Asimov’s Centennial: Two Stories, February 1947-March 1949 (Second Foundation)

These two stories (of about 25 and 50 thousand words) make up the contents of Second Foundation, the final volume of the original Foundation trilogy.

It is strange how the wordage of Asimov’s Foundation stories fit so neatly into three ordinary volumes (four shorter tales and a prequel making about 75,000 words, then 25 and 50 thousand word stories before this pair of identical lengths) while the focal points of the stories did not. For instance, the two Mule stories are 75 thousand words but are split over the last two books, which open and close with non-Mule stories which have distinct characters and plots though both stories in Second Foundation deal with the notion of a “search” for the Second Foundation. Many people have trouble with these stories for the very reason that they read them as “novels” and find them “disjointed” but I’ve always loved the time-lapse of more or less self-contained stories which combine to tell a larger story.

“Now You See It…”

In book form, this appears as “Search by the Mule.” Initially, Asimov preferred to call it “Now You See It–” though, in its magazine publication, this and the next story each had an ellipsis instead of an em dash. The discussion of this requires an immediate and unavoidable spoiler to the previous tale, though I’ll be as non-specific as possible.

In our last story, we left off with the Mule’s designs of learning the location of his enemy, the Second Foundation, having been thwarted. In the time between then and the opening of this tale, the Mule has been sending the Converted Captain (now General) Pritcher on search after search, continuing to scour the Galaxy for the one force capable of challenging the Mule for supremacy. Pritcher now believes that the Second Foundation does not exist, but the Mule feels that some of his agents have been subtly altered in ways that suggest a long-range plan, which can only show the hand of the Second Foundation. For the next search, he provides Pritcher with a partner: brash, young, and Unconverted Bail Channis, who may bring a new energy and perspective to the search. The Mule tells each a slightly different version of the plan and each is more opponent than ally to the other. This comes to a head when Channis believes he’s discovered the location, sneakily launches the ship while discussing this with Pritcher, they reach the seemingly unimportant, modest world of Rossem, meet the locals including the Elders and the Governor of the world, and accuse each other of being traitors to the Mule. At this standoff, the Mule, who has been following them, arrives and more reversals and a sort of “Mentalic Standoff” follows.

Lucas is often accused of excessive homage to Kurosawa and others to make Star Wars but he also borrowed a lot from the Foundation series. Vader scouring the galaxy for the location of the hidden rebel base possibly owes much to this and some of the thrilling psychological combat and conflicts in the Emperor’s attempt with Vader to turn Luke also owes a lot to this. The uneasy relationship between Pritcher and Channis is compelling and the final scenes with more players magnify this into gripping combat in which hardly a muscle is moved. It also contains much of interest along the way such as the Interludes which depict Second Foundation members communicating with one another in a way that is practically, though not literally, psychic. To borrow a description from the next story, it is explained that Second Foundation speech must be translated:

It will be pretended therefore, that the First Speaker did actually say, “First, I must tell you why you are here,” instead of smiling just so and lifting a finger exactly thus.

On the downside, it seems to me that there is a logical glitch, and/or the Mule is described as being a little more powerful than we were previously given to understand and a detail of the final standoff may not be completely convincing to the hypercritical but, if anything, these are all pretty minor blemishes to a very good tale, though it’s somewhat modest compared to most other Foundation stories, being fairly simple and half the length of the novel-length tales around it. The reason for that is that Asimov enjoyed writing repeated puzzles like the Robot stories but didn’t enjoy writing the extremely complicated Foundation stories with their extended narrative connections and had intended to end the series with this. Fortunately, Campbell made him change the ending to be less conclusive and to write at least one more novel-length tale.

“…And Now You Don’t”

In book form, this appears as “The Search by the Foundation.” Set a generation after the Mule’s time, (specifically in 11,692 of the Galactic Era or 348 of the Foundation) it has two main threads. Precocious and willful fourteen-year-old Arcadia Darell, granddaughter of Bayta Darell (heroine of the story, “The Mule”) initially features in both of them. Through her, we get the backstory that has led to this point and meet the first of the conspirators to connect with her father, Toran. Because the Second Foundation is suspected to have interfered with the Mule, some citizens of the First Foundation are slipping into complacency, believing the Second Foundation will play fairy godmother at need while others feel a hatred for the group which may be running them like puppets. Arkady (as she prefers to be called) manipulates a boy into providing her with equipment she can use to spy on the conspirators’ meetings and develops plans of her own. When one of them, Homir Munn (a librarian and family friend), is sent to Kalgan, which had been the Mule’s imperial capital world, to see if anything about the Second Foundation can be learned there, Arkady stows away. In alternate shadowy scenes from the Second Foundation’s point of view, we learn that the Plan has been badly damaged by the Mule and is likely to fail utterly without their (mis)application of psychohistory to individuals in a much more aggressive and finely tuned way that has been their usual practice.

After the first third of the story, the second thread begins. Arkady and Munn arrive at Kalgan where they meet the current “First Citizen” (dictator), Stettin, and his mistress, Lady Callia. Things initially go in a middling fashion, with Munn failing to get permission to examine the shrine of the Mule from Stettin, but with Arkady managing to succeed with Callia, who then succeeds with Stettin after all. However, things go worse when Stettin decides, from Munn’s lack of progress, that there is no Second Foundation and decides he’s ready to make war on the Foundation, detaining Munn and deciding that Arkady will be a useful bride for him in a few years. This causes Callia to help Arkady escape Kalgan, during which Arkady learns a couple of things – not everything is as it seems and she believes she knows where the Second Foundation is, which she also believes puts her life at risk. She decides not to return home to Terminus, but flees to her birthplace of Trantor. On the verge of being captured by the Kalganian police, she’s befriended by a childless couple who were on an agricultural trade mission but are now returning to Trantor.

