Second Foundation – Isaac Asimov (1953)
‘The Old First Empire lies shattered in its decadence. It has been swept from the Milky Way’s bright spiral by the inexorably expanding forces of the First Foundation, established by psychohistorian Hari Seldon – the only man to have foreseen the shifting patterns of the inhabited cosmos.
But not even Seldon could have predicted the mutant menace of the Mule – a being of terrifying supernormal powers, who, in his search for the Second Foundation, the mysterious hidden guardians of Seldon’s plan, precipitates a savage power struggle that lays waste whole star systems…’
Blurb from the 1975 Panther edition
Asimov’s ingenious but somewhat disjointed finale to his Foundation trilogy sees The Mule (who has now set his sights on finding and destroying the Second Foundation) finally neutralised in a complex bit of plotting/double bluffing by the very secret psychologists he was hunting. Now however, the Foundation – which is secretly being steered back on its path to the creation of a new and better Empire – is aware of the existence of the shadowy Second Foundation and this very knowledge may ruin the chances of the Seldon plan succeeding.
Asimov’s scenes of the super-psychologists and psychohistorians within their secret base are some of the best elements of this novel. The extrapolation of sciences of linguistics and body language are extraordinarily effective and memorable, far more than the rather cliched ideas of planetary warlords and interstellar feudal systems.
As a detective story, Second Foundation works very well and Asimov, like all the best detective writers of the time, provides us with a summing up of all the clues that we – and the rest of the stupid galaxy – missed.
(Slap your head to your forehead now and say ‘Doh!’)
For me the revelation that the Second Foundation was on Trantor was a bit disappointing and made no sense. For one thing they would be too far away to keep an eye on the development of the Foundation in its early years, and travel to Terminus would surely get more and more difficult as time went on. Most readers would therefore have assumed the psychohistorians to be hidden on Terminus, something which Asimov no doubt anticipated and possibly for this reason put them on Trantor instead.
The major flaw in this book is the nature of the powers of the Second Foundation rather than their location. The Mule’s power is explained as a mutant aberration, an ability to telepathically alter the emotions of others, but the strange mental talents of the Second Foundation people are mentioned, almost in passing, as something they are trained to do.
In later posthumous sequels it is suggested that the Second Foundationers are composed of telepaths genetically engineered by the ubiquitous R Daneel Olivaw, Asimov’s seemingly indestructible robot hero.
Certainly Asimov is very vague about what mental powers the Second Foundationers actually possess, although one does feel that had their power been that of only psychological manipulation rather than ‘weird psionic forces’ then it would have created more interesting opportunities for the characters and potentially a better novel and denouement for the trilogy.
Once more the range and role of female characters is minimal. Callia, the consort of the Warlord of Kalgan, at first appears to be a stereotype, until we discover that her role is merely a cover and that she is a mind-bending Second Foundation psychologist.
The only other female character of note is Arkady Darell, grand-daughter of Bayta Darell (who thwarted The Mule by killing Ebling Mis as he was about to reveal the location of the Second Foundation).
Arkady, a central figure in the latter half of the book, is a precocious and flirtatious fourteen-year-old girl which at first sight might seem a daring concept for the Nineteen Forties until one considers that the readership of Astounding must have consisted of many adolescent boys at which it seems a possibly shrewd ploy.
Arkady comes over as being far more self-reliant, efficient, confident and intelligent than the adult males around her.
Sadly Asimov cannot leave this as a natural occurrence. It transpires that Arkady is only the way she is because the (presumably male) psychohistorians tampered with her mind while she was a baby on Trantor.
Politically, Asimov was preaching a doctrine common to many of the then writers of Astounding, in that society would best be served by being ruled and guided by a technocracy, preferably secretly.
The outcome of the Seldon Plan is that the New Galactic Empire will be ultimately controlled by the Psychohistorian elite of the Second Foundation.
Indeed, later authors in the posthumous sequel trilogy suggest that R Daneel Olivaw has taken certain telepath/empaths to another world in order to establish a gene-pool of these new Leaders of Men.
This concept of a secret elite government can also be seen in Van Vogt’s ‘Slan’ as Parrinder points out in ‘Science Fiction: Its Criticism and Teaching’ where the Earth government, appearing to be publicly anti-Slan, is actually being run secretly from within by the Slans themselves.
EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s ‘Lensman’ series gives us an entire Galaxy that has been manipulated secretly behind the scenes since Life burgeoned on its planets, and its fate is to be ruled, or at least guided, by selectively-bred superhumans into the future.
At the time this was thought as a Romantic ideal; a benign Paternal force behind the scenes, looking after the human children who were too frail to know the truth.
Whether or not they were right, SF writers of the time did not see much of a future for democracy, or maybe, democratic societies are just not very sexy.