Book Review: Second Foundation

After reading the first and second books, it was inevitable that I read the third and last book in the Foundation Trilogy. This one took me a lot longer to read than the others. For whatever reason, it is much more of a slog than the previous two books were. I think that has something to do with the plots.

Like the second book, Second Foundation is divided into two halves. The first half continues from where the last book left off. The Mule is in control of a sizeable chunk of the galaxy and still has his mind-manipulation powers that he uses to bend people to his will. He is obsessed with finding the Second Foundation because he still believes it to be a threat to his new empire. If the Second Foundation were a failsafe meant to ensure that Hari Seldon’s plan succeeds, then they could have some measure to counter the Mule and his new empire.

To find the elusive Second Foundation, the Mule sends two men to look for it. The first is a military officer named Pritcher, who was in the previous book and has his mind altered by the Mule. The second is a younger officer named Channis, who is not under the Mule’s power. Together, the get in a spaceship and fly off to look for the Second Foundation.

There are brief moments where the narrative gives the reader glimpses of the Second Foundation but these are small snippets. They reveal that, yes, the Second Foundation does indeed exist, and that they are aware of the Mule’s search for them. The foundation’s leader, the First Speaker, mentions working drastically to keep themselves hidden.

This sounds like a much better idea than the other books had. Instead of being chained to a predetermined plan, these people are improvising and the outcome is unknown. …And then the end continues to disappoint. Channis follows clues that lead him to believe that he knows where the Second Foundation is. Pritcher concurs and the two fly off to lay siege to the planet where they suspect it to be.

What follows is some of the worst narrative put to words thus far and that is saying something. Pritcher suspects Channis of being a spy from the Second Foundation and goes into a long-winded tirade about how the younger officer’s discovery of the Second Foundation was a little too convenient. Channis counters with a counter-tirade about how he is, in fact, not a spy and that Pritcher is getting too old for this. The two trade counter-arguments until Pritcher collapses and the Mule steps in.

What follows is more back-and-forth dialogue between Channis and the Mule over how each of them says that they know what the other thinks and thinks that they know how the other knows and how they’ve planned for such contingencies in the event that they knew what they thought and… Yeah, look, I kind of zoned out during this part. But what I’ve written is accurate enough, trust, me.

Eventually, the First Speaker of the Second Foundation steps in and has yet more dialogue with the Mule. It is revealed that Channis was under some mind-manipulation from the Second Foundation into thinking that he knew what he really does not. Specifically, that the Second Foundation is not where the officer though it was. The people of the Second Foundation have similar mind-control powers to those of the Mule, but theirs’ are learned with great practice and are not as potent. The First Speak tricks the Mule into letting his mental defenses down by lying to him and saying that a fleet of warships has destroyed his empire. The Mule despairs for a brief second and this allows the Speaker to alter his mind the tiniest fraction and to change him without him noticing it. The Mule is drained of all motives of conquest and goes back to ruling his empire until he dies shortly thereafter.

I like the idea of this setup but the payoff is anti-climactic. It relies too much on events that happened off-stage and unforeseen developments that the reader has no way of knowing could happen. It is like a poorly written mystery novel where the identity of the culprit is is solved by a bunch of people standing around and talking and revealing evidence that was hidden from the reader. Sometimes, the worst stories are not the stupid ones, but the lame ones that think that they are really smart.

And that is only the first half of the book. The second half is where it really feels like trudging through waist-deep mud.

The second half takes place some two generations after the events of the first half. The Mule is dead. He died from natural causes shortly into his reign due to complications with genetic defects. Two dictators have succeeded him since and tried to maintain the Mule’s empire. The First Foundation has broken away and goes to war against the Mule’s empire. Meanwhile, the knowledge of the Second Foundation being comprised of people with psychic powers is revealed and makes a group of people on Terminus rather uneasy.

The idea of a group of people with psychic powers manipulating history from the shadows is an interesting one. We are shown a (new?) First Speaker who takes on an apprentice and has him explain psychohistory for the reader’s benefit. They mention that there is some flexibility to the plan to account for unforeseen occurrences. I like the idea of the Second Foundation being flexible and having contingencies. Unfortunately, any contingencies are strictly in place to stick as close to the old plan as possible. They are insistent on having Terminus and the First Foundation be the core of the new empire.

