Thursday, December 1, 2011

Review - Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov

Short review: Hari Seldon's plan proceeds like clockwork until a completely unpredictable fly in the ointment shows up to muck up the works.

As the Empire dies
The Seldon Plan runs off the rails
Because of the Mule

Full review: This book is the middle of the original Foundation trilogy. It is is divided into two distinct parts. In the first half of the book, the Foundation confronts the remnants of the Galactic Empire, whose forces are commanded by the brilliant general Bel Riose. While in decline, the Empire is still a match for the Foundation, requiring some subterfuge to defeat. The Foundation manages to drive a wedge between Bel Riose and his emperor Cleon II, resulting in Bel Riose's execution, averting the threat. Everything seems to be following Seldon's plan.

The second part of the book, titled The Mule, is where the rubber hits the road so to speak. The Foundation itself has become corrupt, leading to dissatisfaction and potential revolt. However, a new force appears led by the Mule, a mutant telepath who conquers the Foundation. The Foundation's members complacently assume that Seldon has a solution for the Mule. When Seldon's hologram appears, he mentions nothing of the Mule, or the political situation, and instead talks about the aborted revolt. In other words, the plan has gone awry. Psychohistory is the science of predicting the behavior of large groups of people, and the Mule is only one man, and his special powers allow him to drive the political agenda in unpredicted ways. This is a huge shock to the members of the Foundation, and a significant change in the direction of the books: instead of confidently following a predetermined path to success, now the plan is no longer a useful guide.

Meanwhile, the Mule, disguised as a circus clown, travels with two Foundation citizens Toran and Bayta and a psychologist named Ebling trying to locate the hidden (and possibly imaginary) Second Foundation, that was supposedly set up at the opposite end of the galaxy from Terminus. With the Mule's assistance, Ebling discovers the location of the Second Foundation, but is killed by Batya before he can reveal it, leaving the Mule to run his newly conquered Empire, but with the Second Foundation as yet undiscovered and free to plan a counterattack.

The predictability of Foundation (read review) and the first half of Foundation and Empire which was in danger of becoming stale, is disrupted by The Mule, which introduces uncertainty into what would have otherwise been a boring march of inevitability to the restoration of the second Galactic Empire. While the first half of Foundation and Empire is a good story, without The Mule and the final book of the trilogy, the Foundation series would not have been nearly as compelling a story. However, without establishing the validity of Seldon's predictions through the first portion of the trilogy, the about face brought on in The Mule would not have been particularly interesting. By combining the two sides of the story, Asimov created a powerful story that is rightly regarded as one of the best works of science fiction.

In 1996 The Mule was awarded a "Retro Hugo" for Best Novel, winning for the year 1946. Why what is essentially a half a story would be given the award over the available competition (including the A.E. van Vogt classic The World of Null-A) is not clear. The award cannot be explained as a case of  fans looking for a way to retrospectively honor the Foundation series, as the series as a whole was given the Hugo award for "Best All-Time Series" in 1966, beating out Edgar Rice Burrough's Barsoom series, Robert A. Heinlein's Future History series, E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series, and J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Because the award was given as an honor to fiction from 1946, this technically makes The Mule the "oldest" winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel.

Previous book in the series: Foundation
Subsequent book in the series: Second Foundation

1941 Hugo Winner for Best Novel: Slan by A.E. van Vogt
1951 Hugo Winner for Best Novel: Farmer in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein

What are the Hugo Awards?

Hugo Best Novel Winners

1946 Retro Hugo Award Nominees

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