Isaac Asimov’s Second Foundation (is actually the third in the series).
Asimov. Issac Asimov. Kind of a big deal. Dude wrote about a metric bajillion novels (not to mention the short stories), came up with ‘Asimov’s laws of Robotics,’ and otherwise is justifiably one of the godfathers of Science Fiction. He also wrote a story about Batman! (kinda). I haven’t read enough of his work.
In recent years, I’ve been looking to fix that! I’ve read Asimov before, but not that much. I remember reading a few robot novels (including a series with time traveling robots and dinosaurs and pirates) in my youth- but nothing really ‘clicked’ for me.
Of course, as a kid, I tended more towards Star Wars than Star Trek. I mean, Star Wars had LASER GUNS and LASER SWORDS and was otherwise more action packed. But, as I’ve grown older, I’ve developed more of an appreciation for more thoughtful sci-fi. (It also helps that Lucas has done enough to disillusion me on the ‘Expanded Universe’ in general, but I digress).
With this in mind, I started reading Asimov’s Foundation series. They were originally published as a series of loosely interconnected stories, later collected into novels, and in turn later awarded the first Hugo for Best Series of All Time. Kind of a big deal. What’s even more surprising about this is the fact that (as far as I know) the Foundation novels have never been adapted to a more wide-market form, like a movie or TV series.
Many sci-fi novels hinge on one particular piece of made-up technology (FTL spaceships, time travel, androids, etc), and the Foundation novels are no exception. The fun thing is, instead of focusing on a physical piece of technology, Asimov pushes his plot forward with a completely made up science: Psychohistory.
Psychohistory is a predictive science; it posits that with enough analysis and calculation, one can predict the future. Not to the point of ‘you’re going to wear a red shirt next Tuesday,’ but it’s a predictive science in broader strokes; the rise and fall of empires, that sort of thing. It’s almost like the generic, vaguely-worded prophecies of your typical cheesy fantasy novel, only with more thought put into it.
The really neat thing is, by focusing on Psychohistory as the central bit of fictional science, Asimov inadvertently allows the stories to age really, really well. Classic science fiction can sometimes come off as quaint, as what was seen as cutting-edge technology (wireless video, cellphones, the internet, etc) in the 1950’s is pretty much second nature to us today. Seeing as of how we haven’t invented Psychohistory, or really anything close to it (certain schools of economics notwithstanding), the idea comes off as fresh and interesting, even all these years later.
Anyway, have some more plot synopsis! Hari Seldon, the inventor of Psychohistory, realized that the Big Galactic Empire (because there’s always a Big Galactic Empire) he lived in was going to fall. In order to keep the ensuing dark age from consuming the galaxy for thirty thousand years, Seldon created The Foundation- a psychohistory-backed enclave of scientists who would be able to bring about a new era of peace in only a thousand years. Of course, this is easier said than done, and so the various Foundation stories detail various times throughout Foundation history where they’re forced to deal with one sort of crisis or another.
Following so far? Because we haven’t even gotten to Second Foundation yet.
In one of life’s little ironies, Second Foundation is actually the third book in the Foundation series. It refers to the Second Foundation- another part of Seldon’s original plan. See, while the First Foundation was based on the study of the physical sciences, the Second Foundation is devoted to the study of psychohistory itself- and it’s kept secret, so they can meddle with galactic politics without being seen. It’s a rather egalitarian conspiracy. Oh, and there’s some business about people with amazing psychic mind control powers as well, but I’m trying to keep things simple.
Which brings us (finally) to the plot of Second Foundation. The book is comprised of two novellas, but both of them deal with the same problem: people trying to find the Second Foundation. And while there are grand fleet actions and space battles and such, most of this takes place off camera, usually discussed by the characters, and rarely shown. Instead, things play out in a typically Asmovian fashion; his stories are essentially logic puzzles, with the characters (who, for the most part, I envisioned as John Hamm-looking 50’s style white guys, complete with pipes) discussing the problem at hand, eventually revealing bits and pieces of information to one-up each other until one of them “wins.”
One of the things about Second Foundation that caught my attention, however, was the fact that there was a girl on the cover. That’s Arkady Darrell, 14 years old and brilliant, and (to judge by the back blurb) the only one to know the true location of the Second Foundation! Dun dun dunnnn. I was kind of curious to see what Asimov would do with a female protagonist. I had kind of envisioned some kind of early-era Heinlein-esque adventure….and, well…that’s not what I got.
Don’t get me wrong, Arkady’s a fun character, and Asimov writes her pretty well, but it wasn’t the rollicking adventure I thought it’d be. Again, it’s more of a twisty mystery, and Arkady’s just one of the factors in play. I still bet there’s a great story in Arkady’s adventures, however.
The Second Foundation always wins, due to whatever ridiculously convoluted “Just as planned!” scheme they’d dreamed up. To be fair, by the end of the book, I could certainly see how they’d developed everything, so at least they’re not getting by only on authorial fiat. This said, the concept of “There’s a secret, galaxy-spanning conspiracy that uses mind-control technology to control the course of human history, and it’s a totally good thing, trust me, honest!” can be a bit much to swallow.
The infallibility of Psychohistory and of Seldon’s plan is one of the biggest factors in the Foundation novels, and it’s probably the biggest indicator of whether you’ll enjoy the story or not. It works within the cut and dry style of 1950’s Asimov- but at the same time, a lot of the stories hinge on people acting logically in a given situation, which isn’t something that comes up very often in real life. But then again, we’re talking about a series that has spaceships and math problems that can predict the future, so that may be a little nitpicky.
Though really, I’d love to see a modern take on the Foundation novels. There’s certainly enough there for an HBO miniseries (even if they’d have to get a little creative in order to add the HBO-requred nudity). On the other hand, a Foundation TV show or movie would also no doubt lead to a deluge of people buying into Psychohistory as an actual Thing, which…could be kind of hilarious, come to think of it.
All and all, I’d recommend Second Foundation to anyone who likes classic science fiction- but you’d need to read the first two books, first.