I picked up this book when I saw it at a discount at a mainline bookstore. It is a nice leather-bound copy of the trilogy – replacing a trade paperback version that had some flaws from the start and has some repairs. And it has been a while since I read it.
It of course, is a classic of the “Golden Age” of SF, and I think it wears its age well. As to why it made such an impact, I think it due to its historical sense. There’s a story about how it started. The fairly young Asimov was on his way to a story conference with his editor, John W. Campbell, but he had a problem – no story ideas. He had been spending his time reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, so in the conference he started discussing Gibbon by casting it into a galactic empire. Campbell liked the idea and Asimov ran with it.
I’ve read quite a bit of SF from that period and even the majestic series seemed more like superhero stories or Buck Rogers’ adventures than a preview of real history. Stanley Weinbaum was a good builder of alien worlds, but he did not live long enough to produce something like this.
The book starts on Trantor, the capital of the empire, where Psychohistorian Hari Seldon is put on trial for predicting the fall of the empire. He is a new kind of scientist that uses mathematics to predict future history by statistical means (much like how the mathematics of thermodynamics predicts the properties of gases without knowing how each individual molecule will move). His group was formed to try and limit the effects of the fall by creating a storehouse of human knowledge. They are sent to Terminus, a planet on the outer fringe of the galaxy to do this as the Encyclopedia Foundation.
Fifty years later, Terminus is isolated as the outer portions of the empire break away into independent states and threaten its independence. The leadership of the Foundation wants to trust the diplomat from the empire, but (in a comical bit of science-y realism) Mayor Salvor Hardin has his words “semantically analyzed” to show that the fellow didn’t say one useful statement during the entire visit. At this critical point, a vault placed by the founders opens and a message from Seldon is played – and the tells them that the purpose of the Foundation is not to make the encyclopedia at all, but to form the core of the Second Empire after a thousand years from this one planet. Periodically Seldon will appear and give advice, since it is all part of his plan.
From here, it is a story of how the tiny, resourceless Foundation manages to first survive, then dominate its neighbors and form the core of the next empire.
Foundation and Empire
The second book shows the foundation facing a major threat as the Empire itself learns of them and sends a major force under a great General, Bel Riose to conquer them. A Foundation agent is trying to undermine the action from inside while the fleets fight for survival. Things are looking grim indeed before an unexpected, but historically inevitable conclusion saves the Foundation.
So the march to greatness seems assured for the Foundation, but the nation itself is ruled by a dictator and is oppressive to the Free Trader planets that produce much of its wealth. The Free Traders are looking for Allies and turn to a mysterious one called ‘The Mule’ who has risen to prominence suddenly. They abduct his clown, and discover that the Mule is a mutant, with strange powers. The Mule declares war, just as a Seldon Crisis opens the vault.
The leaders of the Foundation are dismayed when Seldon’s message is nonsense, not applying to the current situation at all. The Mule is outside the Seldon Plan, and suddenly they are on their own – and beaten. The Foundation falls to the Mule.
The only hope seems to be to find the Second Foundation, which Seldon said he had set up on the other end of the Galaxy, for help. But can they warn it before it is too late?
To quote the author – “this book is about the search for the Second Foundation”. The last book ended with the secret of the location kept from the Mule, but he is still looking. And the Mule is sure that the Second Foundation is working against his empire. Can he find it and destroy the Seldon Plan for good?
In the second part, it is the Foundation itself that is looking for the Second Foundation to destroy it. After the Mule’s early death, his empire broke up and the Foundation rose again. Some credit the Second Foundation, a world of supermen, while some deny the very existence of it. And some fear that a dependence on the magical Second Foundation will stunt the Foundations own path to greatness. Enter Arkady Darrell, a clever teenager who throws herself into the mix with interesting results!
Arkady is one of Asimov’s more memorable characters. It is a great change of pace to the ‘sweep of history’ tack of the books and as a teen at the time I first read this he captured the facets of a maybe too clever girl perfectly.