So, I finished the second of the classic Foundation novels and having recently read two other old-school science fiction novels (one by Sturgeon, one by van Vogt), it was really interesting to see how all of those three handled superhuman characters.
Vogt’s main characters often were mutants, persecuted, but due to their superior abilities as well as superior morals able to triumph. Asimov’s mutant is at the other end of the spectrum, someone who uses his powers only for his own gain and to the detriment of the human race. Sturgeon’s mutant (though more a gestalt creature made up of various mutants) is somewhere in the middle, neither a power fantasy nor a unstoppable dangerous threat.
Unlike the first Foundation novel (consisting of various short stories), there are only two bigger stories here. The first is about a conflict between the Foundation and a general from the ailing empire, that plays out as expected. A threat to the Foundation rises, the characters try various means to solve it and failing that, realize that historical momentum has solved the problem for them (pretty much how all of the stories in the first volume played out).
The second story is about the Mule, a mutant who has mental powers that make it easy for him to control other humans. And it’s here that Asimov deviates from the template of the other stories, since this crisis is something that wasn’t foreseen in the plan. The characters in all stories so far were more or less observers of history whose personal agency amounted to pretty much nothing. This time, it’s the decision of one human that stalls the crisis.
The Mule, after having taken over a big part of the former empire and even after destroying the Foundation, sets out to seek the Second Foundation, a fail-safe in cases something unforeseen happens (so admittedly, Seldon planned for the case that something happened he couldn’t foresee). The story ends with the conflict not resolved, but the Mule’s galaxy-wide conquest is temporarily stopped.
And like with the first novel, it was an okay read. Asimov’s foundation trilogy still ends up on various Best Of lists of science fiction, but unlike say Bester’s The Stars My Destination, I think it has lost a lot of what once made up its appeal. The setting seems quaint, the writing is plain, the characters are superfluous and sketchily drawn and the ideas about Psychohistory and what such a thing if real could really mean explored merely skin-deep. It’s an easy read, but it really feels dated and tired and there’s no big intellectual pay-off that makes it worth reading.
The only reason for actually reading it is for historical purposes. Because, you know it’s a famous science fiction novel and probably on any canonical list of classical science fiction. Beyond that, not much comes to mind.