In which events take a generally darker turn: Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov

Hari Seldon's plan is working perfectly, and thanks to psychohistory, the Foundation is well on its way to saving what remains of Galactic civilization. And then Isaac Asimov throws a wrench or two into the works, in Foundation and Empire.

It's day two of Blogging the Hugos' Foundation Week. Your hosts are Alasdair Wilkins and Josh Wimmer. On Monday we looked at Isaac Asimov's classic Foundation. Today we continue with the next book in the series, 1952's Foundation and Empire.

Spoilers ahead.

In which events take a generally darker turn: Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov

AW: So now, time to talk about the second Foundation book. Like its predecessor, Foundation and Empire isn't a novel, but instead a collection of short stories Isaac Asimov had written seven years prior. However, whereas Foundation really does feel like a traditional anthology, with five stories that span two centuries and feature barely any overlapping characters, Foundation and Empire is much closer to feeling like an actual novel. There are two stories in this book, the second of which is considerably longer than the first, and both concern powerful generals attempting to defeat the Foundation in war. The first story demonstrates why this is impossible and represents what Asimov had at the time intended to be the final Foundation story, a last word demonstrating why there were no more stories left to tell. The second, published eight months later, is his rather audacious reversal of that stance. But let's leave that aside for the moment.

"The General," first published in April 1945, is set a generation after the final story in Foundation and just about two centuries into the Foundation era. Bel Riose, the last great military leader of the old Galactic Empire, sets out to conquer the mysterious Foundation on behalf of the last strong emperor, Cleon II. The Empire is falling, no doubt, but these two men represent its last gasp of strength, and there is no one in the Foundation's ossifying elite that can match them. General Riose seeks out the old Siwennan noble Ducem Barr, son of the man Hober Mallow visited in "The Merchant Princes." Barr has no love for the Empire, but he is the closest thing the Empire has to an expert on the Foundation, and so Riose presses him into reluctant service. The third major player is Lathan Devers, an independent trader and agent of the Foundation who is sent to Riose's armada to figure out how the Foundation can save itself. This, according to Ducem Barr, is a wholly unnecessary step, because the Seldon Plan demands the Foundation must win. As Bel Riose says, it's a dead hand versus a living will, and it turns out the living well never stood a chance.

I'll say this right up front — I love Foundation and Empire, and I love "The General." Critically speaking, the best thing about Foundation is probably the strength of its ideas, considering the repetitive plotting and paper-thin characters. The stories in Foundation and Empire reflect a maturing writer who has greatly improved his skills of characterization. The characters in "The General" may still be at heart mouthpieces for Asimov's various ideas, but they're all far more memorable than their counterparts in Foundation, and there's just enough details to suggest internal complexity. I think Bel Riose might be the best example I've seen of an anti-villain — his goal is the destruction of the Foundation and the defeat of the Seldon Plan, and he can be quite brutal in his means, but he's fundamentally honorable, honest, and really rather brilliant. Hell, you might even call him the tragic hero of the Foundation series, struggling in vain against the forces of history for no greater reason than to prove that he can. He certainly gets an appropriately tragic ending.

In which events take a generally darker turn: Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov

Ducem Barr is another great character. He's an old revolutionary and assassin, and his world-weary pragmatism coupled with supreme faith in the Seldon Plan is an intriguing combination. He hates the Empire like no other character in the series (except perhaps his father), and for him the Seldon Plan represents a vengeance he can't even dream of — the complete and utter defeat of the Empire that killed so much of his family and ruined his world. Lathan Devers clearly wants to be in the mold of the larger-than-life characters we met in Foundation, but he lacks the cunning of a Salvor Hardin or a Hober Mallow. What's worse, Devers is the best the Foundation's got — he's an above-average man living in an era of mediocrity going up against the Empire's last great men. And then there's the aging, infirmed emperor, Cleon II, whose great mind has been let down by his faltering body. Cleon sums up the most poignant theme of this section when he cries, "The ancients should be alive now, or I then!"

