Been rather preoccupied recently with life, but I finally have a moment to catch up on a bit of my book blogging, including discussing the “final” two books of Asimov’s classic Foundation series, namely, Foundation’s Edge (1982) and Foundation and Earth (1986). I have previously written about the first book Foundation as well as the complete trilogy of books, finished in 1953.
I wrote “final” in quote above because, although these are the final two books chronologically in the fictional Foundation universe, they are not the last two books that Asimov would write. Two prequels to the original novel would follow: Prelude to Foundation (1988) and Forward the Foundation (1993). But Edge and Earth would be the last novels that would advance the history of the Foundation and hint at its ultimate fate.
Some spoilers for the earlier novels are somewhat necessary to discuss these books, so be sure to read the earlier ones before reading this post!
As a refresher: the Foundation series concerns itself with the 1,000 year period between the collapse of the old Galactic Empire and the predicted rise of a new, more stable and prosperous Empire. The decline of the old Empire was foreseen by scientist Hari Seldon, who developed the new discipline of psychohistory that can predict the behavior of massive collections of people as a whole. Seldon set up the Foundation to manipulate events such that the expected 30,000 year Dark Age following the Empire’s fall would be reduced to a mere 1,000 years. Along the way, however, Seldon has also predicted a series of crises — later named, naturally, “Seldon crises” — that would endanger the Foundation. However, the Seldon Plan also had mechanisms built into it so that these crises would be naturally, even inevitably, solved before catastrophe.
In the first book, Foundation, this is how things proceed. A number of Seldon crises arise and are resolved through the actions of brave individuals who are clever enough to take advantage of the forces that Seldon set into motion. At the beginning of the second book, Foundation and Empire, the remains of the old Empire attempt to destroy the Foundation, but are again thwarted by Seldon’s Plan.
However, then something happens that Seldon could not predict: a psychic mutant, known as the Mule, rises to power. The Mule, with the ability to control people’s emotions, conquers the Foundation, seemingly wrecking the Seldon Plan for good.
This is where things stand at the beginning of Second Foundation. It had been hinted in the earlier books that Seldon had in fact established two Foundations, at “opposite ends of the galaxy.” The Second Foundation is secretive and widely considered to be a myth, but when the Mule threatens to conquer the entire galaxy, they spring into action. Masters of psychic manipulation themselves, they manage to defeat the Mule in a wonderfully dramatic confrontation, and set the Seldon Plan back on course. This is, in fact, their mission: Seldon knew that random events could cause danger for the Plan, so the Second Foundation works to make secret and subtle corrections to history and society to keep it on its intended path.
The Mule’s defeat, however, reveals the existence of the Second Foundation to the galaxy, though their location and membership remains hidden. The First Foundation decides that the Second must be a threat, and seeks to destroy them. By the end of Second Foundation, they seem to have succeeded: however, this turns out to have itself been a trick by the master manipulators of the Second, who can now continue their work unobserved.
Foundation’s Edge takes place about 100 years after Second Foundation, and 500 years after the establishment of the Foundation itself. A hotheaded young member of the Foundation’s Council, Golan Trevize, is convinced that the Second Foundation still exists and remains a threat. When he tries to make a public proclamation to this effect, however, he is quickly shut down by the powerful mayor of the Foundation, Harla Branno, who banishes him from the homeworld Terminus.
Branno actually agrees with Trevize, however, and is sending him away so he can hunt for the Second Foundation. Officially, Trevize is sent on a quest to find the location of humanity’s original home, Earth, whose location was lost to history thousands of years previously. Trevize is accompanied by an archaeologist and scholar of Earth, Janov Pelorat, and the two of them scour the galaxy for their respective targets.
Branno is secretly keeping tabs on Trevize’s progress, in case he succeeds. At the same time, the Second Foundation is keeping tabs on both of them, and working to deal with both of them. However, a third force, more powerful than either of the Foundations, has been manipulating events from afar. In the end, the two Foundations and this mysterious group will collide, and the fate of the entire galaxy will come down to a single decision made by a single man.
