In my effort to get better acquainted with the classics of Science Fiction I read Isaac Asimov's novel Foundation in October. It was not a bad read but I can't say I was impressed with this collection of five tales centred on the decline and fall of a galactic empire. I've decided to see this through and at least read the original trilogy. Not sure if I really want to wade into the maze of sequels, prequels and books in the series written by other authors. Foundation and Empire is the second book in the original trilogy and was first published in 1952. It contains only two, loosely connected stories both of which are set after the events in Foundation. Both stories were originally published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1945.
The first story, The General, deals with the inevitable confrontation between Foundation and the dying Galactic Empire. The Empire may be in full decline, it still commands the resources of the centre of the galaxy and when a strong emperor and ambitions general rise to the occasion, there appears to be some spirit left yet. Foundation is heading for a new Seldon crisis.
In the second story, The Mule, deals with an threat to Foundation Seldon apparently did not foresee. A rebellion against Foundation lead by a mysterious general nicknamed The Mule is making rapid progress through Foundation space. Rumours of superhuman strength and ability precede the Mule and his rebels. What if Seldon's psychohistory is not as accurate as the people on Foundation like to believe?
The fact that it contains only two stories, instead of the five contained in Foundation, make it more of a novel than a short story collection. It allows Asimov to add a bit more flesh to the bare bones of the stories presented in the first book. I'm still not terribly impressed by the writing though. It is marginally more descriptive than in the previous book but it is still a lot of dialogue. As a consequence, there is still a lot of taking the reader by the hand and walk him/her through the story going on, but I do get the feeling Asimov is asking some more interesting questions here. Foundation was, in a way, repetitive, with the outcome of a crises more or less predetermined. In Foundation and Empire, Asimov uses this predictability as a theme in the novel.
Asimov examines the related concepts of determinism and free will in this second book of the series (for another excellent take on these concepts see The Memory of Whiteness by Kim Stanley Robinson). Seldon's psychohistory claims to very accurately predict the major developments in galactic history, making Foundation believe that although there are not guarantees for individuals, even leaders, the organisation will survive whatever crisis is thrown at it. So far, Seldon has been proven right every time. History plays out as he predicted, it appears to be predetermined. Which raises the question, why bother to get all worked up about some hotshot Empire general doomed to fail anyway? How much room does Seldon leave for free will? What of the belief that some people can indeed change the course of events by being in the right place at the right time? Is the inertia of the galaxy so great that is rolls right over individual initiative? Some pretty uncomfortable questions to ask in a country that follows a dream rooted in individualism.
So then, how do we put Seldon's theory to a real test? One technique used in science is to challenge his assumptions. And it appears Seldon made quite a few to make is models work. For one thing, he assumes that people will be people, now and in the future, and that their behaviour will remain predictable. He also assumes that no individual can have a measurable effect on the course of history. But once in a while, nature throws in a wild card, one that is very hard to foresee. The Mule, with all his rumoured special abilities, fits the bill admirably. He is many things but most likely, he is not human. So now the unpredictable side of nature is pitted against Seldon's deterministic view of the future. It's definitely the most interesting challenge psychohistory has come across.
I guess I feel that Asimov is beginning to put his idea to a serious test in this novel and that alone makes it more interesting that the previous book. It still suffers from the flaws that many books from this era possess. Cardboard characters, sexism (there is actually a woman in this novel but the way she's portrayed will most likely not meet with the approval of the modern female reader), simplistic plot and in Asimov's case, dreadfully straightforward language. Still, I think he's beginning to grow on me a bit. It'll be interesting to see where Asimov takes his story next. From the ending of this book I'd say he isn't done with the Mule yet.
Title: Foundation and Empire
Author: Isaac Asimov
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
First published: 1952