Book Review: Foundation and Empire

After pondering on the first book for a while, I decided to pick up Foundation and Empire. Well, the collection that I have has the original trilogy in a single thick book, so it is not like it was difficult to find. I hoped that the flaws in the first book would be corrected and they partially are. There is less emphasis on the grand scope of the timeline and there is more emphasis on the characters. Unfortunately, there are a lot more mistakes that continue in this book that make it so much more frustrating.

The book is divided into two halves and are essentially two smaller books packaged into a larger book. Anyway, having two larger stories is much better than the smaller novellas that comprised the first book. This allows us to focus more on the characters and plotlines. The plots seem interesting at first but end up having some of the lamest endings.

The first half of the book is titled, The General. The reader is introduced to Riose, a young general of the Galactic Empire. Riose is an adventuring sort and wishes to travel to the Foundation for the purposes of conquering it for the empire. The Galactic Empire is in slow decline at this point and reclaiming some of its lost territory is seen as a good thing. Naturally, conquering the Foundation will hinder Hari Seldon’s plan to maintain human civilization.

An independent trader named Lathan Devers and an imperial official named Ducem Barr team up with each other to try and put a stop to Riose’s plan. Devers is from the Foundation and does not want his homeland to be conquered and Barr’s homeland was conquered by the Empire and wants some revenge against it. They escape from Riose in their superfast spaceship and fly through space to the imperial capital to try and petition the emperor to stop the invasion.

This is a much better setup than the previous book where it was simply a bunch of characters following Hari Seldon’s plan to maintain the Foundation. The story is paced much better and has a greater sense of urgency to it. Unfortunately, the story completely fumbles in the ending.

The General ends with the situation simply resolving itself. Riose’s invasion attempt is initially successful but he is recalled to the capital where the emperor has him executed. This is done without any input from Devers or Barr. The emperor apparently thought that Riose was too much of an upstart general and was a threat to his rule. Such a thing was predicted by Seldon… yet again.

So, the Foundation is all fine and is not invaded and everything is all hunky dory. Nothing that Devers or Barr did has any effect upon the outcome of the crisis. It makes me wonder what the point of following these characters or this story? To show how Hari Seldon was always right? This is a very poor story. Nothing that happens here has any effect upon future events.

The continued ‘science’ of psychohistory continues to frustrate me. The reader is given no details for exactly how psychohistory works. The characters assure that it is a way to predict the outcome of societies and populations. It is mentioned that psychohistory cannot predict the actions of individuals. This makes little sense, seeing as how populations are made up of individuals. In addition, the masses of galactic society have little power in this world. The outcome of the first half deals with the emperor executing the titular general, which is based on individual psychology.

The second half of the book is called The Mule. The plot for this one is much better than the first one but still turns out to be pretty lame. It concerns effects of the titular character upon the galaxy. The Mule is a warlord who goes on to conquer large portions of the galaxy after the empire’s collapse. His new domain creeps upon the borders of the Foundation, which is now the largest power in the galaxy.

The ostensible main characters are a woman named Bayta and her husband Toran. They are joined by a psychologist and scientist named Mis. They are also joined by a fool named Magnifico who claims to be a former court jester for the Mule and is on the run from his former master. Like Devers and Barr, these characters have little impact on the story with the exception of a reveal at the end that is actually sort of clever.

Things are made interesting when the Foundation’s leaders anticipate a recorded message from Seldon explaining how to solve the crisis. This has happened something like two or three times before. Seldon anticipated an entirely different issue, however, and offers no advice on how to face the Mule.

The idea of Seldon’s prophetic path being tampered with is a great idea. It almost makes the first half somewhat more understandable because The General was all about how Seldon planned for every contingency. That makes the reveal that he failed all the more shocking. It ups the stakes and makes the plot tenser.

Bayta and Toran and company set out to try and save the Foundation and galactic civilization by going on a quest to look for the Second Foundation. The Second Foundation has been known to exist since early in the first book. It is supposedly located at the edge of the galaxy opposite the first foundation. The purpose of the first foundation was to maintain a level of technology and civilization in the galaxy. It is known that Hari Seldon has a small army of ‘psychologists’ with him but none of them were on Terminus. It is assumed that all of the psychologists went to the Second Foundation. It is theorized that this was done to act as some sort of failsafe in the event of an unforeseen catastrophe.

The Mule himself is a sort of genetic mutant with psychic powers. Specifically, he can alter the emotional state of those he meets. He uses this power in conjunction with typical persuasion to gather an army and conquer the universe. Seldon never anticipated psychic powers in his equation, this explaining how someone like the Mule escaped his predictions.

Now, this setup seems much more interesting. A wrench has been thrown into Hari Seldon’s prophecy. The protagonists need to do something in order to ensure that civilization will continue throughout the galaxy and not crumble over the weight of a mutant warlord.

Thing is, the way it pans out is incredibly frustrating. The main characters do little except for gawk in awe and fear at the Mule’s actions and how he conquerors world after world. The characters really have no impact on the story with the exception of Bayta, who makes one decisive action at the end that actually matters. This involves shooting a man who knew the location of the Second Foundation so the Mule cannot use his powers to get the information out of him. This also means that the protagonists cannot find the Second Foundation, either. But that’s fine, because Bayta is convinced at the end that the Second Foundation will prevail over the Mule’s new empire regardless.

So, in other words, there was no reason for the characters to look for the Second Foundation in the first place. The Second Foundation is predicted to triumph regardless. The entire quest is pointless. These books also seem pretty pointless.

Please, someone tell me that I am missing something here. Does anyone else notice this? How have these books become so popular? I cannot be the only one to notice these flaws. Were standards for science fiction different back then? What is going on? Is the third book supposed to make up for all of this?

This entire premise is flawed from a narrative standpoint. If Hari Seldon could predict any outcome and prepare for any contingency all in the past then what is the point of this story? It seems like the characters exist simply to gawk and gape at how foresighted the old man was as they dance to his tune. This would be a much more interesting narrative if the character’s actions had any lasting impact or if they could change anything but they don’t. None whatsoever!

The book ends with the Mule aware of the Second Foundation and trying to look for it so he can prevent it from being a threat to his new empire. I wonder if the Second Foundation has a bunch of psychologists that can have some influence on the galaxy, why not have the psychologists alter events in the crumbling empire to maintain civilization. Maybe this will be addressed in the next book?

I have to be honest and say that I little expectations for the last book, Second Foundation, at this point. Not that I won’t read it. At this point, I think I have to. …If only for completion’s sake.

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