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Second Foundation (1953)

Isaac Asimov

Doubleday, New York; ISBN: 1-56865-059-0; Pages: 225

Review © 2003 Branislav L. Slantchev

The third, and last, of the original Foundation Trilogy novels, Second Foundation picks up five years after the end of Foundation and Empire, in which the mutant known by the name The Mule, who can control human emotions, has disrupted Seldon's Plan, defeated the technology Foundation on Terminus, subdued the last remnants of the Galactic Empire, and is close to establishing his dominions over the entire Galaxy. He only had to locate the secret Second Foundation before it was strong enough to defeat him. He almost succeeds but is thwarted by Bayta, a proud Foundationer, waging a lost battle in the face of the crumbling world around her.

In the first part of this novel, the Mule renews his search for the mysterious Second Foundation which, unlike the first, is founded on the basis of psychology, and whose chief weapon is mentalics, the ability to control human emotions, just like the Mule himself can. Yet no one knows where this foundation is, for Seldon has only left one vague reference to it. As the Mule is searching for the Second Foundation, it also is preparing to face him. The Mule is finally trapped by Channis, of the SF, but the latter's psychic ability proves unequal to the task and he is forced to betray the location of the foundation. However, at the last moment, the First Speaker of the SF shows up, confuses the Mule, and, during a moment of despair when the latter is convinced that his plans have failed, is able to adjust his mind. The Mule returns to Kalgan, the notion of a Second Foundation removed from his mind, and turns into a man of peace.

The most pathetic character is that of Han Pritcher, the brave captain of the previous novel, who was determined to fight doggedly to the last, but who has then Converted by the Mule into an utterly ineffective, because not self-driven, underling. For the brief moment during the final confrontation, his brain is liberated from the induced artificial emotions, and he is ready to murder the Mule. Yet, in an inexplicable act of cruelty, he is reduced to his subservient state by the Second Foundation! This is why this foundation must not be allowed to endure.

The Mule's Empire is breaking apart after the ruler's death. A handful of men on Terminus, now newly independent, is secretly working to locate the Second Foundation. They have correctly deduced that it is the true implement of Hari Seldon's Plan. That it has been silently adjusting events through its mental powers behind the scenes, and that once the physical dominance of the First Foundation establishes the Second Empire, the Speakers of the Second Foundation would be its true rulers. Naturally, the Foundationers of Terminus would resent this.

Arkady Darell is a future novelist, a grand-daughter of Bayta, daughter to Dr. Toran Darell, a clever scientist who is part of a conspiracy against the Second Foundation that is precipitating a fresh Seldon Crisis. The problem is that psycho-history makes two assumptions: (i) it works with huge masses of people, not individuals, and (ii) these masses are unaware of the Plan, and so their actions appear 'random'. If, however, the first Foundation truly becomes aware of the existence of the Second, then its actions, necessarily directed to avoid the latter's dominance, would negate the Plan itself. This, of course, the Second Foundation, the guardian of the Plan, cannot allow, so it hatches a conspiracy within the conspiracy to convince the First Foundation that it has succeeded in destroying the Second.

It is all very elaborate, perhaps, the most elaborate plot in the Foundation books, and it's all quite streamlined, although complicated to follow. Arkady hitches a ride as a stowaway together with Homir Munn, the specialist on the Mule who is on a mission to Trantor's University Library to find out where the Second Foundation is. Quietly, the SF agents guide Arkady and Homir, aiding Arkady in escaping the clutches of the rather amorous lord of Kalgan, who, having convinced himself that the Mule has upset the Plan, starts a war on the Foundation, a war he is bound to lose.

In the end, Dr. Darell, with Arkady's help, discovers that the Second Foundation is located on Terminus itself. He carefully installs anti-mentalic devices and traps one of his co-conspirators as being a SF agents. Under mental torture, the latter reveals the location of all other fifty second foundationers, and they are all presumably hunted down and killed. During a brief moment of suspicion, Dr. Darell examines Arkady's mind for traces of Control but sees no evidence of tampering. He cannot find it, of course, because she has been controlled since a very early age, and his baseline graphs are already those of a controlled brain. The Second Foundation persists, not on Terminus, but on Trantor itself, hidden from the first, which is now entirely sure that it has become the only Foundation.

Although his penchant for cheap dramatics can be tiresome (especially in the last two chapters), Asimov presents a compelling argument against his own very cherished idea of social engineering. He shows what the existence of even benevolent and unseen dictators who only rarely interfere could do to their subjects. The reaction of the first foundationers is entirely understandable, and very human. Who cares to rule the world if he himself is a subject? That there is no visible opponent to challenge, and that the tyrant's power is a subtle one over emotions makes matters even worse, for one would be deprived of the will to fight, making it even more hopeless. It is ironic that Asimov does not see the implications of his own writing, which is clear in how the story unfolds in the later novels.

The Second Foundation changes from a benevolent and sympathetic entity when confronted with the danger of the Mule into a serious threat to the basic liberty of humanity, for not even the most thorough dictator could exercise emotion control with such precision. We see the triumph of mentalics over physical science, and this is the conclusion of the original trilogy. In the next two novels, Asimov will expand on these ideas... in directions utterly repugnant to me.

August 4, 2003