I was hoping that the plot would focus on someone or some people trying to figure out a way to create a new empire from the wreckage instead of trying to stick of a script. After all, the Mule left a functional empire after his death. His main flaw was not leaving a means of choosing a successor. Why not use that as the basis for a new galactic civilization? The book could have been about learning to adapt with unforeseen change. But no, I guess that Asimov is too square for that.

Most of the second half focuses on a teenage girl called Arcadia (Arkady) Darrell, who is the granddaughter of Bayta from the second book. The purpose of Arcadia in this book is quite odd at first, as she seems to have no bearing on the plot. Most of the book is focused on her adventures in the galaxy. She stows away on a spaceship so she can get to Kalgan, the capital of the Mule’s empire, simply so she can have an adventure. She futzes around and nearly gets abducted into being the local lord’s wife and then she escapes to Trantor, the heart of the former Galactic Empire. She gets the notion that she knows where the Second Foundation is and relays its location to her father on Terminus.

Arcadia’s father has a long and grueling talk with his associates and each one gives an overly complicated deduction for their own theories on where the Second Foundation is. Is it on the edge of the galaxy? Is it on Kalgan? His associate deduce from Arcadia’s message that the Second Foundation has been located on Terminus all along and has been manipulating them with psychic powers for centuries. The men of the First Foundation create a device that interferes with mind control and gives headaches to psychics. They use this device to weed out the fifty some odd psychics on Terminus and then kill them. This makes them think that they have completely destroyed the Second Foundation and are able to continue with creating a new and improved galactic empire.

And then it turns out that this is all a ruse and the Second Foundation manipulated events this way so that the people of Terminus will think that they have won. That way, the Second Foundation will not be suspected and will continue to manipulate events from the shadows. And wait, there’s more! It is revealed that Arcadia was psychically manipulated since birth into leading the First Foundation astray. Yes, the closest thing that this book has to a main character was simply an unwitting tool all along. Oh, and the Second Foundation has always been located on Trantor. For real, this time! It turns out that they were using their psychic powers to ensure the fall of the Empire from its very core so that the First Foundation would have room to start the second empire.

So, to reiterate: The Second Foundation intentionally destabilizes an empire so that it will collapse and endanger the livelihoods of trillions of people across the galaxy. They willingly choose not to use their powers to manipulate events to keep the empire stable and functioning. They subvert free will in people and risk the lives of children all for the sake of a plan that they think to be predestined. They martyr fifty of their own people all for the sake of remaining anonymous.

And these are the people that we are supposed to admire and rout for! Unless this was supposed to secretly be some kind of horror story, I do not see the appeal. I mean, I had my gripes about the first two books, but neither of them left as bad a taste in my mouth as this one.

The idea of looking for the Second Foundation is an interesting one. I thought that the final reveal could have been a lot cleverer, though. I thought that a much smarter reveal would be to have the Second Foundation decentralized and spread out across many different worlds with cells and chapters focusing on their own regions. It would certainly play with the reader’s expectations. (Funnily enough, this was actually theorized by one of the characters. But no, it’s on Trantor.)

Why did Hari Seldon even mention the existence of the Second Foundation to the First Foundation at all? It is stated multiple times that the Second Foundation can manipulate events best from the shadows without being seen. Instead, the reveal of its existence ends up creating so much chaos and it endangers the plan that the old coot set into motion and bet the entirety of galactic civilization on. And this is supposed to be the all-knowing smart guy?

And you know what the weird thing is? I feel guilty for hating these books. Before Foundation, there was nothing like this in fiction. Asimov was one of the first authors to propel science-fiction passed simple adventure and action stories. These books paved the way for later stories that would become improve on the idea. So what is it about the Foundation Trilogy that fails?

Is it because of the lack of world-building? No, I don’t think so. I never got the sense for what this galaxy feels like but that is not a crippling flaw. Is it because of the preference for politics and diplomacy over adventure and action? I actually think that is one of these books’ more charming points. Is it because it is overly talky? No, dialogue can be fun… if it is written well.

The reason that these books do not hold up is because the main characters are simple pawns whose actions have no influence on the plot whatsoever.

I will not be reading any more Foundation books. I just do not have the motivation for it. I do not want to read more about wooden characters pontificating on obtuse matters when nothing they do will have any impact on the plot.

Overall, a huge disappointment.

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