Saturday, December 3, 2011

Review - Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Short review: To get the Seldon Plan back on track the Second Foundation must first deal with the Mule, and then with the original Foundation.

Alter the Mule's mind
Deceive the first Foundation
Save the Seldon Plan

Full review: Second Foundation picks up where Foundation and Empire (read review) left off - with the Mule hunting for the Second Foundation, which constitutes the only real threat to his hegemony. Like Foundation and Empire, the book is divided into two main parts.

The first part details the Mule's continued efforts to find the Second Foundation, and the Second Foundation's attempts to foil those efforts. Finally, the Second Foundation protects itself by simply modifying the Mule's thoughts so that he has no interest in finding them. Since the Mule is a mutant, the Second Foundation reasons that the plan can be placed back on track after he dies and his ability to control other people dies with him.

The second half of the book takes place after the Mule's death and covers the Second Foundation's efforts to hide itself once more following their "outing" during the reign of the Mule. It is revealed that the Second Foundation was a mirror of the original Foundation - while the Foundation was stocked with experts in the physical sciences and specifically included no psychohistorians, the Second Foundation was made up of psychohistorians and experts in "mentalics" (telepathy and related psionic abilities). With the Mule gone, the Foundation regains its independence and smashes his now leaderless empire. But, the leaders of the Foundation are offended that they might be manipulated by the Second Foundationers and try to find them themselves, using their physical science expertise to develop an anti-telepath device. Knowing only that the Second Foundation is at "stars end" or the "other end of the galaxy" they reason the Second Foundation must also be on Terminus (since that would be the "end" if you went around the galactic disk), and find and eliminate what they think is the threat.

They are wrong, of course, and the whole affair was set up by Second Foundationers to hide their existence again. Since they are made up of experts in psychohistory, they have been safeguarding the plan and keeping it on track (the Mule notwithstanding), but they couldn't do that if the Foundation knew they were being manipulated, so they arranged to hide again, and return to "stars end" - Trantor.

The events in this book are, to me, what separates the Foundation books from most of the science fiction that preceded it. Instead of huge battles between starships settling things, the battles are a sideshow. What is more important is the manipulation of the people who control the starships, and the ability to misdirect, allowing for the manipulators to take a long view of history. This book shows the mechanics of the Seldon plan, without cheapening them, which is a difficult task (many books that expose the hidden details of a setting or plot often detract from its impact, see for example, Prelude to Foundation and the other later written Foundation books). The book is disturbing in some ways, as an elite group of self-appointed shepherds end up directing things from the shadows, which I find to be an unsettling prospect (the wisdom of which is annoyingly never really examined in any of the books of the series, not the original trilogy, not the sequels, and not the prequels). This, with the rest of the original Foundation trilogy, should be on every science fiction reader's bookshelf.

Previous book in the series: Foundation and Empire
Subsequent book in the series: Foundation's Edge

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  1. Yes, but it's the disturbing themes that make this book memorable.

  2. @Julia Rachel Barrett: The disturbing themes are interesting, but the thing that bothered me was that Asimov didn't remark on them at all in the story. No one thought to question whether having a secretive elite running the show was a good idea. The book just accepted it as such and moved on.