Lowdown: At last, the truth about the Second Foundation?
It’s been a long time but it was worthwhile: it took me two years to revisit Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy, featuring his second most famous idea after his robotic laws: that in the grand scheme of things, human bahavior can be calculated using mathematical formulas in a similar way to the way we calculate the trajectory of a missile.
The Foundation series follows the Foundation, a world of scientists created by a genius who forecasted them to be the saviors of the galaxy’s civilization following the immanent collapse of its corrupt central rule. The first book followed the Foundation as it established itself through a set of previously forecasted crises that, by design, had to inevitably finish off with a Foundation win. The second book pitted the Foundation against a mutant that could not have been forecasted, and it was taken over; now, with the third book, we learn how a Second Foundation – made of mind reading psychologists - comes in to save the day for the first Foundation. Then, in the second half of the book, the Second Foundation fights for its own life against the first Foundation, now afraid to find itself under the control of mind readers.
Essentially, Second Foundation is a murder mystery type book. The mystery is not who the killer is but rather who the Second Foundation is; the rest is essentially the same. Like a good Agatha Christie mystery (conceptually speaking, of course, as there is no such thing as a good Agatha Christie mystery) the book exposes us to a wide range of characters, perhaps too many as I had problems tracking who’s who. Each of those characters seems more suspicious than the other, and eventually – as they say – “it’s always the one you least suspect”. Written in Asimov’s typical rough but effective style, Second Foundation presents a good thrill that is only solves in the book’s very last words. By being yet another murder mystery, however, one cannot say Second Foundation is anything special.
That, however, is not the end of the book’s story. The real fascination of the book comes from the type of mystery it indulges in when Asimov opens the wide door of mind controlling psychologists. After all, the advantage science fiction has over other genres is in its ability to credibly present extreme situations that will not pass with normal fiction. Throughout the book, you and the characters are always in a dilemma: How can they tell what is real? How can they tell whether they are in control of their own actions? Taken out of the story’s context, the grand question is how much of what we do is done because of our initiative and how much of what we do is done because we are programmed / destined to act in a certain way. Then again, is there a difference between the approaches in the first place?
And that, my friends, is what the thrill is all about.
Overall: Second Foundation is good but not as good as the series’ opener. I’ll be hard on Asimov and give it just 3.5 out of 5 stars, but I would also warmly recommend the classic Foundation trilogy to anyone wishing to indulge in high quality, thought provoking, science fiction.