Foundation and Empire

Foundation and Empire
Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov; Del Rey Ballantine

This is the second novel in the famous Foundation series by Isaac Asimov.  It was originally published in 1952; the copy I read was the 1983 edition.  The cover art for my copy was done by Darrell K. Sweet.  The novel is actually two parts – quite distinct, but related in a general timeline sort of way.  The first part, The General, explains how the Empire is falling, but a bold General launches a mighty attack on the Foundation.  This is the section that most folks connect with Asimov’s reading of Ancient Roman history.  The second part of the novel, The Mule, deals with events that occur roughly one-hundred years after the events of the first part.

The first novel in the Foundation series was a conglomerate of short stories that depict the unfurling of the Hari Seldon crises for the Foundation in relation to the Empire.  Much of that book dealt with the development of the Foundation and it’s survival and growth into an “empire within an empire” on the edge of the galaxy.  The short story-like structure of the parts of that novel made reading it a bit difficult and I know that many readers were unimpressed because of the seeming discordant style.  Also, many readers hated the extreme lack of character development in that novel.  Because of these two things, I do not think many readers move forth in the series.

Foundation and Empire definitely has more character development – however, these are still not necessarily books about characters, but rather they are books about big concepts.  Specifically, Hari Seldon’s psychohistory theories drive both novels.  The lack of character development is probably the largest complaint from readers.  I understand this complaint – particularly in the first novel – but I do not think that it is the great criticism that it purports to be.

We are used to dramas on television, in movies, and in novels, that center on individuals.  Readers have become acclimated to pages and pages of characters being described in their thoughts, deeds, and circumstances.  In theory, this is supposed to make the characters seem realistic and form a bond between the characters and the reader such that the reader is invested in the character’s personhood and life.  However, just because this has become the common way of doing things, does not mean it is the best or even only way.  I actually appreciated reading a novel wherein I was not forced to struggle alongside the characters, examine their motives and feelings, and watch them grow from young adults to seniors.  Nevertheless, there is quite a bit more “character development” in this novel and I feel it’s just the right amount.

This novel is less episodic.  However, the events that we learn about – another opening of the Time Vault, the fall of Foundation – happen quickly and without a whole lot of build up.  The last half of the novel involves a fairly exciting chase across the galaxy as two unlikely heroes race to Trantor/Newtrantor to either communicate with the Emperor and/or to learn as much as they can about Second Foundation.  I like how Asimov keeps the story focused on the concept of Seldon’s psychohistory – that individuals are unpredictable and maybe somewhat insignificant in terms of the statistics generated. Seldon developed psychohistory to predict the actions of large groups of humans.  And so throughout the novel the actions of the individuals are presented as conundrums compared to the actions of large populations. Of course, much can be discussed regarding Seldon’s theories and the actions of The Mule.

Their enemy, The Mule, is a famous “villain” in science fiction.  And I think Asimov handles this character splendidly.  It’s actually really a great job done by an author of hiding and presenting a villain.  And this villain, by the way, is both easy to hate and love and pity.  He’s also responsible for the fall of Foundation.  He conquers in a unique way with an intense method that makes the ending even more poignant.

I gave Foundation 4 stars because of the “big idea.”  The fairest rating would have probably been something like 3.5 stars.  But this novel? Definitely four stars – unreservedly. I really want to read the next novel, Second Foundation, because I have to see the timeline continue and play out.  I know this series is not for everyone, but I honestly am really enjoying it.

4 stars

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