There's a central wistfulness to this story, the subtle melancholy of being born in the wrong era. Cleon and Riose were born centuries, if not millennia, too late, and that fact ultimately seals Riose's tragic fate. Lathan Devers is also born wrong, though on a smaller scale — he is stuck in an era where the Foundation is bereft of heroes and great men, a generation removed from a time of freedom and adventure. Ducem Barr is probably the best-adjusted to his era, although either the past or future would almost certainly hold better fortunes for him. Still, the Seldon Plan is enough to give him faith and some small measure of hope that something good will come of all his misery. All this makes for a pretty potent theme, the idea of a bunch of people raging against various dying civilizations, trying to make their mark in the long shadow of Hari Seldon and psychohistory. "The General" might be Asimov's attempt to prove that Foundation stories have no room for heroes or villains, but the characters in his story clearly are not aware of that. Indeed, this story features some of the greatest heroism and greatest villainy of any Foundation story, and the fact that it's all for naught just makes it all the more poignant.

JW: This is not a particularly profound thought, but it strikes me every time I read "The General": Asimov's names can be remarkable, almost symbolic. I adore how "Bel Riose," with its DUM-da-DUM meter and echoes of "bellicose" and "rose," signals so much about the character in three syllables — that's he warlike and noble and glorious, and operating on an epic scale, and (as you note) seems to belong more to an era long gone. (Similarly, I see "tough savior" in Salvor Hardin, and hear "quiet bear of a man you don't want to fuck with" in Hober Mallow. And then there's my personal favorite, Hardin's right-hand man, Yohan Lee. For some reason, those two words convey "taciturn badass with a graying blond ponytail" very nicely to me.)

There are a few little bits connecting "The General" to its predecessor, "The Merchant Princes" — the planet Siwenna and the Barr family, and Hober Mallow's force field generator. If Asimov were around, I'd love to ask him whether those were intentional — whether, while writing "The Merchant Princes," he was careful to build the plot in such a way that these threads would be left to pick up again, or whether they were just the sort of happy accident that happens in the business of fiction sometimes. Because he makes it pretty explicit in "The Merchant Princes" that a story involving the Empire is forthcoming — and yet, based on his introduction to the books, their macro-plotting doesn't sound particularly organized.

I haven't too much more to add — you really hit upon all the big ideas at play here, and anyway, I have to admit I don't share your love for this particular section of the series. I can see why you like it so much, and the next time I read "The General," I'll do so with a greater appreciation.

In which events take a generally darker turn: Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov

But as you make evident, this part of Foundation history will later be regarded as mundane, a time of no heroes or great deeds, and it can't help but come through in the telling of the story. With Devers and Barr, I never feel like there's anything at stake — the former is far more concerned with profits than the security and well-being of the Foundation, the latter a bitter old man who probably should have gotten counseling (if only there were still some psychologists around!). Almost from the outset, their journey feels...not quite pointless, but useless — and as it turns out, it basically is. (It is interesting to note, though, that "The General" features more action — the shooting-people kind, in particular — than any previous Foundation story. And yet to me, it feels far less lively than those collections of conversations. Gunfights and violence can be sensational, but they don't make your brain dance the way new ideas do.)

On a related note to what I said above, since this was intended to be the final Foundation story (and just curious, but where did you learn that?), it's quite neat that it sets things up so nicely for what's to come. We can already see the Foundation devolving into mindless reliance on the Seldon Plan, and of course, the violation of that faith is at the heart of "The Mule."

