This is the second book in Isaac Asimov’s original FOUNDATION trilogy, which later became the FOUNDATION series. It first came out in book form in 1952, but it originally saw print in the form of two novellas, “Dead Hand” (originally published in Astounding Science Fiction, April, 1945) and “The Mule” (originally published in Astounding Science Fiction in November and December, 1945).
Like the first book in the series, Foundation, Foundation and Empire isn’t a true novel, but rather a collection of linked stories. The first story in the book, “The General “ (renamed from its magazine title) tells the story of Bel Riose, a young, rising star military commander who is trying to make a name for himself in the outer reaches of the declining Galactic Empire. In his quest for military glory, General Riose comes across reports of a mysterious group of traders and “magicians” (i.e. the Foundation) and begins to investigate the truth behind the reports. While doing so he enlists the aid of Ducem Barr, an aging patrician from the once rebel planet Siwenna, whose father had reportedly met one of the “magicians.” The story is in many ways a direct sequel to the story/chapter “The Merchant Princes” in Foundation, as Barr is the son of one of that story’s major characters and events of the previous story are alluded to in this story/chapter.
As in previous stories, the leaders of the Foundation rely upon “psycho-historical inevitability” to bring about a conclusion to the problem posed by Riose and his imperial forces. Parallels to the real historical Roman empire abound, as Asimov based his character General Riose on the real life Byzantine empire General Belisarius (500-565 C.E.) and that historical figure’s experience with his own real life Emperor Justinian the First (482-565 C.E.). Asimov had supposedly recently read the historical novel Count Belisarius by Robert Graves, and was inspired by the story. Little items like this are the reason that history and science fiction nerds like me enjoy these books.
There’s not much action in Foundation and Empire, even though this second book of the original trilogy has much more action than the first. No one would ever mistake Asimov’s stories with those of Edgar Rice Burroughs or even his contemporary Robert A. Heinlein when it comes to stirring action. Asimov’s strength was always his ideas; even those that haven’t aged well or don’t seem particularly believable today. His knowledge of science and history was so vast that he could draw on it to impart the future with historical visions of grand sweeps of human empire and reach. His books are fun for those of us who enjoy such things, perhaps not so much for those who seek more action or romance.
Foundation and Empire was actually the first FOUNDATION novel I read, somewhere around that oft cited magical science fiction discovery age of my early teens. I honestly can’t remember if it was my first Asimov, I may have read some of his Robot stories previously, but I pretty much think this was my first. As such, it was a good introduction to both Asimov’s work and his FOUNDATION series itself. The first section of the book grabbed my attention, but the second closed the sale. “The Mule” features two of Asimov’s more memorable characters. The first of these is the eponymous Mule, a mutant telepath who can influence other humans to do his will by manipulating their emotions. The second is a young woman named Bayta Darrell, recently married and on her honeymoon. While characterization was never a strong point of Asimov’s, these two characters are more realistic and complex than any of those in the previous book’s short story chapters. I vividly remember my teenage nerd self falling in love with Bayta while reading the story at the beach one day. My recent re-reading was still enjoyable even more than four decades later. The Mule is more sympathetically complex than some of Asimov’s earlier villains, and there’s actually some sense of suspense since his mutant powers are an outlier unforeseen by Hari Selden’s Psychohistorical “Dead Hand,” meaning that the sense of inevitability that the earlier stories are weighed down by is non-existent.
I know I’m probably too prone to giving a 5 or 4 star rating to those books I like, especially those that I have a nostalgic feeling for, but I truly think Foundation and Empire is one of Asimov’s better books, even though (or perhaps because) it was written early in his career. I’ve rated it five stars, and recommend it (along with some of the Robot stories and novels) as a good introduction to Asimov and his work. If you don’t care for this one you’re probably better off checking out other authors. If you do, then the way is open to check out more of the good Dr. Asimov’s work.