BOOK REVIEW: Second Foundation, by Isaac Asimov

-spoilers for the entire Foundation universe-

second foundation.jpg

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Genre: Social SF

Series: Foundation (#3)

Pages: 240

Publication Date: 1953

Verdict: 5/5

The Foundation has fallen, conquered by the superhuman Mule. But the Mule cannot be content with his victory, for somewhere out there is the last threat to his power: Hari Seldon’s Second Foundation . . .

Second Foundation marks the end of the original trilogy formed of Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ short stories. As with Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation is formed of two novellas, set several decades apart.

The first act follows on directly from the events of the second book, with the Mule triumphant and now on the hunt for the Second Foundation. Again the Mule proves to be one of Asimov’s greatest characters. A truly sympathetic antagonist, he is largely kept off the page this time around, but the shadow he casts is a long one. This first act is also odd in that very little happens. We get viewpoints from various inconsequential characters, and much of the story piece consists of seemingly inconsequential dialogue. Now, while there is a conspiracy afoot and an active plot, there’s no real sense of threat to proceedings. I suppose that’s only to be expected, when Hari Seldon and his Foundations have everything planned out ahead of time.

The second act introduces Arcadia Darrel, descendent of the protagonists of Foundation and Empire‘s second half. I’m not going to claim that Asimov was a master of writing teenage female characters, but she is definitely one of his most memorable characters, largely because she is so far removed from the statesmen and scientists his work largely revolves around. This act also has its climax in a true Asimov setpiece in which a half-dozen theories are put forwards and knocked down in turn until the true answer is revealed. It’s similar to the end of his Robot novels, and in terms of the future history is a nice callback.

One thing that stands out about the Foundation trilogy is its use of extracts from the fictional Encyclopaedia Galactica. These appear in the prequels too, but are absent from the final two books of the universe. I’m a big fan of epigrams and extracts in general, though it is in Foundation and Dune that these are put to best use. Firstly, they provide useful pieces of information, often setting the scene for the chapter to follow, without characters needing to resort to expositionary infodumping. But even more than that, they convey a sense of a setting with real history. Asimov’s fairly acedemic style of writing only enhances this. There are times when the series feels less like a work of fiction, and more a text from another history.

In terms of plot, Second Foundation relies quite heavily on coincidence. As some of you may know, I’m not a huge fan of overarching conspriacies that cannot be defeated, and there is definitely an element of this trope to the Second Foundation. Their unbeatable nature is tolerable here only because it does not drive the story. Rather, it’s just one more puzzle for the charatcers to unravel. The real conflict happens elsewhere.

Second Foundation is a fitting end to Asimov’s greatest trilogy, and one that still holds up today, even if a few elements are now rather dated.

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