Past the halfway point, war breaks out and, as it usually does, it starts badly for the First Foundation. Very unusually, there is an on-screen space battle which is brief but effectively done. That is the climax of the purely physical story of Kalgan vs. the First Foundation but there is still the first thread of the partly-psychological story of the First Foundation vs. the Second Foundation to return to. In a way, the final sixth of the tale is an extended denouement but it does contain a scene akin to the murder mysteries in which all the suspects are gathered together and the detective details the crime and names the culprit, except that there are multiple would-be detectives. After a round-robin in which almost everyone claims they know the secret, the secret is finally revealed and matters come to a conclusion of what will be a rather brutal sort and the very brief true denouement follows.

(Both Asimov and his critics usually credit him for inventing the science fiction/mystery hybrid with the Robot novels but, really, most of his Robot stories and even these Foundation tales, especially this one, are at least puzzle stories and some are already essentially mystery hybrids. They may not have literal detectives explicitly solving murder cases but they are still formally mysteries. Instead of a whodunnit, this is a wherizit.)

While not apparent from this synopsis, one of the most striking things about this tale is its humor. It is a deadly serious story in essence but Arkady is a lively, charming character whose brilliance and naivete combine to produce humorous reactions in others as they tend to see her as a sort of tiny sorceress. But she’s an equally effective dramatic character. When she realizes she’s in over her head while trying to flee Kalgan, her emotional pain and feelings of isolation are very effectively drawn. Even through all this, she keeps her wits about her. While she is by far the most effective character of this tale, the deft character touches aren’t limited to her. For instance, the heartbreak one character feels when he finds out he’s not who he thought he was is a brief but powerful moment and takes what could be a conventional thing and skews it into perceptive originality, much like the internals of Pritcher being controlled by the Mule in earlier stories is unusual, putting the horror in the reader rather than in the controlled man, himself.

In a more general sense, this story continues to produce its mythico-historical resonances which is one of my favorite things about this series. Having starships named after famous characters featured in earlier stories, quoting famous sayings from leaders from centuries before, echoing dynamics from Earth’s own Roman, Roman Catholic, and other history, and much more, gives these tales the tangibility and power of 1776 and 1066 and all that. The thumbnail sketch here of Kalgan (joining those of Rossem, Trantor, Neotrantor, and others in earlier tales) also contributes to this effect.

While not necessarily virtues or flaws, there are a couple of odd views of science and human nature portrayed in this, though. One might view our power of speech as a great connecting force for humanity (though it obviously doesn’t work perfectly all the time even for people skilled in its use and especially not for those of us who aren’t) but it’s portrayed here as “the prison bars of ordinary speech” which isolate us from one another when a more immediate emotional reading of one another could unite us. There is also an oddly utilitarian view of science when a branch of science and the technology related to it which is developed in the story is seen as something that will become inactive and fade from memory because it’s seemingly useless but much of what drives science (as opposed to science grants) is pure love of knowledge and many developments arise from apparently useless things in unforeseen ways.

Moving on to flaws in this very enjoyable tale, the biggest is a structural one. Arkady is obviously the star and animating force until she leaves Kalgan, after which she only gets a single chapter and a brief scene. Given the nature of the unfolding plot, this is perhaps unavoidable, but it is also regrettable.

There are also either three main logical flaws in the story or three failures in my perception. Many readers may wish to skip the bullet points because all three may be irrelevant to them, the second approaches or crosses into spoiling the previous story, and the third one does the same to this story.

  • The whole notion of information on the Second Foundation being scarce except for Hari Seldon’s statement that it’s at the other end of the galaxy seems problematic. Leaving aside the specifics, I have to ask why Seldon would say even that much. If you’re creating a secret society to rule the galaxy, you shouldn’t say you’re creating a secret society to rule the galaxy. (This is almost certainly an artifact of Asimov making this up as he went along.)
  • The rise of the Second Foundation to prominence after dealing with the Mule in the previous story also bothers me. Since the only people in the room were the Mule himself, an unconscious and Converted Pritcher, and two Second Foundation agents, how could anything about the Second Foundation have gotten out? But perhaps we can grant that the Mule uncharacteristically laid out his suspicions to a Fleet commander before going to the planet’s surface and that got out somehow and grew in the telling.
  • Finally, whatever their resentment, how can anyone of the First Foundation think it wise to try to simply destroy the Second Foundation and feel confident in the Plan’s eventual success if they do so, when the whole point is that only they were able to stop something as unforeseeable as the Mule?

If you just accept the premises and can live with less Arkady in the back half of the story, though, this is a tremendously thought-provoking and entertaining tale which brings things to a good “pausing point” (suitable for either stopping or continuing) and it was to remain paused for about thirty-two years. Perhaps the clearest thing I can say about the value of this work is that my Centennial plan is to chronologically read Pebble in the Sky and the rest of Asimov’s books which include several masterpieces that I look forward to, yet I’m having to fight the urge to start on Foundation’s Edge right now.

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