Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Isaac Asimov has forever changed the landscape of science-fiction with the Foundation trilogy, tracing the attempt of relatively few humans to shorten an impending dark age of barbarism down to a thousand years.
In the second book, Foundation and Empire, we witness as the people of the Foundation face off against a dying but dangerous Empire, as well as the arrival of a threat even the Seldon Plan couldn’t predict.
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Isaac Asimov Raises a New Avatar
Even though some of the concepts and technologies presented in the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov may feel a little quaint by today’s standards, the pioneering work of science-fiction has retained its enviable status for the depths of the world, story and characters it presented.
Before proceeding to talk about the second novel of the series, titled Foundation and Empire, I would simply like to point out I recommend reading the previous book first, though it’s not entirely necessary (if you’re interested you can have a look at our Foundation review). I simply think anyone interested in this volume’s story would logically be quite curious about where it started.
In any case, the second novel begins not long after the first one ended, with the Foundation having survived the initial trials brought upon them by their neighbouring planets, living in a constant state of greed-driven war. While the first crisis seemed massive in its own right, it pales in comparison with the new one.
For starters, while the immense galactic Empire is dying and fading away piece by piece, it still remains the most powerful force in the universe. A new general has some ideas to rekindle the glory days of old, and his plans include the annihilation of the Foundation, for fear of its rapidly expanding powers.
Society is much more easily soothed than one’s own conscience.― Isaac Asimov, Foundation and Empire
Another spoke in the wheels of the Foundation comes a little later in the form of an unexpected factor which even the great Harry Seldon failed to predict. A man only known as “The Mule” has arrived, and word is travelling about the supernatural powers he holds, supposedly capable of bending any human being entirely to his will.
The First True Threat in Foundation and Empire
Looking back at the first book in the series, the conflicts faced by our heroes largely felt dramatic because it was still unclear whether or not the Plan established by Hari Seldon would indeed prove its worth. Once Seldon’s ability to accurately predict, and to an extent, plot the future was established, a certain sense of tension was lost.
This loss of tension shows in the first and shorter part of Foundation and Empire, following the General Bel Riose’s attempt at bringing the Empire back on the path to glory and domination. Though it does seem like there ought to be danger for us to worry about, it’s hard to do so seeing as how we know the course of history has been foretold.
This is even further reinforced when upon the conflict’s resolution the Foundationeers look back and analyze the events they’ve been through, only to realize no action was ever even required on their part. At this point, it feels like nothing can stop the Foundation from fulfilling its destiny.
Though I will personally admit I thought the first part fell a little flat in, at least in comparison with the standards which were set in Foundation, I think it gave a lot of impact to the second part of the book, where in my opinion the truly interesting story begins.
The rise of the Mule with his psychic powers is exactly the kind of twist the series needed, especially when it’s revealed Seldon never predicted his existence. For the first time, things are thrown off-course and the Plan which served us so well suddenly no longer seems viable. It felt to me like the appearance of the first legitimate threat to the Foundation, creating a new kind of excitement.
Narrowing Down the Focus
If there was one thing about the first book which held it back, it was the amount of short stories it was composed from (five in total). What’s more, each one was separated by a good deal of time, meaning we never really got invest ourselves in any of the characters, and it felt like just as we were starting to learn more about them, they left stage to be replaced by new ones.
By contrast, with this book only being composed of two stories, we really get the opportunity to spend some time characters I’d certainly qualify as memorable, largely focusing on Toran, Bayta, Ebling Mis, and Magnifico Giganticus, a jester formerly in the Mule’s service, now fleeing his master.
After all, the essential point in running a risk is that the returns justify it.― Isaac Asimov, Foundation and Empire
I think Asimov really put on display his talent for writing distinct and multilayered characters, who feel like they’re slowly changing and evolving along with the story’s events, even if its in ways only perceptible on an instinctual level. The added depth to the characters gave their stories a greater importance than being mere chapters in the Foundation’s history.
The mystery around the Mule’s identity and potential powers is also a strong driving force from start to finish, constantly feeding us very small and subtle clues until the revelations come about. The twist at the end relating to this part of the story is quite well implemented and certainly isn’t something every reader will manage to uncover.
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Additionally, Isaac Asimov also takes the time slowly expand upon the universe of the Foundation, starting us off on the search for the fabled Second Foundation, whose existence hasn’t even been observed. The introduction of this additional mystery did an excellent job at creating a bridge to the next chapter of the series while simultaneously avoiding a cliffhanger; the best of both worlds.
The Final Verdict
Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov is a fantastic sequel to the first book, building on its strengths and shoring up on its weaknesses. Placing a greater focus on the characters, the story also picks up in intensity as true threats and dangers begin to emerge, not to mention the astonishing finale.
If you’ve enjoyed the first book of the Foundation trilogy or are looking for a solid work of classic hard science-fiction, then I strongly suggest you give this book a read.
(January 2, 1920 – April 6, 1992)
Isaac Asimov was an American author and professor of biochemistry at Boston University who was best-known for his pioneering works of science-fiction.
Most notably, the Foundation trilogy as well as the Robot series earned him the 1966 Hugo Award for the all-time best series of science fiction and fantasy novels.