Foundation and Empire – Isaac Asimov (1952)
‘Someday Mankind will spread into the Milky Way. And there, among a million worlds, Earthmen and aliens will group into a vast community, seething with old lusts and new passions. This story takes you into that far future, where the Galactic Empire, crumbling into anarchy, grapples with the spirited Foundation as it strives for order amidst the chaos of the stars – two mighty movements clashing over the destiny of the universe!’
Blurb from the 1975 Panther edition
Assimilated from stories published in Astounding in 1945, the second volume of Asimov’s classic trilogy begins with the inevitable clash between the Foundation and the crumbling Empire.
The Empire’s military forces – under the direction of General Bel Riose – proves more than superior to the forces of The Foundation. However, the logistics of a Galactic Empire ruled from a central and distant point by a paranoid Emperor ensures that the ruler’s fear of a strong general gaining control of the Foundation’s superior technology means that the Emperor cannot allow him to succeed.
Asimov’s sparse style doesn’t allow him to engage in overdescriptive prose which is to the advantage of the books since it tends to weed out anachronisms, archaisms and incongruities of, for instance, dress. The story is driven at a breakneck pace by dialogue and action. Incongruities do exist. It’s hard to believe that a general such as Bel Riose would smoke cigarettes, particularly on duty, or that ‘books’ would be recorded in bulky videocassettes, even in the technologically decadent Empire. Apart from these minor observations, ‘Foundation and Empire’ has stood the test of time remarkably well.
A third of the way through the book the Foundation is faced with a new menace, one for which Seldon could not have made any provision: The Mule.
The Mule is a mutant born with the power to mentally control others, and for Asimov is a device used both to break the pattern of Crisis, Resolution, Crisis, Resolution which was set up in ‘Foundation’, and also to introduce the Second Foundation.
It will come as no surprise to most readers that Magnifico Gigantico, a rather over-caricatured and not very realistic figure, turns out to be the mutant Mule who has emotionally controlled key figures in Galactic Society and the military in order to take over a large area of Space. He now has his sights fixed on the Foundation which has by now degenerated into a corrupt system of hereditary mayors and over-taxed underclasses.
It’s also difficult to accept the concept of what is essentially a court jester within Asimov’s Galactic Society, baroque though some of it may be.
Magnifico is portrayed as a physical grotesque who speaks in a kind of quasi-eighteenth century patois. He may as well have worn sign on his head reading ‘I am The Mule! I’ll fool you all! You’ll never guess it’s me!’
The interesting characters are those only partly engaged in the main narrative, such as the fanatically officious Mayor Indbur and Ebling Mis, the Lefty scientist with no patience for the niceties of protocol.
The female characters are less impressive. Sexual equality was seldom something which featured in the SF of the 40s and 50s. There generally seems to be some far future equivalent of ‘the man’ going out to work or war and ‘the woman’ staying home cooking or fretting. Here it takes the form of the womenfolk of the Foundation – in this case a group of canteen workers – worrying about their husbands and brothers, out there in Space, fighting to protect the Foundation.
The ages of the various protagonists are interesting too, since most of the male characters seem to be over thirty. Bel Riose is thirty-four, Captain Pritcher is in his forties. Ebling Mis is obviously older. The Crown prince of Neotrantor is ‘middle-aged’, while many others are much older and inevitably described as ‘silver-haired’