Without a doubt, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Foundation and Empire left a mark on the genre. They’ve been read by generations of SF-fans and seven decades after the first Foundation story appeared in in Astounding magazine, the novels are still in print. They may have been the pinnacle of Golden Age SF, but I can’t say I thought them great literature. The FOUNDATION novels are big on ideas, but Asimov’s style is dreadfully direct and the previous books were in dire need of a good round of editing. Second Foundation is the final novel in the original trilogy. It contains two loosely connected stories. The first was originally published in Astounding in January 1948, the second, much longer part, appeared in late 1949 and early 1950 in the same magazine.
Second Foundation is completely devoted to the mirror organisation Hari Seldon set up in Foundation. Its location is shrouded in mystery and several parties are interested in finding it. In the first part of the novel, “Search by the Mule,” the mentally gifted and unforeseen mutant known as the Mule tries to find the location of this threat to his rule. He suspects the Second Foundation possesses similar qualities to his own when it comes to controlling people, making the search for them extremely difficult. He still has a few tricks up his sleeve though.
The second part of the novel, titled “Search by the Foundation,” is set fifty-five years after the first part, almost four centuries after Foundation. The reign of the Mule is history, but the question he left behind is not. Does history still proceed according to Seldon’s predictions, or has it been wrenched off the tracks by the actions of the Mule? The Second Foundation may have the answer but it still has not been found, something a group of men on Terminus mean to change. They plan a new search for Second Foundation. What they didn’t take into account, though, is the help they’ll receive from the 14-year old daughter of one of the men.
I felt that in Foundation and Empire Asimov was challenging his own creation and asking the right questions about if and how Seldon’s predictions could actually stand the test of time. In Second Foundation I get the feeling he is just trying to be clever by creating a plot with lots of twists and turns. The Mule was without a doubt the most interesting character in the second book of the trilogy — his talent was unique and completely unpredictable. This doesn’t appear to be the case for Second Foundation however, he has clearly found their match in them. Asimov snuffs out a potentially interesting storyline here, the Mule’s reign ends in stagnation. The Mule is contained, he is relegated to a conqueror whose rise and fall is nothing more than a flash in history, someone who does not leave a lasting legacy. It seems like a waste of one of the psychologically more interesting characters in the trilogy.
Second Foundation remains quite mysterious even with most of the book dedicated to the search for them. Their mental talents are unnoticed but ever-present. It creates a bit of a paranoid atmosphere in the later part of Second Foundation, with characters aware that they might be controlled but never sure if it is actually happening. Second Foundation control is always indirect, always in the shadow, leading to a story full of characters trying to anticipate the others, all the while wondering how transparent their actions are. Wheels within wheels, plots within plots, but very little that’s constructive is actually being done. In fact, I am somewhat surprised at the rivalry between the two Foundations. The competition between them is presented as natural, even when Foundation clearly can’t oversee Seldon’s plan. They presume one of them will lead humanity towards the Second Empire, and each feels they are the only ones qualified to do it. For people who are so well educated, they have some remarkable blind spots.
The ending of Second Foundation is also a bit of a mystery to me. Seldon predicted an interregnum of about a thousand years between the collapse of the first and the creation of the second empire. At the end of Second Foundation almost four centuries of this period have passed. Centuries full of strife, several crises that threatened Seldon’s vision, and of course the unexpected challenge by the Mule. Why would the next six centuries, which surely must be shrouded in more uncertainty than the first four, be plain sailing? The satisfied attitude of the eventual victor of all the intrigues does not seem to be justified. Apparently the Mule failed to teach them anything about the unpredictable side of nature. Given that he wrote two books set after the events in Second Foundation, maybe Asimov changed his mind about that too.
On the whole Second Foundation struck me as the poorest book in a trilogy that aged none too gracefully. I can see why it is influential and why it was so popular, but Asimov’s unadorned prose and direct style of storytelling is not something I can get used to. Like Foundation, Second Foundation excels in explaining every detail of the plot to the reader but, this time, the plot was not nearly so engaging. After reading the first two books, my expectations weren’t too high, but I was hopeful that the series might grow on me.