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.
There's something out there
Councilman Golan Trevize of the First Foundation, despite a century and a half of peace, is more convinced than ever that the Second Foundation is still alive, threatening the future prosperity of his people. He is exiled for his heresy and finds himself on a quest to find the mythical first planet, Earth, though he secretly hunts for the mentalics he believes are operating in the shadows. Meanwhile, on the ruins of Trantor, the Second Foundation is indeed still alive, and Speaker Stor Gendibal has discovered a new threat to the Seldon Plan, more dire than even the Mule had been, and he persuades the leaders of the Second Foundation that, somehow, Golan Trevize holds the key to fighting it.
After over thirty years of pressure from fans and publishers, Isaac Asimov finally returned to his Foundation series with Foundation's Edge, a sequel novel to his original trilogy that tells a single story rather than a collection of multiple ones. Instead of charting the course of a Seldon crisis, however, this story starts in the afterglow of a successful resolution to one, showing how the continued, perfect flourishing of the Seldon Plan is more cause for alarm than a recurrence of challenges and deviations. For the First Foundation, this is positive proof that the Second Foundation is still working behind the scenes, while for the Second Foundation, it is concerning evidence that there is a power in the galaxy even greater than it.
There's a cool philosophical conflict at the heart of the First Foundation half of the story, hinging on the question of whether it is better to have a clear idea of the future or to have free will. While it's not a new idea that the First Foundation would resent the Second for being the true power behind the Seldon Plan, Asimov takes it a step further, with the leaders of the First Foundation contemplating whether they'd have any sovereignty in the Second Empire if the Plan went off without a hitch for the next five hundred years. Asimov also deals with one of the plan's great weaknesses: an inability to predict technological advancement. Ever since the Mule, the First Foundation was secretly working on technology to block mentalic power, and such a "mentalic shield" would be a game-changer that psychohistory couldn't have easily foreseen.
A nervous image
Meanwhile, over at the Second Foundation, classic human intrigue and ambition threaten to derail the Plan, with the young Stor Gendibal determined to rise to the ultimate leadership position and change the entire mission of the organization. Perhaps himself anticipating the threat of the First Foundation's technology, he wants to decentralize the Second Foundation away from Trantor and let it embrace technology on its own. With his discovery of an even greater power in the galaxy, however, he realizes a greater priority and a far greater puzzle to solve.
What Foundation's Edge does well is properly motivate a wide array of characters towards the climax, taking care to ensure that everyone is driven by both their own internal logic and their own irrational, psychological aspirations. In so doing, though, none of the characters are particularly likeable, except the supporting character of Pelorat, who doesn't get nearly enough development of his own. The main character, Golan Trevize, is particularly hard to embrace, as he is moody, rude, stubborn, misogynistic, and unsympathetic of others. Even the nakedly ambitious Stor Gendibal and Mayor Harla Branno are more enjoyable as characters than the book's hero.
(MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT: I can't continue talking about this book without spoiling the hell out of it, so if that bothers you, you might want to check out now--my short review is that the book is very good, but the characters are pretty unlikable and the plot does drag in a few places.) It becomes clear before the characters finally meet that they are all also being driven by the subtle influence of Gaia, the home planet of the Mule and a world where mental powers were developed thousands of years ago, where people have learned to become part of a collective consciousness that they hope to spread throughout the entire galaxy.
The classic cover
This is where the themes of free will really come into play, because it is revealed by Gaia that only one man, Golan Trevize, is truly capable of making a choice, and it is he who must decide the winner of the three-way stalemate between the two Foundations and Gaia. While it makes perfect sense narratively and thematically, I have to admit, I don't really like this aspect of the story, which feels pretty hokey and illogical, hinging on a metaphysical interpretation of intuition that feels too far out there for the more scientifically-grounded Asimov. It also reminds me of the ending of Mass Effect 3, but that's hardly Asimov's fault.
I'm also a little annoyed that one of the book's central mysteries--Earth--is seemingly only included here as an elaborate set-up for the next book. While I don't mind Asimov tying together the Robot series and the Foundation series, I do think the addition of The End of Eternity was a bit sloppy here, though I understand why, in a book about free will, Asimov couldn't help but name-drop his other great book about free will.
In the end, though, these are mostly nitpicks. I do think the characters are among the weakest of the series in terms of likeability, even though they are very well-drawn, and there are plot points that annoy me, but on the whole, this is a fun adventure that serves as a worthy entry in the epic. It mostly justifies its length, and Asimov has fun escalating the stakes of the universe he'd created.
-e. magill 8/12/2021
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: