Okay, so instead of five years passing between re-read books, I’ve only let a year elapse. That’s not too bad on the Ben Scale of Book Series Completion! My reception of Second Foundation is much more positive than my review of Foundation and Empire, in which I skewered Isaac Asimov’s writing style. Honestly, I found this book to be far more readable and even enjoyable at points!
As with the previous book, this one is essentially two novellas. The first takes place five years after “The Mule” from Foundation and Empire. The Mule has consolidated his hold on the volume of space he wrested from the Foundation’s control, but he has delayed any further expansion. Instead he’s searching for the mysterious, shadowy Second Foundation. When the story starts, he is about to dispatch his two Top Men™ on one more expedition to locate the Second Foundation, who the Mule believes to be mentally manipulating his own manipulated men (try saying that 5 times fast) but weak in physical defences.
What follows is a bit of a romp in which Asimov is extremely parsimonious with characters. Seriously, you could be forgiven for thinking he has some kind of novelist character budget going on here, because it’s almost as if Pritcher and Channis are alone on that big ol’ ship of theirs. The novel is basically a three-hander play acted out between Pritcher, Channis, and the Mule, with a few supporting characters in the form of subordinates and the Speaker characters from the Second Foundation (which, shockingly, does exist).
Both novellas share in common the theme that the Second Foundation survives through subterfuge regarding its location. They don’t just exist in a secret location; they actively obfuscate and misdirect anyone searching for them. Asimov quite enjoys playing around with what “at the other end of the galaxy” could mean in various literal and metaphorical senses. But there is a bigger issue here, one which is addressed more explicitly and satisfactorily in the second novella.
Basically, the Second Foundation’s leaders have clued into the fact that as long as people are aware of a Second Foundation, Seldon’s grand Plan is in serious jeopardy, Mule or no Mule. The Second Foundation is both bogeyman and guardian angel: “oh, no worries, the Second Foundation will step in and save us!” This faith distorts the actions of people on a grand enough scale to make the Plan’s probabilities and calculations useless. So the events of Second Foundation are part of an attempt by the eponymous organization to remove itself from the equation, so to speak.
Of course, this all feeds into the overall series theme in which Asimov questions whether or not we could ever really control the fate of our species to such an extensive degree. I think it’s interesting that science fiction has examined this from so many angles. Foundation imagines a true beneficent conspiracy to manipulate humanity on the species level. Others take a more anarchic approach, imagining it virtually impossible that humanity won’t fragment off into clades and groups and sub-species. It seems like this latter perspective has gained in popularity since Asimov was writing in the middle of the twentieth century. Certainly, the future our species—regardless of whether it involves a galaxy-spanning stagnant empire—seems far less clear-cut than Foundation proposes.
The best way to appreciate these books, I think, is to bring some New Historicism into the mix and look at the context in which they were written. The first couple of books make a big deal of atomic weapons, which were so new on the scene at the time Asimov was writing. Now we turn to an emphasis on the human mind, then (and only slightly less so now) a great mystery. Asimov really tries to capture the wonder involved in being able to record brain waves and use them to get a glimpse literally into how people might be thinking. In this respect, Second Foundation is definitely a great work of science fiction for the sheer level of imagination and questioning it introduces.
Characters? Plot? Story? Eh. As with my previous reviews, these rereads are definitely not endearing me any more to Asimov as a writer. Though he includes a precocious 14-year-old girl as a protagonist this time out. So … yay?
Anyway, Second Foundation allayed the minor dread I felt when I went into it, having re-read my review of Foundation and Empire. It’s a good pair of novellas and was a delightful way to spend an afternoon on my deck.