Although there are further sequels, Second Foundation is the last of Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy compiled from earlier stories published in magazines. While I started with a later prequel, I have no immediate plans to proceed to the sequels and will alternate back to non-fiction for the next book, treating this like the last entry in a single fictional work. I did bring up the question in my previous post as to whether “The General” should have more sensibly been lumped in with the first book while “The Mule” should have been grouped with the stories of Second Foundation. One thing I neglected at the time is relative size: The Mule was a longer story than The General published in multiple parts (and The General was already significantly longer than the individual stories of the first book). Second Foundation is also divided into two with the second story (“Search by the Foundation”) being significantly longer than the first (“Search by the Mule”). I can see reasoning for grouping the stories as originally collected: Foundation & Empire has two stories of the worthiest opponents the Foundation faced, even if the second story serves as a sort of reversal of the first. Second Foundation doesn’t actually have any representatives of the First Foundation as protagonists in the first story, instead focusing on The Mule & his lackeys with the Second Foundation as effectively the secretive antagonists to them. They retain that status well after The Mule is gone in the longer second story which brings back the First Foundation as protagonists out-of-their-depth like the Mule’s men had been. Search by the Mule only takes place 5 years after The Mule, which is a much shorter time than usual between Foundation stories (even if the continuation wasn’t as immediate as I expected), whereas Search by the Foundation takes place decades/generations later (a more similar gap). So chronologically, The Mule and Search by the Mule could have been grouped together, but even a story as long as Search by the Foundation might not be long enough to make up a novel by itself and Asimov stopped writing short Foundation stories after that (not counting “The Psychohistorians”).

I had mentioned before that The General was an exception to previous stories in that the antagonist got to be a fleshed out compelling (even noble, in a way) character we saw a lot of even if that deliberately made the Foundation heroes seem less heroic & important. The Mule is another such character, but for the Search we mostly see it through the eyes of his “Converted” General Han Pritcher from the previous story, who is now explicitly said to have gotten dull & unimaginative under his conditioning so he can have things explained to him (and thus the reader). There’s nothing mustache-twirling about him, unlike some previous people opposed to the Foundation, but being pitiable for what he’s been reduced to doesn’t make him an interesting person to follow around. There is Bail Channis as the upwardly-mobile non-Converted underling of the Mule assigned to help Han in the search, but he’s just the annoyingly arrogant twerp seen through Pritcher’s eyes rather than being a compelling protagonist himself. The Mule himself also appears on-page, but since he’s mostly off (partly so writers are still unaware of his highest level plans) he can’t serve as protagonist either, and I actually think he’s more present than can be justified on a Doylist basis. Rot13 for spoilers: Vs Gur Zhyr ynhapurq uvf fuvcf ntnvafg Gnmraqn cevbe gb ivfvgvat uvzfrys, jul qvq ur arrq gb pbzr gb Ebffrz ng nyy?

Interlaced with the main (and numbered) chapters of the Search we get “Interludes” describing meetings of the Second Foundation, although Asimov insists that their powers of communication are so beyond ours that he essentially has to translate them into legible dialogue. This comes across like an attempt to maintain their secrecy from the reader until the end (like how The Mule’s identity was a secret until the end of the previous book). And while the Second Foundation is said to be based on “psychology”, it bears hardly any resemblance to the field as we know it (notorious for the replication crisis and failing to actually improve mental health over the years). It might have been better if Asimov hadn’t even used that word and instead insisted it was something different, and perhaps this fictional discipline could be contrasted as genuinely “scientific” in terms of getting results. As it is, both the Mule and the Second Foundation come across like X-Men with superpowers than being grounded in science at all (even though Asimov himself was a scientist and he wrote genuine scifi rather than just space opera). Asimov tries to justify the powers of the latter (who are not mutants, of the Marvel variety or otherwise) writing “Actually, humans are capable of much more, but the faculty of direct emotional contact tended to atrophy with the development of speech a million years back. It has been the great advance of our Second Foundation that this forgotten sense has been restored to at least some of its potentialities”. A million years seems an underestimate if the Galactic Empire was around so long no one remembers on which planet humans originated.

