In "The General,” Asimov had established that the Foundation could pretty much not be defeated, no matter what. At John Campbell’s suggestion, then—and rather reluctantly—in “The Mule” he goes ahead and defeats it.
Internal tensions are building in the Foundation, and class conflict between the independent Traders and aristocrats of Terminus seem inevitable. A renegade Foundationer and her Trader husband, Bayta and Toran Darell, set out to enlist the help of a new warlord, a mysterious figure known only as the Mule. On Kalgan, the Mule’s current headquarters, they are joined by the Mule’s clown, one Magnifico Giganticus. They are also contacted by Han Pritcher, who is simultaneously a Foundation security agent and a member of the Underground. He explains that the Mule is a mutant with bizarre mental powers, and urges them to leave Kalgan. They agree and head back to Foundation space with Magnifico.
The Mule, however, has no intention of helping anybody on either side of the Foundation’s internal conflict. Using the abduction of Magnifco as a pretext, he attacks and is everywhere victorious. The Foundation remains confident, however—until the Time Vault on Terminus reveals that Hari Seldon had not anticipated the Mule, his attacks, or his success. Bayta, Toran, Magnifico escape Terminus just in time, together with the Foundation’s most talented scientist, Ebling Mis. Together, they flee the advance of the Mule’s forces and finally head towards Trantor, where Ebling Mis hopes to be able to reconstruct Seldon’s work sufficiently to determine the location of the hidden Second Foundation, which he hopes to enlist in an effort to defeat the Mule.
He succeeds, but before he can reveal the whereabouts of the Second Foundation, Bayta kills him. She has come to realize that Magnifico is no clown, but the Mule himself, who has been manipulating them all in an attempt to learn where the Second Foundation is so that he can defeat it before it has time to offer a counter-offensive. It turns out that he is a mutant, one able to manipulate human emotions and make people feel what he wants them to—love, hatred, loyalty, fear, despair. Bayta, however, he never manipulated, because in her he sensed that she genuinely liked him without being compelled to. The genuine nature of the emotion was too dear to him, so he left her alone—and uncontrolled at the crucial moment.
A terrific story, this. The second best of all the Foundation stories, in fact. The characters here—particularly the key players, Bayta, Ebling Mis, and Magnifico—are vivid, for one thing. (Bayta, by the way, was based on Asimov’s wife Gertrude and he used himself as the model for Toran. This provides interesting insight into his perspective on their marriage.) The desperation of the situation is well portrayed, and the plot moves onwards to an unexpected yet completely reasonable and emotionally satisfying climax.
We also get to see what has happened to Trantor, and the contrast with the earlier (and later) portrayals of the planet are fascinating to see.
It also gets Asimov neatly out of the corner he'd painted himself into with the earlier Foundation stories. The Foundation can be defeated, and the remainder of the original trilogy has to do with the uncertain efforts of the Second Foundation to restore Seldon’s original Plan.
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