The first Foundation novel was a true anthology, entirely consisting of short stories, only the first of which was newly written for the book rather than previously appearing in a magazine. Foundation and Empire moves away from that in that it’s still multiple stories, all of which appeared in print earlier, but there are just two of them and they are each of novella length with ten internal chapters. Each is now named after an antagonist to the Foundation who engages in the most successful military attack so far, but the first of these (“The General”) is more in keeping with the earlier stories than the other (“The Mule”). Arguably, The General should have been included in the first Foundation collection, serving as the final story in that mold (even if it’s a much longer version of one) which states definitively what is to happen with each “Seldon Crisis”. The Mule is not only almost double the length of The General (and it was published in two parts, in two sequential issues of the magazine), it ends on a cliffhanger to be resolved in the stories of the final entry in the trilogy. Thus it arguably should have been included with them (though I admittedly haven’t read them yet), forming a single coherent novel like Prelude was and unlike the short stories separated in time format.

It’s fitting at least that The General is named after the antagonist rather than the most prominent Foundation members (the pattern in the first book), because we get far more of his POV than any prior antagonist, and the leaders of the Foundation themselves cease to be interesting. Bel Riose is supposed to be named after Bellisarius, and at this point the fact that I haven’t read Gibbon (or even Graves, though I have seen “I, Claudius”) on the Roman (or Byzantine) empire felt more glaring (similar to the feeling that got my on my current scifi kick). Previous antagonists did not resemble real people so much as mustache-twirling cartoons, with the Commdor in The Merchant Princes and regent in The Mayors being the ones I recall getting any POV however paltry compared to that of the heroes. Riose is stated upfront to be regarded as competent by the heirs of the Foundation that recall the fight against him, and he also comes across as quite honorable (although his desire for glory via victory for the Empire is not exactly utilitarian, though it could fit a virtue ethic). I recently came across an enthusiast for Iain Banks’ “Culture” series of scifi novels in the comments of Astral Codex Ten, and while I haven’t read those either I’m aware that one of the most well known entries is from the perspective of a doomed enemy of the ever-victorious Culture (I think it might be the first one). If I’m right about that, then both it and The General long predate Admiral Thrawn from Timothy Zahn’s novels in what used to be the expanded Star Wars universe (getting lower brow here, and I haven’t read those either).

Thrawn, from what I vaguely recall talking to childhood friends more into Star Wars, was a remnant of the Imperial military structure fighting back after the Empire had been defeated and the Emperor himself killed. There hasn’t been quite that big a change between The Merchant Princes (when avoiding outright conflict with the Galactic Empire was the motivation for not throwing everything at the Commdor) and The General, but the Empire is no longer as inconceivable an opponent as it once was and Riose’s closest confidant is the offspring of a character from the previous story who is convinced of the Seldon Plan guaranteeing victory for the Foundation. This permits Riose to function like an underdog struggling against fate from his POV, while the captured Foundation trader Lathan Devers can be an even smaller underdog from his own perspective when the chapter is from his POV. It’s important that he be a nobody who can claim (even disingenuously) that he doesn’t care who wins or loses between the Empire and Foundation, because Asimov’s sense of social laws means that the Foundation comes to resemble the Empire once it grows to the point of rivaling it, so there are no longer heroic leaders (or even potential ones) after Hober Mallow. This tendency toward ossification in both stories (more pronounced in the next one, where more takes place on Terminus) struck me as a little odd, since the Empire itself didn’t start declining until after it had been around for so many thousands of years that its fall was inconceivable.

As I stated in my previous review, having heroic POV characters like Mallow or Devers here is somewhat at odds with the explicit conception of the series as being based on psychohistory, and this is the story most focused on that argument. Riose himself, who aspires to an historically important figure, dismisses the usual tropes of fiction by saying “I am a soldier, not a cleft-chinned, barrel-chested hero of a subetheric trimensional thriller”, even though the idea he’s dismissing is basically what Mallow did in the previous story. The passive/rebellious aristocrat Ducem Barr argues against Devers pulling off a gambit similar to earlier Foundation heroes by saying “For the Galaxy’s sake, man, you can’t beat a Seldon crisis by a far-fetched, impractical, storybook scheme like that. […] Seldon doesn’t depend on wild luck”. The thing, Asimov is aware that the story is interesting if readers don’t think that way and are invested in what the characters do as actually having an impact. There’s a reason most fiction is written that way, rather than everything being the inevitable result of social forces! At the end he can still subvert Devers and side with Barr in having all their actions wind up being irrelevant because the core characteristics of the Empire ensure the result they’re working for, but even if the ride along the way was enjoyable that end can still feel like more of a letdown than JRR Tolkien having Gollum’s lust for the One Ring be what perversely guarantees its destruction rather than those tasked with it, or (getting lower brow) the Ark of the Covenant rather than anything Indiana Jones did actually defeating the Nazis. At least those can feel like victories for the heroes, whereas Devers’ conclusion (the first in the series not to be upwardly mobile) is only intended to magnify cynicism.