It has been said that the lamest climax for a genre story is to end with the hero & villain both blasting different colored energy-beams at each other until one overpowers the other (Cronenberg’s Scanners lacks the colored visuals at its end, but is basically that). This story consists of text rather than images, so we get descriptions and even dialogue as opponents seek to outsmart each other (and demonstrate that they’d already planned for whatever action the other just took revealed), which elevates it a bit above such cliches but it’s still not as good as the more grounded ways the Foundation characters previously boxed in whoever was behind the latest Seldon Crisis. At best, it reminded me of the Man in Black vs Vizzini in “The Princess Bride”, but that’s a relatively short comic bit in the middle of larger novel rather than the climax of a story resolving the cliffhanger of the previous book. Part of my reduced enjoyment of this (and even moreso the next) story might reflect having been spoiled as to the location of the Second Foundation from reading Josh Wimmer’s review of Prelude prior to the original trilogy.

Setting aside the knowledge I shouldn’t have, I don’t think the geographic depiction of the Second Foundation makes much sense given how long they’ve been around and an analogy to the First Foundation. The First Foundation started out relatively helpless but managed to grow in the face of somewhat weak “barbarous” neighbors until it grew strong enough to take on the Empire. A Second Foundation which did not similarly invest in political capacity (or instead avoided being concentrated in a specific location) would get overrun by the vicissitudes of the politics around it well before they developed their powers anywhere near to the level of the Mule.

I mentioned in my review of the previous book/story that it was unclear why a victory for the Mule would be such a bad thing from the perspective of the Foundation. By the end of that story the Mule had conquered the Foundation on Terminus, and the prediction I quoted about what would happen as a result is what happens between “Search by the Mule” and “Search by the Foundation”: the Mule died of natural causes years later and his successors indeed failed to keep his empire together without his powers. So what were the actual stakes for the Second Foundation “defeating” the Mule? It wasn’t to preserve the First Foundation, since the Mule had no intention of destroying something valuable he could control, and Terminus quickly became independent of Kalgan’s Empire after the Mule died. If it was to preserve the Second Foundation itself, how much does that actually matter if they weren’t necessary against the Mule otherwise, and afterward their big problem was the fear that knowledge of their possible existence (even though Seldon had openly stated he created two Foundations at opposite ends of the galaxy) which of course wouldn’t have been a problem if Seldon had never created them & written about them in the first place. Was it just to waste the Mule’s time on the Search between conquering Terminus and his natural death? That short amount of time (considering how quickly his legacy was undone) hardly seems that significant. Similarly, since the Foundation had already started developing internal problems by the time of The Mule, we should have little reason to think the same rot couldn’t return even if the text of the last story is full of optimism on that front.

If the problem with Search by the Mule is the lack of a traditional Foundation protagonist, the opposite is the case for Search by the Foundation. The new aspiring Emperor on Kalgan is obviously puffed-up by delusions from the beginning and never a serious threat to the revived Foundation on Terminus (nor is he actually intended to be). The men of the First Foundation (from where we get our decent protagonists) regard the hidden hand of the Second Foundation as the bigger risk, but the latter are never antagonistic enough to serve that role (and I’m someone unusually averse to singletons), and with them being almost undetectable one wonders how much they actually matter. The standout protagonist is Arkady Darell, granddaughter of Bayta from The Mule, precisely because she thinks of her actions in terms of the heightened tropes of fiction that Asimov normally scoffs at. Pritcher in the previous story disparaged even ostensible non-fiction written in the mode more common in narratives:

“Where history concerns mainly personalities, the drawings become either black or white according to the interests of the writer. I find it all remarkably useless.”

