Wednesday, July 11, 2012

On the Coffee Table: Second Foundation

Title: Second Foundation
Author: Isaac Asimov

Image via Solomon Says

The original Foundation series ended with this volume, originally published in novel form in 1953.  It would be nearly thirty years before Asimov finally published a sequel.  Here are my two previous posts on the series:

On the Coffee Table: Isaac Asimov
On the Coffee Table: Foundation and Empire

While the Foundation series has provided a blue print for other futuristic empires, it's very different from the standard science fiction/fantasy fare.  It's not exactly an adventure tale.  One story often takes place a generation or more after the one before it with an entirely new cast of characters.  Highly consequential space battles are glossed over.  Instead, the plot moves forward with what are essentially conversational chess matches.  The fate of mankind is decided not so much by military exercise as through the intellectual sparring of academics and politicians. 

The pervasive theme of the narrative is the centuries-old philosophical/religious debate over free will vs. predestination.  The citizens of the Foundation are guided and, they believe, protected by the Seldon Plan put forth by their founder and patriarch as the Old Galactic Empire began to crumble.  The two stories in Second Foundation, Part I: Search by the Mule and Part II: Search by the Foundation, address the meddling of first the enigmatic Mule (a sort of Alexander the Great/Napoleon mash up) and then the mysterious, secretive Second Foundation at the other end of the Galaxy. 

The second story, in particular, gets highly technical in Asimov's invented science of psychohistory, the prediction of the future of galactic society through mathematical analysis.  It is this idea, in particular, which made the Foundation story different.  Though now, the concept that people's mass reactions are quantifiable and predictable hardly seems revolutionary at all.  Billions are spent daily in both public and private enterprise under precisely that assumption, even if it can't be managed with quite the precision of Asimov's characters (let's hope).

Asimov's greatest gift as a writer was taking complicated ideas and making them accessible to the average reader.  His highly prolific career went far beyond fiction.  Most of his 500+ books were non-fiction, many of them in science but he was not shy about taking on other subjects like history, religion and Shakespeare.  His fiction, even in its highly technical moments, manages to affect a conversational tone.  As a result, he's able to keep stories moving at a respectable pace.  Keep a dictionary handy, though.

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