AW: I should probably be slightly more careful when I say "The General" — or, as it was then known, "The Dead Hand" — was meant to be Asimov's last Foundation story. The current consensus among Asimov scholars — most of whom can be readily found with a quick Google search, as Asimov doesn't tend to attract much "serious" critical appraisal — is that Asimov grew increasingly bored and frustrated with the Foundation series as he realized psychohistory essentially removed all dramatic tension. "The Dead Hand," then, was meant to demonstrate why psychohistory was a fascinating idea that made for boring stories, and so free him of the obligation of writing any more. Now, I think Asimov did enough with his characters and built enough of a sense of melancholy and ennui that "The Dead Hand" still works, even if it's fundamentally so anticlimactic. Asimov's editor at Astounding, the legendary John W. Campbell, convinced him to continue because the stories were so popular, and together they came up with the Mule as a way of writing Asimov out of his corner. From that point on, every Foundation story was more or less meant to be Asimov's final word on the series, because he had come to hate it so, and it was only with a lot of cajoling that he wrote the last three stories. I can't guarantee the veracity of this account — I suspect, like with most behind-the-scenes stories, no two accounts ever really agree with each other — but it certainly seems like a good fit for the points Asimov is trying to make in "The General" and "The Mule."

Returning to "The General" itself — like I said, it's obviously intended to be anticlimactic and bereft of any real dramatic tension. That is, as storytelling conceits go, a bit on the risky side, and I suspect "The General" is one of the more divisive stories in terms of whether it really works for the reader or not. Obviously, we had markedly different reactions to the story, even if we can appreciate many of the same strengths and weaknesses. I think, if Asimov was a slightly different writer, a stronger story might have been to really play up the idea of Bel Riose versus psychohistory, to try to render his ideas in an almost Shakespearean mode. But that isn't the writer Asimov was, particularly at this early stage in his career, and so we're left to uncover this deeper subject matter in the endless conversations and occasional descriptions. I can't exactly blame someone who gets less out of "The General" than I did.

One final note before moving on — Bel Riose does indeed evoke some warlike/vaguely poetic imagery, and far more clearly than some of Asimov's other, stranger names. But interestingly enough, he's one of the very few characters who is probably named after his presumed historical parallel: the 6th-century Byzantine general Belisarius, who reconquered much of the lost western Roman Empire for the glory of his emperor, Justinian the Great. Much like Bel Riose, he was later known as "Last of the Romans," although his noble, loyal intentions were deeply mistrusted by his emperor, and he was recalled back to Constantinople on trumped-up charges. There's even a legend that he was blinded and forced to live out the rest of his days as a beggar, which is still a slightly better fate than what Bel Riose got. I think, of all the many historical parallels that Asimov used in constructing the Foundation saga, this is the coolest.

But now we must leave "The General" and move onto "The Mule." This is the story, I'd say, that transformed the Foundation series from being a classic science-fiction idea to being a classic science-fiction story. Much as I think "The General" is a stylistic step up from the earlier story, I think here is where we see some really serious growth from Asimov, with complex storytelling, a massive cast, and a legitimately shocking twist. (At least, it was legitimately shocking when I first read it as a kid, and that's good enough for me.) But I'll set aside my critical gushing for the time being to offer a short summary of what "The Mule" is actually about.

In which events take a generally darker turn: Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov

About a hundred years have passed since the events of "The General." The last shreds of democracy have deserted the Foundation, which is now under the tyrannical sway of its hereditary ruler, the glorified bookkeeper Mayor Indbur III. Independent traders have set up democratic enclaves on seventeen different uninhabited planets, and they vaguely plot their vengeance against the Foundation. I say "vaguely," because the invincibility of the Foundation and the Seldon Plan is now an article of essentially religious faith, and no one is sure whether the corrupt aristocracy on Terminus can actually be defeated. The traders decide their best shot is to goad a mysterious new warlord, known only as the Mule, to attack the Foundation, which may give them an opening to seize control.

Into this plot, we meet our protagonists, the newlyweds Toran and Bayta Darell. (Interesting note: We don't actually learn their surname until we meet their granddaughter in the next book, Second Foundation.) They are sent to the Mule's newly conquered planet of Kalgan, where they meet a strange-looking clown named Magnifico Giganticus who is on the run from the warlord's court. On the advice of Foundation intelligence officer — and secret firebrand revolutionary — Captain Han Pritcher, they take him off Kalgan, which serves as the pretext for the Mule's invasion.