The beauty of the Foundation novels is that each novel sets up a simple, seemingly irrefutable, premise that the next novel in the series then shatters. In Foundation, we are introduced to Seldon’s psychohistory, which seems to be able to anticipate any problem whatsoever on a galactic scale. In Foundation and Empire, however, we see how fragile the Foundation and the Seldon Plan are when the Mule upsets them completely. In Second Foundation, we learn that the system is not so fragile after all, as it has a built-in correction mechanism, namely the Second Foundation itself, and this seems to assure the success of the future Second Empire.
However, in Foundation’s Edge, Asimov questions whether the Second Empire itself is the right destiny for humanity, and asks whether there is another option. I won’t spoil the answer, but suffice to say that Asimov presents a surprising and satisfying glimpse of the ultimate fate of humankind. It is a fitting capstone to the Foundation series.
Foundation and Earth, however, is a somewhat different beast. Unlike the previous sequels in the series, it is a direct sequel and follows the actions of the characters of Foundation’s Edge immediately following the conclusion of that novel. Golan Trevize, having made a decision that will effect the future of humanity throughout the galaxy, worries that he may have made the wrong choice. His intuition (there is more to it than this but it is hard to explain without giving away more of the story) tells him that he can find out whether he was right or not by finishing his original “official” quest: finding Earth.
What follows is basically a space adventure novel and detective story. Trevize, Pelorat, and several companions travel from world to world, finding clues to Earth and unexpected danger along the way. In the end, Trevize will find answers to his questions, and the book ends on an optimistic note for the future of humanity — but also with a hint of potential doom.
Foundation and Earth is a good story, but definitely the weakest of the Foundation books. Gone are the galactic-scale and awe-inspiring machinations of governments, to be replaced by landings on lonely mysterious planets and occasional sexy encounters with its inhabitants (not kidding). Asimov still has some awe to share in the book — as in the earlier books, he challenges assumptions one last time — but the story is not quite as thought-provoking as the earlier ones.
Foundation and Earth feels very much like a victory lap for Asimov. He uses the story to tie together all of his various writings throughout the years into one, massive, unified timeline. His famous “Robot” books are tied to this one, as are his “Empire” books and “Spacer” books. It is fun to see things connected, but the novel is not quite as rewarding if you are not very familiar with his earlier writings.
Another limitation of the book, in my opinion, is the insufferable nature of its “hero”, Trevize. Quite frankly, he is a rude jerk. To be fair, he has the metaphorical weight of the galaxy on his shoulders, but he ends up being rather unsympathetic.
In hindsight, it is clear what happened with this novel: Asimov was running out of ideas for the Foundation stories. Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth were written in the 1980s, some 30 years after the original novels. It is reported that Asimov wrote these sequels due to overwhelming requests from fans and publishers (and, as he said himself, an overwhelming amount of money from the latter). By Earth, he had expended his ideas for the future of the Foundation and didn’t know where to take it next; this, according to his wife, is why he turned his attention to the pair of prequel novels, Prelude to Foundation (1988) and Forward the Foundation (1993).
For my part, I think I will end my exploration of the Foundation with Earth; I’m not a particularly big fan of prequels. The second one was published posthumously, and in the 1990s a trio of additional authorized prequels were written by science fiction authors Gregory Benford, Greg Bear and David Brin.
I am amazed by the books that I have read, however. Foundation is an awe-inspiring series on an epic scale that provokes much thought; I suspect that I will ponder the ideas presented within them for quite some time. I can only wonder about the ultimate fate of Asimov’s fictional universe; however, perhaps that is for the best. Could any ending have truly matched the promise of the existing series?
Trivia postscript: the cover for Foundation and Earth is intended to show a scene from the novel, and it is quite accurate — except for one big problem. See the moon shining through the roof? One of the biggest clues in the book as to the identity of the original Earth is that it is the only known habitable planet with a large moon. The planet on the cover, which is not Earth, shouldn’t be shown with such a moon!