If The General was the ultimate Foundation story that would make all subsequent stories feel pointless, The Mule turns it on its head by contradicting what we’d just learned. The Foundation can be beaten, relying on the Seldon Plan doesn’t work because Seldon turns out to be wrong in his predictions for the first time, and a single individual rather than large social forces really can change history. Asimov’s editor John W. Campbell forced him to come up with an exception to his rules, and the result was what’s considered to be the best Foundation story, the one that won a retro-Hugo after that organization decided to recognize the best stories preceding their first year. I said before that Prelude might have been the better story to adapt to TV, but this trumps that by virtue of not relying on Easter eggs for long-time fans (who knows if the Apple series will ever get to this). We’re back to being deprived of the antagonist’s POV, mostly just sticking with a married couple (if one is to be designated protagonist, it would be Bayta, the first notable female character in the series) on a mission to undermine the Foundation/Mayor via provoking the titular warlord before finding he’s a far bigger problem than their now-monarchical government. The Mule himself is kept mysterious, with the characters wondering what kind of person could be the exception to all those rules learned earlier and who can repeatedly accomplish the seemingly impossible. Here the fact that I read Prelude first meant that the nature of his mutation (besides that which resulted in his nickname, and which I’d already heard about) wasn’t a novelty in this universe, but on the other hand this order meant that the climax of Prelude was more of a surprise.

The identity of the Mule also wasn’t that surprising not too far into the story, but since the characters themselves lampshade the odd pattern of his easy victories vs difficult fights I don’t think it was supposed to be completely out of nowhere. If anything, my cynical perspective meant the surprise at the end was the defeat that the Mule himself regards as minor amidst a cliffhanger ending more defeatist than the Empire Strikes Back. The feeling of defeatism is even part of the text of the story as helping ensure the Foundation’s actual defeat, and when formerly opposed characters rationally explain to the remaining resistance that it’s pointless against the proverbial Irresistible Force, it’s convincing. I suppose the later scifi example of an enemy that converts everyone in its path would be the Borg, but Star Trek is supposed to be optimistic left-Whiggery, and this is more like the inevitable triumph of death in George Romero’s “* of the * Dead” movies.

I did wonder what was so much worse about the Mule (who appears to be creating a Second Empire at a faster pace) vs the status quo of the Foundation (from the POV of the Foundation itself abstracted from current leadership, a la Seldon himself), and there is an attempt at an answer from one character:

“And even if by some chance the Mule did not establish a dynasty, he would still establish a distorted new Empire upheld by his personal power only. It would die with his death; the Galaxy would be left where it was before he came, except that there would no longer be Foundations around which a real and healthy Second Empire could coalesce. It would mean thousands of years of barbarism. It would mean no end in sight.”

I didn’t find that completely convincing, because the Foundation itself had lost much of its dynamism by that point and the technical competence it had preserved would seem to survive the death of the Mule (whose lifespan would still be limited to the usual). Any political structure intended to be preserved had already been destroyed by the time that quote appeared. Any hope is supposed to be in a supposed “Second Foundation”, and while that’s the title of the next book, this one ends with no evidence any such thing exists (as I mentioned before, I was spoiled by one of Wimmer’s reviews about it, but I’m ignoring that spoiler here) or non-Doylist reason to think it would still matter.

The reason that Seldon fails to predict that the Mule would knock his plan off-course is because the Mule is inhumanly special, plus he’s an individual and psychohistory was never supposed to predict individuals rather than masses. As noted in my last review, someone like Genghis Khan alone would seem to contradict that, and the Mule is basically the Genghis of this world… or perhaps another Scourge of God like Attila since the Mongols (and Tamerlane’s Timurids, for that matter) established some political orders that lasted a while rather than just being one remarkable person. Perhaps since they achieved power by means other than a genetic fluke their political backing is assumed to have a greater tendency to endure? But really psychohistory just seems increasingly implausible as time goes on.

There is actually an acknowledgement that “as time passed that margin [of probabilistic error in Seldon’s Plan] increases in geometric progression”, but since Hari Seldon’s first erroneous announcement states “For the first three centuries the percentage probability of nondeviation [from the Plan] is nine-four point two” that indicates the initial certainty which got multiplied by itself 300 times must have been about 99.98008531510142. That minimizing of the effects of scale (like in how much longer the Galactic Empire lasted vs Rome) also shows up in how characters visiting distant planets they were long out of contact with merely have different accents rather than difficulty understanding each other. I’ve complained about how George R. R. Martin had the same language spoken both north of the Wall, and at the southern tip of a continent the size of South America and settled for thousands of years, but at least he had multiple other languages spoken on a different continent. The Galactic Empire’s linguistic uniformity is an ever clearer example of requiring the Doylist explanation of ease of writing.

Having the whole book end midway through a larger story was less satisfying than the more self-contained previous one, but I already know the follow-up finishing the trilogy was published shortly after and is available for me to read next. In that respect, at least, the late Asimov has one up on the currently-living GRRM.