Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Second Foundation (1953) by Isaac Asimov

Second Foundation (1953) by Isaac Asimov

At last, the trilogy is complete. The original trilogy, at any rate, since there is a second trilogy by different authors and four other books penned by Asimov himself in the Foundation Series. I read part one and part two earlier in the year, and have just concluded part three, which is an excellent and fitting conclusion to the trilogy.

The First book was about the formation of the Foundation, and it established the plan by Hari Seldon and his team of future predicting psychohistorians to ensure the re-emergence of civilization and empire in the galaxy after a millennium of barbarism. In the second book, this plan was derailed by the emergence of the Mule, a mutant with psychic powers whom the plan could not account for because of psychohistory only dealing with societies as a whole, and not individuals. At the start of this book, the Mule has taken over much of the galaxy and is consolidating his power while searching for the mysterious Second Foundation, which is believed to be a settlement of psychologists who pose the only threat to his power. The story of the Mule's search accounts for about a third of the book and serves as an introduction to the nature of the Second Foundation and the powers that they possess. Needless to say, the Mule and the Second Foundation do in fact confront each other in an encounter that leads to an interesting and unexpected outcome.

The remainder of the book is about the conflict between the two Foundations. The original Foundationers suspect that the Second Foundation is, with their psychic powers, manipulating events to ensure the continuance of Seldon's Plan; a small cabal conspires to locate and eliminate the Second Foundation and break free of the shackles of the manipulated destiny imposed upon them. Meanwhile the Second Foundation is engaging in a risky scheme of its own to set the Seldon Plan, which is tottering on the brink of failure, back on course. The particulars of how this conflict plays out is complex, fascinating, and unpredictable as plots and manipulations are revealed one after the other.

Asimov's third book in the series once again ups the ante by going in a completely new direction and consequently expanding and enriching the Foundation universe. As each book has progressed, it has changed scope from a broad view of events to a more individual level. This change has been in line with the nature of the story, with the fate of the Seldon Plan being disrupted by an individual and ironically resting on the actions of individuals to steer it back on course. The book shifts perspective between several people within the Foundation and certain enigmatic individuals from within the Second Foundation. The Foundationers are the only ones who are characters of substance, and while they are still relatively sketchy they are sufficient for the purposes of the plot.

As much as 'Foundation & Empire' was an adventure story, this one is more a story of a battle of wits, with complex plot machinations and plenty of twists and turns, people second guessing everything, suspecting everyone, and being used and manipulated in various ways. The second book had an obvious twist in it, and while some of the revelations in this can also be guessed beforehand, the story definitely throws you for a loop on several occasions until the very end, and it becomes almost impossible to accurately guess what will happen next right up until the final revelations take place.

'Second Foundation' is as different from its predecessors as they are from each other. While the style is unquestionably the same throughout, the narrative structure and story content are significantly unique to each book. The two sequels admittedly aren't as thematically rich as the first book, focusing as they do more on sci-fi elements and small scale struggles, but on the other hand they are more engaging as narratives. All three books are engrossing and thought provoking in their own right however, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading them. Taken together the Foundation Trilogy is an intelligent telling of an epic story. Despite the expectation that they probably won't be as good (and certainly not as fresh) as the originals, I still plan on reading the rest of the books in the series, at least for the sake of completeness.

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