Tag Archives: foundation

“Second Foundation” by Isaac Asimov

Ah, yeah, this is it.  This is the part of the Foundation series that sticks in my memory.  This is “the good one” – the one that makes it worthy of the “best sci-fi series of all time” appellation.  The first two Foundation novels are but preludes to “Second Foundation.”

What is the S.F.?  Well, back when Hari Seldon set up the Foundation, which becomes the technological successor to the old Empire, he also set up a Second Foundation “at the other end of the galaxy” which focuses on the psychological sciences and is tasked with making sure the Seldon Plan of re-establishing galactic law and order is always on track.

First off we have the Mule, no longer disguising his identity nor his megalomania, hunting the galaxy for the Second Foundation – the last remnant of real opposition to his dominion.  Han Prichett, now Converted, has been searching for years for the location of the Second Foundation.  The Mule enlists a young (unConverted) upstart, Bail Channis, to assist in the search.  His logic is that Han’s Conversion is interfering with his ability to find the Second Foundation.  And they do find it!  No wait, they don’t!  A couple of plot twists later, the Mule is neutralized by via the psychic equivalent of Prozac.  He lives out his life in peace, without a care as regards the Second Foundation.

However, the Mule’s obsession with the S.F. has made a serious disruption in the Seldon Plan.  A few individuals from the (first) Foundation now know that the S.F. is real, and they have detected some of it’s meddling in the brain wave patterns of select influential leaders.  Being at the mercy of some mysterious psychic power is not a pleasant feeling.  And so the Foundationers strive to find the S.F. themselves.  The S.F. knows they are no match for the physically stronger first Foundation should they eventually be found; also the Seldon Plan relies on the free and natural response of the Foundation society, which is naturally degraded when they are paranoid about the S.F. or think that the S.F. will always step in to miraculously save them no matter what trouble they find themselves in.  The S.F. knows that the only way out is to convincingly allow the Foundation to “destroy” them, then lay low for a generation or so while the psychic panic passes away.  I won’t delve into the details of the story very much (many synopses/spoilers available online) but it is very good.  There are so many plot twists that come to fruition in the final chapter that it’s almost comical.

Rereading this novel this time through made me ponder the whole free will vs determinism idea.  How would you act if you knew that, no matter what you did or what went wrong, an all-powerful (at least to you) entity would bail you out (the Great 2008 Bailout, anyone?) and make sure you would “win” in the end?  I think 99% of people would say “lucky me!”, get lazy, become 50+ pounds overweight and play World of Warcraft for 18 hours a day.  Ok maybe that’s just me.  Why work hard for something if it’s going to be given to you anyway?

In the context of the Foundation story, the whole point of the Foundation is to evolve into the next Galactic Empire.  But by knowing the S.F. is always there to save them, the Foundation would never innovate and progress along that path.  The other response, that taken by the Foundation “conspirators,” is to question the control of the S.F. and to fight against it – fight for freedom.  Free will is more important than a free ride.

Unless we’re unknowingly getting the free ride but think we have free will… ahh, the mind games are too much for me!

“Foundation and Empire” by Isaac Asimov

Once again, the book is split up into pieces.  Probably published serially??  The first piece is pretty brief and forgettable.  An ambitious general from the remnants of the decaying Empire begins a campaign against the Foundation.  The Foundation is losing badly but at the last minute the Emperor recalls the general and ends hostilities.  It turns out they were saved by psychohistory…the latest in a series of weak Emperors would naturally feel threatened by a successful general and would work to keep him in line.  General’s with the ability to do so would focus their efforts on gaining and maintaining the imperial throne.  Therefore the Foundation is safe from outside intervention.  *Yawn!*

The second vignette about the Mule is the most memorable bit of the Foundation trilogy for me.  It’s kind a counterpoint to the first vignette – an outside force once again threatens and actually conquers the Foundation.  But how is this possible, since we’ve just been told how conquest by an outside force is impossible by the prevalent psychohistorical conditions?  The answer is that the Mule is a mutant, which breaks an assumption of good old Hari Seldon that human nature would remain constant.  The Mule has the ability to manipulate the emotions of others – he can make loyal followers in an instant as well as breaking down the fighting spirit of his enemies.  Luckily, the heros of the story prevent him from finding out the location of the Second Foundation.  And he’s infertile (like a mule; get it?) so once he passes, everything pretty much goes back to normal.

See my thoughts on the final book in the Foundation series, Second Foundation.

“Foundation” by Isaac Asimov

Ah, the Foundation series.  I’ve read the series (the original three books) a few times and recently decided it was time for a re-read.  It’s been probably five years or more.

Very cool idea.  Hari Seldon develops a new branch of science called psychohistory.  Drawing from knowledge of human nature, he is able to predict the future, at least as far as large societies go.  (Presumably, individuals’ irrationalities kind of all cancel out.)    He foresees that the great, galaxy-wide Empire will soon crumble.  But there is a way to minimize the length and severity of the intervening Dark Age.  The solution is to create the Foundation, a select group of scientists sequestered away on the far-off planet Terminus, ostensibly working on an Encyclopedia of All Knowledge.  (Wikipedia, anyone?)  It takes a few generations for people to realize the ruse of the Encyclopedia and their true purpose as a storehouse of knowledge and ingenuity that will eventually forge the next Empire.

(As I write this, this seems a bit like a metaphor for God.  He has a plan for the Earth.  Individuals have their freedom to follow or not, but one way or another that plan is going to come to fruition.  In “Foundation,” Seldon is kind of like God.)

Reading this time around, I thought a few things in the story were a bit hokey.  One is the creation of a science-worshiping (specifically, atomic science worshiping) religion to control the neighboring kingdoms.  I thought it was unlikely to develop as quickly as it did (within a few decades) and to have such a hold over the people.  For this reason, I liked the first two sections of the book (“The Psychohistorians” and “The Encyclopedists”) better than the others.

Second is the instantaneous travel between stars.  The very first story has a description of the Empire’s faster than light (more like blink of an eye) travel.  Ok, fine.  But later on, the Empire’s remnants don’t even have reliable atomic power anymore and all things technological are breaking down, and no one knows how they work or how to fix them.  But the Foundation’s enemies are still able to travel about between stars.  Maybe the Empire’s old propulsion systems were really, really robust?  In any case, it is necessary to the plot to have such a device, otherwise things would be way too boring…just the other day, mission specialists announced that Voyager 1 has left the solar system … after 33 years traveling 17 km/second.  That means it’s traveled something like 10 billion kilometers (probably slower at start than now) … and it will still take 40,000 years to reach the next star in its line of travel.

See my thoughts on the next book in the Foundation series, Foundation and Empire.