I had to tip my hat-off to Asimov that he can have the audience simultaneously on-board and invested in Arkady’s adventures while keeping in mind how reality differs from fiction and justifying the improbable events (with her usually achieving her objectives) that keep her narrative motoring. It’s more entertaining than repeatedly being told during The General that the hijinks were all pointless because the Seldon Plan trumps everything. There did seem to be a little inconsistency here in the First Speaker in this story saying that “for the first time in the history of the Plan, it is possible for the unexpected actions of a single ordinary individual to destroy it”, since Bayta Darrell was also a single ordinary woman and we’re supposed to believe her actions regarding the Mule changed history.

The most satisfying thing about the reveal of the Second Foundation was the acknowledgement that the Seldon Plan was incomplete, and that the men of the SF were able to improve it because (having the advantage of hindsight rather than just foresight) more information was available to them. This was fitting with Asimov’s Whig tendencies from the first book in which the old triumphs are repeatedly torn down to make way for the new. The odd thing though is that, as Josh Wimmer’s review for this story makes clear, that should put the secret anti-Second cabal on Terminus in a similar position to Salvor Hardin not being content with assuming the Seldon Plan would protect him without his own actions to obtain agency, only now they are in the position of the Encyclopedists who can’t hope to think on the level of a psychohistorian like Seldon himself or the men of the other Foundation with their training in “psychology”. Hardin got to be a hero twice over because there were actual stakes/threats to the Foundation early on, but at this point when triumph seems inevitable everything amounts to just being a fun page-turner.

One slightly surprising thing from my read of Asimov’s politics was the Second Foundation’s diagnosis that disaster would ensue if some rival political factions in the First Foundation came to a compromise, since a clear preference for peace and commerce over war was evinced by the Foundation triumphing early on while avoiding traditional military victories. But then Salvor Hardin came to power via a coup rather than compromise and the depiction of internal politics often involved Hardin or Mallow heroically bulldozing over rivals rather than compromising. For all it’s intellectualism, politics is somewhat reduced to “thumos”, and that’s the reason the specter the Second Foundation fears is men being aware of their rule and resenting it even though they are completely selfless & nigh-infallible. Going back to Wimmer’s review again, I was reminded of this quote by Bob Black from his “My Anarchism Problem”:

Bakunin’s “invisible government” of anarchist militants is, at best, a poor choice of words, especially on the lips of a Freemason

I suspect Asimov’s real reason for not wanting overt domination by the Second Foundation is that he himself would get bad vibes from the idea, rather than actually finding it unworkable. For all the talk about how subtlety is necessary for them, the Mule didn’t act that way and things worked out quite well for him for the most part. They may not have the innate mutant powers of the Mule, but their greater numbers gives them redundancy and by assumption (which I questioned above) they were able to persist long enough to develop their capacities and could presumably cement an iron grip more capable than one Bryan Caplan fears, perhaps reminiscent of Zamyatin’s dystopia “We” (which I suppose I really ought to read ahead of the line prior to another scifi dystopia).

It’s at the very end of this story that the actual location of the Second Foundation is revealed, and as I have noted I was already spoiled on that much earlier. There are some quibbles I still have with the manner in which it’s revealed here and some of that will involve spoilers I’ll have to rot13. The know-it-all First Speaker exposits (Asimov even says its to himself and not necessarily to a character that needs to here it) “The solution would have been reached immediately, if the questioners had but remembered that Hari Seldon was a social scientist, not a physical scientist”. I have to call foul after starting this series with Prelude, in which Seldon was a mathematician ignorant of social sciences who had to learn from the historian Dors Venabili about the complexities of people, and the one actual psychologist he encountered mostly just got him mixed up in a disastrous meteorology experiment when Seldon was opening up to the idea of a science of psychohistory being at all practical. Yes, I know it was a retcon written later, but this inconsistency is all on Asimov and not really all that subtle. And regarding the simpler question a physical scientist would have in mind, I must now encipher for spoilers: vf gur bccbfvgr raq bs n “qbhoyr fcveny” ernyyl ng gur pragre engure guna ng gur raq bs gur bccbfvgr fcveny?