And then something strange happens...the Mule starts winning. The Foundation and trader fleets don't fight like they're supposed to, and it becomes clear that they are in the middle of the latest Seldon crisis. Indbur stakes everything on the ghostly projection of Hari Seldon solving all their problems, but when the mathematician's hologram appears in the Time Vault, the crisis he predicted is nothing like the one they currently face. The Mule has somehow managed to smash the Seldon Plan, and the Foundation falls...

Of course, there's a lot more to the story, but that's enough to get us started on "The Mule." What say you, sir?

JW: In his introduction to my editions of the books, Asimov calls "The Mule" his personal favorite of all the Foundation stories, and you can see why. I agree that it demonstrates more growth than any of the other stories to date, and maybe more than any that come after, too.

I'm not talking so much about the big twist. I can't recall if it surprised me or not the first time I read it — I was a little older than a kid, probably in college. Anyway, more on that in a few. (For readers who haven't read this story, I will note now, though, in boldface: Big spoilers are coming.)

No, what I love about "The Mule" is that it keeps veering off in unexpected directions. I mean, we start out with our happy newlyweds arriving on Toran's home planet of Haven to meet his family of rebel traders (Bayta is a born-and-bred Foundationer). And then we're back on Terminus, where we meet Pritcher, a curiously sympathetic character — as you say, he's a revolutionary, but he's the most anal-retentive one you'll ever meet. He breaks rules without a second thought — he doesn't need a second thought; he's able enough to work out the necessity on the first one — but his code of honor forces him to be as honest about it as he possibly can. Before defying his orders, he tries to work through the appropriate official channels, even though he knows it's futile. There's actually a rather mulish quality about Pritcher — Asimov explicitly calls him stubborn — which...well, I'll get to that in a bit, too.

In which events take a generally darker turn: Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov

So then Toran and Bayta end up on the vacation planet of Kalgan and run into Magnifico and Pritcher. And then we meet the liveliest character of the series since Salvor Hardin — the Foundation's first real psychologist since its founding, Ebling Mis. Mis is so deliberately over-the-top — and so fun to read because of it. Ga-LAX-y! What a pleasure to watch him run roughshod over Mayor Indbur; he's like one of Heinlein's classic old men, Jubal Harshaw or Lazarus Long, with a heaping dash of comic outrageousness that wouldn't work in Stranger in a Strange Land or Time Enough for Love (they're too ponderous) but fits perfectly in the slightly cartoonish universe of the Foundation.

"Cartoonish" — maybe a strange word to apply to the Foundation stories, but I think it's accurate. Back in that introduction, Asimov cites James Gunn, who described their subject matter as "the permutations and reversals of ideas." Cartoon is essentially a vehicle for communicating big ideas in broad strokes, poking at and twisting them, stretching and bending them without breaking them. (This is taken to its extreme when we encounter the Second Foundation in the next book.) And I think the suspension of disbelief that lets us buy into, say, whole groups of planets acting in concert is about the same as what lets us take an episode of Looney Tunes or Teen Titans more or less seriously.

Anyway, and then we're back on Haven, and then suddenly the Foundation has been conquered, and Pritcher is part of an underground movement of freedom fighters, and then the Darells and Magnifico and Mis are on their way to the center of the galaxy to search for clues to the Second Foundation's location, in the hope that it can save the Seldon Plan. (I keep thinking: What a stroke of luck — or just brains on Asimov and Campbell's part — that another Foundation was written into the mythos from the first story.)

This is the story where Asimov goes all Goblet of Fire on us: People have died in Foundation stories before, but there's never been such darkness as there is here. (Even from the start of "The Mule," when we learn that Lathan Devers, protagonist of "The General," ended up meeting his end after being sent to the slave mines. Who knew the Foundation even had slave mines?) Well, more on that, particularly in regard to Pritcher and Mis, momentarily. But first back to you.

