later revealed to be living members of the Second Foundation itself.
Asimov's action is more refined here, too. There are a lot of physical wars throughout the entire series, but the brief skirmish between Kalgan and the Foundation is better described than any of the previous ones. It's much easier to follow the macroscopic series of events and strategies employed, and Asimov doesn't dwell so much on it that it takes away from the far more intellectual action of the main story.
As for that--the mental battle between Foundations--it is handled with fascinating ambiguity. It's hard to know who to root for, and one can't help but be disturbed by the very existence of the conflict, no matter how much sense it makes from opposite perspectives. This is real drama--a massive conflict between two forces that are not inherently evil or wrong--and is more thoughtful than most of the earlier battles between power-mad lunatics like Stettin and the peaceful scientists of the Foundation. Thematically, this is where the central conflict comes to a head, where mankind must decide whether a benevolent future can be written or whether free will should rule forevermore. This is not a question to be taken lightly, and Asimov does not treat it lightly.
This one is pretty cool
However, the conclusion feels a little similar to the one from "Search by the Mule," in that it involves a series of increasingly elaborate revelations about what is really going on. It's not quite as exhausting or as incomprehensible--indeed, I might even complain that it's a little too predictable--but Asimov strains the reader's patience one or two too many times. It all leads to the ultimate revelation of Trantor being the home of the Second Foundation all along, which by that point should come as a surprise to none but the most willfully oblivious readers.
While the original Foundation will always retain its throne in my hall of favorites for being the groundbreaker of the series, Second Foundation, particularly its longer second half, might be the most fun to reread. Unlike "Search by the Mule," which is kind of boring once you know how it all ends, "Search by the Foundation" remains intriguing even when you know the big secret. There's a lot of meat to chew on and interesting characters to spend time with, and it serves as a fitting conclusion to the trilogy.
But of course, Asimov wasn't finished with the Foundation. It took decades, but after pressure from publishers and fans, Asimov eventually added to his series. We'll be getting into the sequels and prequels in the coming weeks, but rather than tackling them in the order he wrote them, I'm going to start with the prequels and then discuss the sequels, for two reasons. First, the four of them make more sense in chronological order; and second, I'm sure you're more interested in my opinions on the sequels, so I have to dangle that carrot to keep you coming back. (Given how much I'm loving Marvel's Loki, though, I might have to find a way to squeeze a review of The End of Eternity in there as well...)
-e. magill 6/24/2021
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: