The Foundation faces a new and perhaps unstoppable menace: Bel Riose, a general of the decaying Galactic Empire, is young, talented, and amibitious for gaining glory by defeating the Empire’s enemies—and the enemy he sees as the greatest threat (and the greatest road to glory) is a planet of “magicians” on the edge of the Galaxy called Terminus.
Patrician Ducem Barr—the son of a man met by Hober Mallow in "The Merchant Princes”—and Foundation Trader Lathan Devers head for Trantor in a desperate attempt to stop Riose before he succeeds in destroying the Foundation. Everything they do, however, only makes matters worse and all seems lost when historical forces beyond human control act and end Riose’s campaign before he can conclude it.
This is an exciting story and an enjoyable one. On that basis alone, it deserves a relatively high rating. Even more interesting, however, is what it reveals of Asimov’s philosophy of how psychohistory would actually work—not by demolishing the free will of individual humans, but through the understanding of the broader range of events which control us. Terminus is never in any real danger from the Empire: an untalented general would be incapable of conquering it, and a talented general would provoke the jealousy of the Emperor and not be allowed to conquer it.
This, then, is Asimov’s compromise between the “great man” and “impersonal forces” schools of historiography. Great men do not make History without History’s permission. (And the flip side, which I believe Asimov also agreed with, would be that History makes Great men when it needs them.) Thus does psychohistory work and Seldon’s dead hand control it all.
(Of course, this is rather subverted later on in the original Foundation trilogy, when it’s revealed that the Second Foundation flutters about the edges, nudging Great men to do the Right Thing per Seldon. In this case, it’s entirely possible that a Second Foundationer nudged the Emperor Cleon II to recall Riose when Barr and Devers had been unable to.)
And although it provides the climax of this particular story, it was an unfortunate corner that Asimov wrote himself into, because it pretty much destroys any real conflict in future stories—the Foundation cannot lose, no matter what. In earlier stories (e.g. "The Mayors” and "The Merchant Princes”), we'd been shown that the Foundation would win if it had leaders like Hardin and Mallow who knew the right thing to do. Now we see that the Foundation will win, even if its leaders don’t know the right thing to do, and that leaves for little source of tension in later stories.
This is also, by the way, the first story—in terms of when it was written—containing a portrayal of Trantor. The planet is not rendered here as vividly as it would be in the later story, "The Psychohistorians,” but is interesting enough.
|Foundation and Empire|