Precocious young Arcadia Darell (or “Arkady,” as she would prefer to be called), granddaughter of the woman who single-handedly brought the Mule’s career of conquest to a halt—a fact she never lets anybody forget—discovers that her father is involved in a conspiracy. He and others have discovered that the Second Foundation exists as the guardian of the Seldon Plan, and that it guarantees that the Foundation carries forth its destiny by manipulating people to get them to do what they should, a fact which they deeply resent.
When one of the conspirators is sent to Kalgan to try to uncover information on the Mule’s search for the Second Foundation, Arkady stows away. On Kalgan, she attracts the attention of the current warlord, who decides to throw over his current mistress and make Arkady his consort. Horrified, Arkaday flees Kalgan by accompanying a Trantorian grain merchant, Preem Palver, and his wife back to Trantor.
Meanwhile, the Second Foundation also has a problem. The Seldon Plan has not fully recovered from the onslaught of the Mule, for now the Foundation is aware of their existence and something of their function. The unhealthy attitude has grown up on Terminus that the Second Foundation will always rescue them when the going gets too tough, and so the First Speaker of the Second Foundation has put into effect an elaborate and risky plan to rectify matters.
War breaks out between Terminus and Kalgan, isolating Arkady on Trantor. She figures out, however, the location of the Second Foundation and sends Palver to him with a message: “A circle has no end.” He takes the hint: the rim of the Galaxy is the circle, and the “other end” of the Galaxy at which the Second Foundation is to be found is, in fact, Terminus itself. With the help of a “mind static” device he developed, he’s able to locate and destroy the Second Foundation.
Or so he thinks. The story—and the original Foundation series—closes back with the Second Foundation. The First Speaker’s plan has succeeded, thanks to the fact that their manipulations of Arkady’s mind were undetected—and they were undetected because they were made virtually at birth. For Arkady was born in the midst of the Second Foundation, found at the sociological opposite end of the Galaxy from Terminus, on Trantor itself—and her role in the First Speaker’s plan has been carefully guided by none other than the First Speaker himself, Preem Palver.
This is the best of the Foundation stories, bar none.
Ironically, Asimov hated working on the story. He'd tried to end the series once before with the disappointing “The Search by the Mule,” but John Campbell had talked him out of it. Reluctantly, he agreed to one more story and Campbell, sensing that he wasn’t going to get any more Foundation stories out of Asimov no matter how hard he tried, asked that it be a long and elaborate one so that he could serialize it. Asimov agreed and struggled through the process of finishing up a story he didn’t really want to write.
Unlike “The Search by the Mule,” however, the results here are most satisfactory. Arkady is, I believe, the most vividly realized character in all of Asimov’s works, and she’s surrounded by a vivid cast of characters. Some are a bit steroetypical (i.e., the Palvers are a sort of Jewish aunt-and-uncle), but they’re still well done. The action is tight and exciting, and one ends up rooting for both sides of the struggle—the First Foundationers who want to destroy the Second Foundation, and the Second Foundationers who want to make it appear that it has been destroyed so that the First Foundation will no longer rely on it.
Perhaps the only part of the story that falls flat nowadays is the sexual innuendo regarding Arkady and Kalgan’s warlord. The idea of a fourteen-year-old entering into a long-term sexual relationship with an older man is, alas, not nearly as shocking now as it was fifty years ago.
That is the smallest of nits, however, and hardly anything one could blame Asimov. Otherwise, the story is near perfection and one of the half-dozen best works Asimov ever wrote.