AW: You trot out the Goblet of Fire comparison, and hopefully our more anti-Potterite readers can tolerate the analogy, because I think it's valid. Much like the first three Harry Potter books, the stories in the original Foundation all felt strangely safe, as though all the dangers were illusory and nothing was ever really as bad as the protagonists thought it was. Of course, there's a very good reason for that — in "The Psychohistorians," Gaal Dornick had the Dumbledore-ish Hari Seldon to help him through, and forever after there was the Seldon Plan to guide our heroes along. Even though countless Foundationers died during the Bel Riose affair, that happened off-screen and seemed almost throwaway. "The Mule" features the first on-screen death of a major character in a Foundation story, and it's a cold-blooded murder. Indeed, a lot of the characters in this story seem to be changed permanently for the worse — Pritcher is converted by the Mule to happily serve everything he once hated, Mayor Indbur appears to be completely destroyed by the shock of the Mule's victory, it's an open question whether Bayta is really in her right mind at the end of the book, and Magnifico...oh, poor Magnifico.

It's remarkable just how deep the cast of "The Mule" really goes. I suppose Bayta Darell is the protagonist — the end of the story certain suggests that — but there's about a dozen other characters Asimov could have built an equally compelling story around: Toran, Han Pritcher, Ebling Mis, the old traders Randu and Fran, Indbur III, and the various eccentrics and impotent weirdos we meet on Neotrantor. Only Magnifico doesn't really ring true, but then, there's a very good reason for that. You know, I doubt Asimov intended this, but the supporting characters almost feel like refugees from earlier Foundation stories. I could see Ebling Mis trading epigrams and brusque rejoinders with Salvor Hardin, Han Pritcher has a larger-than-life Hober Mallow action-man quality about him, Fran and Randu respectively recall Lathan Devers and Limmar Ponyets, Indbur could have gotten on very well with Lewis Pirenne and the rest of the early Encyclopedists, and of course the Mule is just Bel Riose to the nth degree. But at the center of it all is Bayta Darell, a very different type of character from anyone who has previously appeared in Foundation. Indeed, she would almost have to be — unless I'm forgetting someone obvious, she's only the second female character to appear in any Foundation story, with her sole predecessor being the wife of the Korellian commdor...and the less said about her, the better.

In which events take a generally darker turn: Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov

I particularly love all the Han Pritcher material. Asimov doesn't make too much of a meal of Pritcher's internal monologues, but they're always amusing in the sort of honest dishonesty Pritcher engages in. And, considering how linear all the previous Foundation stories were, it's awesome that Asimov randomly breaks away from the main narrative to basically cram in a mini spy story, explaining how Pritcher wanders Terminus and plots to assassinate the Mule. It makes his final conversion by the Mule all the more crushing — more than any other character in this story, Pritcher was an individual, and it's so sad to see him reduced to a puppet of the Mule, albeit still a charming and unconventional one.

What's really struck me while rereading these stories is how much of Foundation is actually about religion. Obviously, there's the "scientism" Salvor Hardin invented to control the four kingdoms, but that's just the most explicit example, and really the least profound. Every story contains examples of character who choose to — indeed, who must — place their absolute faith in some ideal, some perfect shining beacon of hope. In the earliest Foundation stories, that was still the old Empire. By now, that's long since been replaced with an absolute faith in the Foundation, the Seldon Plan, and the eventual Second Empire. The Mule hasn't just defeated a political entity with his conquering of the Foundation — he has, in a very real sense, killed God, in the spectral form of Hari Seldon.

