Foundation and Empire
by Isaac Asimov
Spectra, originally published 1952
It’s weird. I think this is a “better” novel than the first, though it is not as “interesting” or impactful as the original Foundation novel, hence the lower rating. I appreciate how Asimov, in this book breaks the formula of his previous book a bit. It doesn’t cover as much time, it’s not as many small stories, but a few larger chunks of narrative. So rather than feeling like a short story collection, it feels more like a proper novel.
In this book, we continue the history of the Foundation–the eponymous organization created in the first book as a haven for human knowledge in anticipation of the Galactic Empire’s imminent collapse.
The first book saw the Foundation come out victorious over several enemies due to the careful planning of the mathematician-prophet Hari Seldon, who anticipated a series of what became known as “Seldon Crises” based on the natural profession of nations. In this book–again, following historical precedence–we see what happens after the Foundation becomes the de facto Empire, having conquered those competing interests in volume 1 to find themselves now looking very much like Empire they hated.
We see another few Seldon Crises and how the Foundation and its leader navigate them according to Seldon Providence. How these stories play out are always fun and fascinating with interesting twists and reveals along the way.
But the real meat of the book follows the introduction of a person who could not have been factored into Seldon’s original formulae that anticipated humanity’s history. And so, “the plan” get thrown off course. Or does it? Previous entries maintained a sense that all that was happening was according to the “plan”. But not here. For the first time in the series, our humans encounter real and genuine uncertainty, and a fascinating exploration of free will and providence.
These are heady ideas, told in beautiful prose, even if a little opaque sometimes. I do feel like–to a greater degree than in the first book–each story takes quite a while before you get your bearings. I can appreciate Asimov’s “show, don’t tell” commitment and dropping us in res media, but he really just starts each story off without us having much of a clue of the who/what/when of the story and trusting us to figure it out.
Again, I respect it. And I admittedly could have been a slower, more attentive reader to have a better sense. But still, as an experience, I regularly lost track of names, events, and plot lines and just barrelled on through trusting I’d get back on track eventually. And I did. But it could be a frustrating process.
Asimov’s “Foundation and Empire” is a worthy follow-up to the original. It changes and switches the formula enough that it is fresh, and it slows down the pace so we can sit with some characters for quite a bit of time, and even has more action. I look forward to the installments to come.