Second Foundation

“Only secrecy can turn its weakness to strength.”

Isaac Asimov

So a couple of weeks ago the Circumlocutor informed me that at some point along the line Isaac Asimov’s space-opera series Foundation turns into a kind of sequel for his awesome robot detective Caves of Steel series. My reaction to this little tidbit (at least in my brain) went something like

“WHAT?! ROBOTS IN SPACE?! WHY DID NOBODY TELL ME THIS BEFORE?!”

So now, of course, I’m in a hurry to read the rest of Foundation because ROBOTS IN SPACE.

Second Foundation is actually the third book in the series (whoever thought this title would be a good one for a third book was wrong). It follows the hunt for the Second Foundation (unsurprisingly), one of two institutions set up by the great and legendary Hari Seldon at the fall of the Galactic Empire to preserve all of humanity’s knowledge against the centuries of anarchy and strife that were to follow. While the first Foundation was dedicated to the physical sciences – basically, how to make atomic weapons, as far as I can tell – the Second Foundation is one of psychologists who can do freaky mind-control type things, which makes hunting for them quite tricky. To make things worse, the Seldon Plan which governs the future of the Foundations is out of whack because of the actions of an unpredictable mutant the Mule.

The immediate problem with Second Foundation is the fact that it’s actually quite a while since I read the first two books, Foundation and Foundation and Empire. To a certain extent, Second Foundation can stand on its own (’cause Asimov loves his infodumps), but the really annoying thing is that I kept stumbling across things I recognised without remembering why I recognised them. Wasn’t there something wrong with Ebling Mis? Why did Bayta Darrell care about the Mule? Who was Arcadia’s grandfather? Who knows?

This isn’t helped by the fact that Second Foundation is, more or less, an exercise in paranoia. Asimov can’t do character development to save his life (it’s hard to do character development when none of the characters actually appear to have free will), and he’s never heard the rule about showing not telling, but what he can do well is Political Machination. Everyone in Second Foundation is lying: to themselves, to their friends, to the Galaxy at large. No-one can trust their own motivations (because of the freaky Second Foundation mind-controllers) and the lies pile up until they begin to look like truth and there is revelation after revelation and some of the revelations cancel out other ones. As a reader, it’s like having the rug pulled out from under your feet over and over again.

One thing, though: I definitely felt that Asimov could have done more with Trantor, the planet-city (think Coruscant in Star Wars) sacked and ruined by time, an apocalyptic dystopia on a literally global scale, like the dead city in The Matrix. Our plucky fourteen-year-old heroine Arcadia spends fifty pages banging on about how exciting and romantic it would be to visit, only for our author to have her walk to the city once in a flashback and run away after about five minutes. Such a waste of such a fantastic setting.

I do quite like to read Asimov occasionally, just to enjoy the machinations and the ideas, but Second Foundation probably isn’t something I’ll read again. Bring on the space robots, I say.

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