Friday, June 22, 2007

Foundation & Empire (1952) by Isaac Asimov

Foundation & Empire (1952) by Isaac Asimov

Having recently read the first part of Asimov's original 'Foundation' Trilogy, I was eagerly anticipating reading the next two books. I've just finished the second book, 'Foundation and Empire', and I was not disappointed in the slightest. The second and third books appear to be one continuous story, so I'll be reading 'Second Foundation' shortly. 'Foundation and Empire' does what every great sequel should - it continues in the same vein as the first, but with the universe already well established it ups the ante by introducing an element of danger and unpredictability to proceedings.

In the first book, it was established that the Galactic Empire was falling apart and mankind was entering an age of barbarism. A man name Hari Seldon and his team of 'psychohistorians' scientifically predicted the future of human society and realized that by carefully (and precisely) establishing a small colony in the outer reaches of the galaxy they could speed up the development of a new empire and reduce the period of barbarism from 30,000 years to just one millennium. This colony was called the 'Foundation', and by the end of the first book the Foundation had survived several threats to its existence, threats that were foreseen by Hari Seldon and thus dubbed 'Seldon Crises'. 'Foundation and Empire' is divided into two parts. In the first part, a new threat, a 'Seldon Crisis', is on the horizon in the form of an ambitious general from the remnants of the old Empire. This general, Rios, learns of the existence of the Foundation just outside the bounds of the Empire and sets his eyes on conquest, but fails despite the lack of any real effort on the part of the Foundation.

This first story actually establishes two things - one is the apparent inevitability of the Foundation's survival given the predictions of psychohistory, and the other is the gradual degradation and complacency of the Foundation itself that has come about as a result of this sense of inevitability. In the second story, a new threat arises that may disrupt the predictions of Seldon - a mutant known as the 'Mule', who has some sort of power that allows him to win battles against all odds, wages war on the Foundation. Psychohistory works by modeling society as a whole and assuming that no single individual can overcome larger socio-economic forces; the Mule's powers allow him to run counter to this notion, and his existence and actions thereby threaten the Foundation and the Seldon plan. A young couple who are part of the resistance against the oppressive Foundation government (a resistance that eventually joins forces with the government to counter the threat of the Mule), a Captain in the Foundation military, and a Foundation scientist attempt to stop the Mule from taking over the Galaxy and possibly causing the downfall of mankind.

'Foundation' was an excellent book that introduced an amazing and complex universe via a series of several short stories. It worked at a macro level, conveying larger goings on via characters who were essentially pieces on a board. 'Foundation and Empire' works in the same way; it is an engaging pair of stories that again present a thoughtful analysis of the broad workings of societies. What's different is that it takes what was established and finds a way to twist things around, and manages to instill a sense of uncertainty where there was once one of invincibility. It also ends on something of a cliffhanger, having introduced a story element that tantalizingly sets up the third book. There is also a twist in the tale, one that isn't all that surprising - it's telegraphed and becomes obvious as events unfold - but works perfectly given the context of the story. Overall, less actually happens in this book, but what does happen is more significant than anything that happened in the first one, and certainly far more dramatic. It takes ideas that are established and then tries to break them by asking 'what if this happened?', which seems to be the natural (and welcome) progression for a story like this, which is built mostly on ideas.

Asimov's writing style is slightly different this time round - it's less broad and maintains more of a sustained narrative with a fixed set of characters. It reminded me a lot of 'The Empire Strikes Back', with its motley crew in a single ship on the run from the 'evil empire' (OK, what I should say is that The Empire Strikes Back is similar to 'Foundation and Empire', but hey, I saw Empire before reading this book!). One result of this change is stronger characterization. The individuals still play second fiddle to the larger events occurring around them, but despite this there is more depth to them than the characters in the previous book, and this brings a more human aspect to the story. There are more individual acts and events depicted, in contrast to the almost purely 'talky' exposition of the first. The downside to this approach is that there are fewer 'Seldon Crises' and, consequently, less analysis of socio-economic forces. I don't think the first book's style would have been as interesting for this story though - focusing on individuals seems more appropriate given the major theme of an individual upsetting the balance of the Seldon Plan. Also, I personally prefer stronger characterization and depth to the short story style, which means I'm more than happy with the approach!

So in short, 'Foundation and Empire' is fantastic, a great read that expands on what was established in the first book by taking the story in an interesting new direction, while also utilizing a more engaging narrative style. The cliffhanger ending means I need to sink my teeth into the last book, 'Second Foundation', ASAP.

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