And yet...even once he's done that, the blind faith doesn't go away but instead looks for something new. That new article of faith, of course, is the mysterious Second Foundation, which Bayta in particular is convinced will defeat the Mule yet. Much of the absolute confidence in the Second Foundation she displays in her final exchange with the Mule is hardly distinguishable from what Indbur was saying about the Seldon Plan at the beginning of the story. Asimov (and Hari Seldon) has created a world where individuals don't count and change only happens gradually over several lifetimes, and many of his characters seem to deal with the basic bleakness of that reality by treating the Plan in mystical terms. It's a point that Asimov makes explicit with Randu and Mis's conversation midway through the story, but it's really been there all along, and it definitely sticks around in the later stories. And, since Foundation is at heart inspired by the fall of Rome, it's interesting to consider how much the Foundation's faith in the plan lines up with early Christianity. I'd need to do a lot of research and thinking to have anything really intelligent to say about that, so I'll leave it aside for things I can talk about with some actual confidence.

In any event, Asimov was never primarily about characters or themes — he was always about ideas, and his main idea is the Mule. (Warning: There's no way we can discuss this properly without getting into some major spoilers. So here we go.) This mysterious person is a mutant, a physical weakling with the ability to control the emotions of others, including the ability to "convert" his enemies by making them forever loyal to him. That ability makes him basically invincible to all opponents and unpredictable to the Seldon Plan, but it means he has to be an unconventional conqueror. His laughable appearance would make him impossible to take seriously, and so he hides himself from all but his most trusted (and, more to the point, Converted) lieutenants. OR DOES HE!?

In which events take a generally darker turn: Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov

Sorry, but there's really no other way to segue into this. It turns out the Mule and Magnifico are one and the same, and that he has been subtly controlling the emotions of everyone in the story all along. He used his Visi-Sonor (which I can no longer read about without thinking about the Holophonor) to spread despair through Haven and Terminus, not to mention murder the last crown prince of the old Empire. He converted the warlord of Kalgan and Han Pritcher into his puppets. He subtly made Toran Darell far braver and far stupider than he really was. And he drove Ebling Mis to death with the tireless need to locate the Second Foundation. Only Bayta Darell, the sole person in the entire galaxy who, of her own volition, treated him like a person, was left unaffected...and that of course was his undoing.

I go back and forth on this whole notion of "emotional control." I grant that it's a perfectly good way of smashing the Seldon Plan, but I have a hard time really connecting to it as anything more than an abstract concept. I think it works better here than in the second Mule story, if nothing else, because it's much more subtle. I can imagine a world choked in a weird, implacable despair, and I can buy an eccentric genius like Ebling Mis being driven beyond what his body can take in the quest for forbidden knowledge...but I have a hard time buying into Han Pritcher's full-on conversion, and it feels weird to know that a key character like Toran wasn't acting himself throughout most of the story. So, honestly, I'm not sure — I think the big twist about the Mule, his identity, and his powers makes good sense from a narrative perspective, but I always leave that aspect of the story a bit unsatisfied in terms of yes, its emotion. Am I alone in this?

JW: Well, I'm not sure I feel it as keenly as you do, but yeah, there is something unsatisfying about the Mule's emotional control power. On one hand, I like it because it's simultaneously a little more understated than plain old "mind control," and it rings true as genuinely more potent, too. I mean, controlling people's thoughts? That sounds complicated, and rife with potential loopholes. But controlling their feelings? Feelings are the (excuse the inadvertent pun) foundation of thoughts; tweak them a little, and you can shift a person's whole mind-set.

In which events take a generally darker turn: Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov

But on the other hand, from a more snobby literary perspective, emotional control lacks a certain persuasive resonance. It just feels like a very random foil for the Seldon Plan; you don't go, "Of course! If anything could undo Hari Seldon's painstaking efforts to map out the history of the future, it's empathic manipulation." The one doesn't seem to follow very necessarily from the other. I mean, other things that could have undone the Plan: An army of supermen. A swarm of giant space bees. A freak nuclear power plant explosion taking out most of Terminus's government. The Death Star.

