This week I continue my ongoing review of the original Foundation trilogy written by the great master, Isaac Asimov, in the 1940's and 50's. As I said last week, I really enjoyed the first book, Foundation which is a collection of short stories related to the process of forging a Second Galactic Empire a mere millenium after the fall of the first one and goes to about two hundred years into that process. Foundation and Empire picks up after Foundation and features two crises. The first crisis is the inevitable clash between the growing forces of the Foundation and still strong but rapidly receding and greatly diminished Galactic Empire, while the second deals with the emergence from almost nowhere of a figure known only as the Mule and his ability to defeat the previously unstoppable forces of the Foundation.
As I mentioned, Foundation and Empire is split into two longer stories that go much further in depth than the stories in the previous novel. As one of my main problems was the relative lack of development in the shorter stories I thought this was an excellent improvement for the series and I hope that the later books are just as developed, if not more so. The first story centers around the Empire general Bel Riose, an ambitious young warrior who seeks to expand his career and the Empire by finding the mysterious magicians said to exist in the galactic periphery who perform incredible feats of technological expertise. Perhaps what I found most interesting about this story was that the Foundation, despite being technologically superior to the Empire in many ways, still could not win open battles with the Empire and was on the defensive for pretty much all of Riose's campaign. Even in a state of advanced atrophy, the Galactic Empire still has a significant bite to it. The Foundation is only saved, in fact, because of larger social and political forces predicted by the great visionary Hari Seldon. As it's explained in the novel, Seldon predicted that a combination of a strong emperor and a strong general would lead the ambitious general to attack the Foundation to expand his career, the Empire, and perhaps place himself in a position to contend for the Imperial throne. While the Foundation would stumble over these defeats, the strong emperor would eventually be recalled to the imperial capital of Trantor because of the Emperor's own fear for his throne, halting the imperial advance. While it still kind of relies upon the very disputed great man theory of history, I appreciated its larger political and social implications.
One thing that kind of bugged me was that between the short stories the Sack of Trantor, the Imperial capital world, has already happened. It was foretold in Foundation and considered to be a major event that would mark the end of First Galactic Empire, much like the sack of Rome and death of Romulus Augustus in 476 CE marks the "official" end of the Roman Empire in western Europe. Basically we go from the story of Bel Riose to the story of the Mule and the Empire has already vanished. A rump state ruling over a mere twenty agricultural worlds exists, but any claims to imperial dominion over the entire galaxy are fanciful delusions at best. I had really hoped to see more of the empire falling and the dramatic Great Sack but sadly those were regulated to off-screen events.
The thing I really liked about the Mule's story is that we actually see the Foundation lose to something that hadn't been included in Hari Seldon's plan. While there was a civil war among Foundation forces that was brewing and Seldon did predict, the actions of the warlord known as the Mule were completely unaccounted for in Seldon's plan. (At least, that the First Foundation knows about, but more on that later.) It was actually really interesting for me because after facing down four crises, the Foundation had become complacent in the faith that Seldon had planned for everything and they need not worry about future events. Indeed, the myth of Foundation invulnerability is well know to all the characters at the three hundred year mark in our series' timeline and people assume the Foundation will win regardless. If the Foundation had won and successfully weathered the civil war crisis, as interesting as it could have been, it would have suffered the same problems as Superman suffers as a character. Superman is boring as a character because he is immune to pretty much everything that isn't kryptonite and has more powers than I have battle scars. There is never really any doubt if Superman will save the day or not because he can freaking FLY BACKWARDS IN TIME TO FIX THINGS, which completely destroys any dramatic tension. The same can be said for the Foundation who, while they cannot travel through time except in the usual manner we all do, are convinced that Seldon's great plan is completely flawless and will result in a Foundation victory regardless of other factors. Having the Mule come in and basically throw the game pieces out of the window was a refreshing change of pace.
Basically, the Mule is a mutant about whom very little is known and who has risen to considerable power in a short period of time. Because he is a mutant and apparently has powers beyond the scope of normal human abilities, he is well outside Seldon's plans for First Foundation and utterly derails the original crisis between the democratic free traders and the autocratic plutocrats. However, as it is hinted very strongly at the end of the book, it may be that Seldon counted on the Mule after all and the Second Foundation has the tools necessary to defeat the would-be galactic conqueror. I will admit that the mysterious and charismatic figure leading a galaxy-uniting military campaign bears more than a few passing similarities with the Emperor and his Great Crusade to reunite humanity in Warhammer 40,000.
The thing I liked the most about this novel in specific was its direct parallels with classical history and the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 300's and 400's CE. Having learned a little of those time periods from a number of different classes I found the transition to a sci-fi setting pretty darn cool and really enjoyed it. I also felt that Asimov really did his research before writing these stories and doesn't rely on some of the less credible explanations for why empires collapse, instead focusing on the clearly quantified social, economic, and political factors. So for all of my readers who happen to be Roman history buffs and science-fiction fans this is definitely a book you'll want to check out. As for all the other sci-fi fans, I really am seeing how this is a landmark series in the genre and you should definitely go check it out as well.