Third Time’s The Same Old Boring Stuff: Isaac Asimov – Second Foundation

My opinion of Isaac Asimov, his writing abilities, and his position as one of the greats of science fiction, wasn’t that great to begin with. But reading the Foundation Trilogy (which was later turned into a longer series) pretty much makes me question earlier generations and their taste in fiction. I also don’t get how publishers let Asimov get away with writing the same story three times and publishing it as if it’s something new…

by Isaac Asimov

Published: Harper Voyager, 1953
227 pages
Foundation #3
My rating:

Opening line: The First Galactic Empire had endured for tens of thousands of years.

When the First Foundation was conquered by a force Seldon had not foreseen – the overwhelming power of a single individual, a mutant called the Mule – the second Foundation was forced to reveal its existence and, infinitely worse, a portion of its power. One man understood the shifting patterns of the inhabited cosmos. This was Hari Seldon, the last great scientist of the First Empire.

The mathematics of psychohistory enabled Seldon to predict the collapse of the Empire and the onset of an era of chaos and war. To restore civilization in the shortest possible time, Seldon set up two Foundations. The First was established on Terminus in the full daylight of publicity. But the Second, at the other end of the galaxy , took shape behind a veil of total silence.

Because the Second Foundation guards the laws of psychohistory, which are valid only so long as they remain secret. So far the second Foundation’s location, its most closely guarded secret of all, has been kept hidden. The Mule and the remnants of the First Foundation will do anything to discover it. This is the story of the Second Foundation.

Wow, I can’t believe this got published the way it did and that people actually ate that shit up… I have rarely read such an overhyped, totally undeserveing of its acclaim, classic as this.
Asimov spends pages upon pages re-explaining the same thing to us, over and over again. That thing is the Foundation, how it came to be, and its purpose. So basically the first chapter of the first book. You’ll get to read that crap in every single Foundation book and also have every character explain it to another character several times throughout that book. Which doesn’t leave all that many pages for, you know, an actual new story. And that’s because Asimov really doesn’t have a new story to tell, he just wanted to milk this idea he had for all it was worth.

This impression is only strenghtened by the fact that each book ends with a sort of cliffhanger. The follow-up book then adresses the rest of this story and only then starts a new larger story arc. Which, again, is finished only in the next book. So I guess Asimov wasn’t lying in his introduction, when he said he wanted to make sure they’d publish another book by him. He pulled the same trick (how very clever) several times to get book deals. Now if only he were a proper storyteller. Alas, all he can do is repeat himself.

So Second Foundation begins with the finale to the Mule story arc which made me angry in so many ways, and only then begins a new story, which actually has to do with the Second Fondation that Hari Seldon said he would set up “at the other end of the galaxy”. At this point, it really wasn’t clear whether Second Foundation was good because its people are a safety net for the first Foundation working the way it should, or whether Second Foundation was the enemy and needed to be defeated by the first Foundation so the first Foundation can take over the galaxy. And ultimately, as the goal is always and exclusively world domination, I couldn’t care either way and I hated the premise. I don’t want to root for anyone in these books because the characters all have the same personality anyway and nothing they do makes any difference.

The problem is that Asimov was so in love with this trope one of his that he turned it up to eleven making anything that happens essentially worthless. You see, when every chapter is one person being secretly so much cleverer than the other person and then, in the end, explaining how they tricked the other person, that can be fun once or maybe twice. That’s all the first book was, chapter after chapter. But if every chapter works that way, it gets old fast. And if – like in Second Foundation – you do this Batman Gambit within a Batman Gambit three times in a row, it really loses all value. What was the point of reading this story if none of what happened, none of the character actions, mean anything?Because it turns out, everyone who outsmarted someone else was in turn outsmarted by yet another player in the endless game that doesn’t even have stakes. Because remind me what the point of all this is? Building a Galactic Empire again in 1000 instead of 30000 years. In the meantime, people are living on various planets, science and technology are evolving, politics are politicking, and so on… And because Hari Seldon’s plan is basically infallible, nothing any one person does can change the course of history anyway. So WHAT’S THE POINT of telling meaningless “stories” set in this world??

Speaking of the world. I had to think of a certain Sad Puppy argument from a few years ago that, back then, science fiction still used to be about science and epic space battles, and sense of wonder and ideas. And I can now definitely say that they can’t have meant Asimov with that. Because there is no world building whatsoever. People are said to live on different planets but there is neither any difference between these planets (other than the fucking weather), nor is there anything much to travelling between them. Who needs science, after all? Distances in the galaxy? Just say “parsec” and “lightyear” a lot and it will sound spacey and sciencey… And then the whole premise of this book is a group of magicians threatening the Foundations. I’m serious, the Second Foundation, which is supposed to consist of nothing but psychologists, can basically mind-control people… with “science”. Don’t make me laugh!
And that doesn’t even take into account the convenient ease with which new inventions are brought about just when needed. Any character either just has had a magical gimmick all along or just quickly invents it because he needs it to defeat the current bad guy. Who will turn out to have been a good guy after all, controlled by the real bad guy. Who then turns out to have been outwitted by someone else. Does it seem like I’m a bit tired of the trope? Because I really am.

Seriously, the more I think about this series, the stupider it is. Asimov’s one cool idea basically ruined any story told within that world because it preempts the outcome. Just for a moment, when he actually made a 14-year-old girl named Arcadia one of the main characters, a proper protagonist in her own right, I got interested again. But the casual mysogyny and ultimate meaninglessness of Arcadia’s cleverness destroyed all pleasure I might have felt.
Oh and it’s not just mysogyny here. There is a tremendous amount of hate directed at all sorts of people. Old people, young people, and especially people with physical deformities. Neurodiverse people are called names and completely disregarded as if they’re not even human. I mean, the whole idea behind the Mule is that he’s too skinny and has a large nose and that’s why he was bullied and now wants to take over the Galaxy… And it’s equally terrifying that being physically unattractive is apparently bad enough in Asimov’s world to make someone a “monster” and a “freak” in everyone’s eyes.

So yeah, I have very little to say about this that’s good. I did honestly enjoy a part in the middle of this book when Arcadia went on an adventure, but as all that happened to her, turned out to have been for nothing, that doesn’t really save the book. And as in his third book, Asimov still hasn’t learned how to write a story, how to create characters or an interesting world, I don’t see much reason to continue this series. That said, the next book did win a Best Novel Hugo Award and it was written 30 years later. So I have the tiniest glimmer of hope that even someone as full of himself as Asimov may have learned a thing or two in that time. The hope is slim, however, so if I ever do read that fourth book, it will be a long time until I find the motivation for that…

MY RATING: 3.5/10 – Bad

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