BOOK REVIEW: Foundation and Empire, by Isaac Asimov

-spoilers for the entire Foundation universe-

 

Publisher: Grafton

Genre: Social SF

Series: Foundation (#2)

Pages: 240

Publication Date: 1952

Verdict: 5/5

The Foundation has stood for two hundred years. and is on course to complete Hari Seldon’s plan. But not everyone is happy with the Foundation’s expansion, and the greatest threat to its existence is lurking on the horizon . . .

Like Foundation before it, Foundation and Empire is a fix-up of earlier Asimov short stories. In this case two novellas, set a few decades apart. The larger size of these two sections lends a stronger overall story arc to the book, while still playing to Asimov’s strengths as a short story writer.

The first section is where the book derives its title from, as the Foundation comes into conflict with the remnants of the Galactic Empire. This is where the series’ roots in the fall of the Roman Empire. Imperial General Bel Riose is clearly modelled on the historical Belisarius. For historians, this can spoil the book a little, as both men’s lives follow parallel paths. Regardless of this, Riose’s story is a compelling one. Even on a reread, I enjoyed spending time with the military genius. It’s a hard archetype to write, and Asimov pulls it off by keeping the tactical matters off the page.

The second act is the more important one from a series standpoint, because it’s the one where we are introduced to the Mule. Here is a character who stands alongside Seldon and Olivaw as one of Asmiov’s most fascinating characters. Whether it’s the rumours he spreads regarding his identity, or the time he spends disguised as Magnifico the clown, he is an utterly compelling villain, and one of Asimov’s most detailed characters. The role he plays in the Foundation’s history spreads across both this book and the next, but here he is largely an oppresive shadow looming over the protagonists.

These protagonists are stronger than in the last book too, though ironically less memorable. They lack the mythic quality of Hardin and Mallow, but in exchange gain a more realistic feel. Ebling Mis may be yet another Asimov scientist, and his exclamations of ‘ga-LAX-y’ do grate a little, but aside from that, he seems a lot more human than the supermen of the previous book. Bayta marks one of Asmiov’s best female characters in the series. Admittedly, there is not much in the way of competition there, and I’m sure many would find the gender stereotypes irritating at best, but she does provide a rare emotional core for the series. That’s something not seen much in this stage of Asimov’s career, and makes her stand out all the more.

In both character presentation, depiction of war and technology, Foundation and Empire has aged just the same as its predecessor. But none of that gets in the way of the story, which has a stronger drive than Foundation, and sows seeds that will carry on into the next volume. Though it has been mentioned before, this is where the idea of the Second Foundation really comes to the foreFor a book put together from short stroies, the narrative is remarkably strong.

Though it lacks the legendary status of its predecessor, Foundation and Empire very much marks Asimov at the top of his game.

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