Still, the Mule having mental powers does work (and ironically, totally sets things up for the Second Foundation stories — once again, Isaac, we must ask: How badly did you really want to stop writing these?). And I suppose one could say that its absolute randomness is perfectly thematically appropriate — as a disruption of the Seldon Plan, it's supposed to be unpredictable, after all. Even if it's intellectually acceptable, though, like you say, it doesn't sit quite right, well, emotionally.

Ebling Mis's death, on the other hand, is totally satisfying — or rather, that's a bad way to put it. It's a horrifying moment; it gave me a sick feeling the first time I read it, and has every time I've read it since. But wow, you know, an author's job is not to evoke merely enjoyable feelings and thoughts, but to invoke the whole spectrum, and Mis's death is like a kick in the stomach and then a few more for good measure.

In part, that's because of the brutality of what's been done to him: The Mule uses Mis's own intellectual curiosity against him, turning it up to 11 until the psychologist burns himself out researching the location of the Second Foundation. Compulsive gradual suicide — ugh.

In which events take a generally darker turn: Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov

But there's an even harsher level that didn't occur to me until I read what you said about the characters of "The Mule" seeming like refugees from earlier Foundation stories: I feel like that applies to Ebling Mis more than to any other, with his loud personality and catchphrases, and his death really does signal the end of the Foundation as we have come to know it. Up till that moment, things have still felt a bit like a game — sure, the Mule might have taken over Terminus and Haven, but there's little sense of any enormous casualties. You feel like, heck, maybe even if he did win, things wouldn't be so awful; but of course, you also know he's not going to win. It's a Foundation story, after all!

And then — and then Mis is gone, and in a manner as ugly and unhappy as anyone could imagine. (It's not actually the Mule's powers that kill him, remember; the circumstances of his actual death just add insult to injury. Basically, Mis is on the verge of unwittingly selling out everything he's ever lived for, forcing a dear and innocent friend to destroy him.) We get some foreshadowing when Magnifico uses the Visi-Sonor to kill the nobles on Neotrantor, but it isn't until Mis meets his end that it hits home just how awful things are, just how terribly the Mule has disturbed the order of things. (As for what I alluded to earlier about Pritcher and Mis, you basically said it: That these individuals, so obstinate themselves, are twisted into tools of the Mule so effortlessly — that is plenty upsetting in its own right.)

So that's a grim note to end on, but that is Foundation and Empire for you. Anything more you want to add, or shall we move on to (my personal favorite) Second Foundation?

AW: I will simply add that I think you're right on with your analysis of the Mule's emotional control, and you expertly put into words my general sense of unease with the whole conceit. It does just feel a little too random, a little unearned in terms of the universe we've come to know, and that undoes some of the great plotting Asimov does around the Mule's subtle control. However, I do wonder whether Asimov wanted the reader to feel a bit uncomfortable with it all — as you say, he chooses the two most iconoclastic characters to be ground up by the Mule, and that makes the story even harder to take. I suppose that might even have been part of some Asimov master plan to make readers rebel and bring the Foundation series to a close in a wave of enraged reactions...but that's just ludicrous. (Isn't it?)

That said, we now have the notion of emotional control in the Foundation universe, and the question is whether Asimov can find a way to more naturally incorporate it. Parts of the two stories that comprise Second Foundation feel like Asimov's increasingly desperate attempt to make emotional control palatable to his readership. His first attempt, I fear, doesn't really work for me. But his second? Well, we should probably save this until we actually get into Second Foundation, but I will say this — I completely understand why that book is your personal favorite. But as for me, I think I'll leave the candle burning just a little longer for Foundation and Empire, my favorite of the original trilogy.

"Blogging the Hugos" is a series examining the Hugo Award–winning novels in (more or less) chronological order. Coming tomorrow: Second Foundation, by Isaac Asimov, from 1953. Subscribe to the RSS feed and follow @blogginghugos on Twitter for updates.

Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. Alasdair Wilkins lives in Los Angeles and is a reporter for io9.