Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov (New York: Everyman’s Library, 2010; originally published in 1952. 664 pp)
Isaac Asimov was one of the most prolific writers and editors of modern times, with approximately five hundred books in his bibliography. He died in 1992.
Perhaps the most critical aspect of science fiction and fantasy genre writing centers upon the ability for an author to build a world. Readers, given their grounding in reality, need extra description the more abstract the setting. When a narrative situates itself in modern-day Los Angeles, the author can get away with leaving the setting in the periphery.
But when your entire story sits in a galaxy far, far away, you better offer some vivid description for the reader to get on the same page; without it, there’s little chance of the reader staying with you, especially if your stories are serialized.
For some, world building means chapters upon chapters describing the setting. Some go so far as being too descriptive—I’d include Tolkien in this category. But another way to build worlds is to tell a multitude of stories throughout the larger world. George R. R. Martin uses this strategy in A Song of Ice and Fire. I would also include Asimov in this category.
His Foundation trilogy doesn’t have a main character. In fact, each “chapter” jumps forward in time, building upon the “world” or galaxy in unique and enjoyable ways.
I would actually label the trilogy, including his second installment, Foundation and Empire, as short stories.
The first book, Foundation, presents 5 separate stories discussing the galactic empire and the rise of the Foundation. With Foundation and Empire, Asimov focuses on two storylines, the first on the Empire’s last-gasp effort of putting the Foundation in order; the second detailing the rise of trouble within the established Foundation—an enemy called “The Mule” attempting to defeat the Foundation from within.
In both stories, Asimov creates the transitional storylines to set up the concluding installment of the trilogy. Namely, we discover a second Foundation:
“So he established two Foundations at the extreme opposing ends of the Galaxy—Foundations of the best, and the youngest, and the strongest, there to breed, grow, and develop. The worlds on which they were placed were chosen carefully; as were the times and the surroundings. All was arranged in such a way that the future as foreseen by the unalterable mathematics of psychohistory would involve their early isolation from the main body of Imperial civilization and their gradual growth into the germs of the Second Galactic Empire—cutting an inevitable barbarian interregnum from thirty thousand years to scarcely a single thousand” (215-216).
Foundation and Empire details the growth of a new order and the threats from different sides. It begins with attack from the fading Empire:
“Now the Empire is stronger than we; it always has been. But this is the first time we are in danger of its direct attack, so that strength becomes terribly menacing. If it can be beaten, it must be once again as in all past crises by a method other than pure force. We must find the weak side of our enemy and attack it there” (221).
The book continues with the enigmatic Mule, who uses Foundation citizen’s unwavering belief in the determinism of history against them:
“Here you have a whole culture brought up to a blind, blubbering belief that a folk hero of the past has everything all planned out and is taking care of every little piece of their unprintable lives. The thought-pattern evoked has religious characteristics and you know what that means” (344).
A Galaxy Through Conversations
But the power in Foundation and Empire comes from the worlds Asimov builds. Eschewing the standard narrative-driven science fiction for a storyline through dialogue, we learn of a galaxy through conversations. Consider this description of the fading capitol planet,
“It was strange that a world which had been the center of a Galaxy for two thousand years—that had ruled limitless space and been home to legislators and rulers whose whims spanned the parsecs—could die in a month. It was strange that a world which had been untouched through the vast conquering sweeps and retreats of a millennium, and equally untouched by the civil wars and palace revolutions of other millennia—should lie dead at last. It was strange that the Glory of the Galaxy should be a rotting corpse” (366).
For a transitional book, Foundation and Empire does an excellent job of keeping the reader connected to the inventive and unusual worlds devised by Isaac Asimov. I look forward to continuing the series.
Verdict: 4 out of 5