Friday, 2 May 2008

Book: Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov

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.


Uri said...

What do you have against Agatha Christie? Just how many of her books have you read, anyway?

And back to Asimov – writing science fiction mysteries is hard (read the introduction to Caves of Steel again, of the afterwards for the Gil Hamilton book, if you can find it).

Moshe Reuveni said...

You're right. Last time I read Christie I was probably 12. The thing I don't like about her books (or rather, the movies based on her books) is that they're essentially a continuous deception story in which you're not really provided with all the details required to know who the killer is but are still constantly teased about it.
Asimov is different though, at least here. The question of who the Second Foundation is is indeed central to the plot, but there's more to the book than that (e.g., the idea of being able to tell what people will do).

I should probably try to put my short hand on Gil Hamilton. Last I searched for it in the shops I couldn't find it. Not that I thought it was a great book; I remember it mostly because I've mentioned it in my Bagrut essay.

Uri said...

Flatlander is available on Amazon.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Does it include the original? Not that I think I'll be getting it.

BTW, talking flat lands, a review of Flatland the film is on its way.

Uri said...

It includes the four stories we had in the Hebrew edition, and one more. I heard that the last one is kinda bad, but who cares?

Moshe Reuveni said...

Well, I just put my hands on a copy of Flatlander. With this week's 30% Borders voucher it was too attractive to avoid at $11.
I might actually start reading (as opposed to putting it on the very large "to do" pile), as I'm just about to finish reading a rather disappointing book and it would be nice to give Mr Hamilton a go while he's still fresh in my mind.

That said, a curse on you if I find the book as boring as I remember it to be. My taste did change since high school, though.