Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov continues the story of The Foundation and Sheldon’s Plan to save humanity from thirty thousand years of darkness. The Foundation continues to old the line against the darkness in this sequel to Foundation. Unlike in the last book, where they deal with small fiefdoms and inner evolution, the threats this time around are largely external and much more intimidating. In the first part of the book they deal with the remnants, but still powerful remnants, of the Empire that once spread over all of human existence and in the second part of the book they begin to deal with The Mule, an individual mutant with the powerful ability to bend men and women to his will.
Part I of this book plays out much like any part of the last book; the Foundation is met with a mighty foe, a young and talented general named Bel Riose who falls not because of the actions of any one person, but because he must. The Empire as it currently stands, is limited in power and fluctuates between weak and strong emperors. If the emperor is weak, Riose would never even go after the Foundation; he would turn inward and make a play for the throne. If the emperor is strong, like he is in this part of the story, then Riose will be set up to fall as a traitor because a strong and smart ruler would never allow one of his generals to become to strong or successful. This reasoning, while convenient, is actually a lot more satisfying than most of the explanations given in the first book. It makes sense, even though it’s awfully neat.
Part II is where Asimov derails things in a big way. Sheldon’s science only works on large groups of people; while he never gives an exact number of how many he needs, it seems to at least require a planet or two to be accurate. So the actions of an individual are unpredictable, and up to this point they have been largely meaningless in the big picture. That dynamic changes when a person known as The Mule starts to take over planets and move against the Foundation. The Mule is a single individual and therefore invisible to Sheldon and his foresight. Thus, he conquers the Foundation and throws everything into chaos.
I enjoyed this book a bit more than the first one. I liked that we got to spend more time with each group of characters. Toran and Bayta especially leave a much better imprint on me than anybody else so far except maybe the first major, Hardin. Their relationship is healthy and loving and very human, something that this book sometimes misses among all the ideas and society wide actions that take place.
Asimov continues his habit of having all the action, or at least most of it, take place away from the reader. Riose enacts a giant, star systems wide siege of Foundation space but we see none of it; it’s simply reported to us. By all accounts, the Foundation mounts a dogged and brave resistance, but again, it’s simply by all accounts. This doesn’t bother me as much as it might because the conversations that the characters have is so strong. Asimov’s writes almost only conversation, but that’s okay when those conversations read like action.
The book ends on one of the few moments of real action and ends strongly. However, Asimov curtails any sense of cliffhanger by limiting threat of The Mule. The Mule is sterile and therefor his power dies with him so whatever he builds will soon wane and crumble after his death. So once again, I’m left not feeling like there is a real threat to the Foundation or Sheldon’s plan. Beyond that, The Mule is a threat primarily because everybody says he is. On the surface he doesn’t seem to be that bad of a guy; he even defends Bayta from a potential sexual assault and he seems to care for at least her quite a bit. And since we already know that the makeup of the Foundation (democratic, autocratic, capitalist or not) doesn’t really seem to matter, I’m unsure if The Mule is supposed to be an actual threat to anything or not. He is said to be a threat to Sheldon’s Plan, and I suppose he is, but I’m never left with a strong reason for why that might be.
Foundation and Empirewrestles with individualism and the power of the individual much more and in a more complex way then the first book. Similar to the first one, the action of the one or few matter, regardless of what Sheldon says in his pre-recorded messages. Sheldon himself is proof of that; without him and his brain, The Foundation would not exist and humanity would be doomed to thirty thousand years of darkness. The actions of Hardin and Mallow matter, and the actions of individuals in this book have even bigger consequences. Yes, The Mule has basically magic powers, but he is still one man who disrupts everything. But it’s also true that if Bayta wasn’t who she was exactly, all of Sheldon’s Plan might have burned to ash. She saved everything.
Next Book: Rasl
Next Movie: Imitation Game