Foundation and Empire: "The General"
November 10, 2015 3:58 PM - by Isaac Asimov - Subscribe

"The General" is the last of the classic Foundation stories. In it Asimov tackles the central dynamic head on, setting the "living will" of a single human being against the "dead hand" of psychohistory. It should be no surprise, and indeed is no surprise to modern readers, that the long arc of history doesn't bend around brilliant individuals. There are other characters than the titular general, but Bel Riose is the only one that matters. He knows exactly what he's up against, and backs himself to win. He's undoubtedly the purest example of a tragic hero in the series.

More than any other story in the series, "The General" is about History with a capital H. The view put forth is essentially that the greater sweep of history is independent of the endeavor of individuals. When Rome was conquering the Mediterranean world, no brilliant general could stop its growth. Indeed, an untold number of brilliant generals won crushing victories against the Romans, but the Romans kept on coming and eventually triumphed. And likewise, no brilliant general could halt the decline and eventual fall of the empire. For Asimov, history's inertia overcomes all else.

Of all the stories, "The General" is the one most closely based on real history. Emperor Cleon II and Bel Riose are transparently based on Justinian and Belisarius. Their personalities are abstracted. Bel Riose has none of Belisarius's trouble with keeping his underlings onside, but conversely also none of the real-life general's half-mad brilliance as a tactician. Cleon is just a guy on a throne, while Justinian was that and so much besides. More than anything, these two characters are there for Asimov to demonstrate that the laws of history will always go along their path, and that the Foundation will be pushed along towards galactic domination.

So really, there was nowhere for Asimov to go from here, which his why he went "fuck this, it's time for psychic powers". But before he got there, he did follow the logic of Psychohistory to its tragic end in the story of Bel Riose, Last of the Imperials, whose tragedy is compounded by dying off screen. Of all the characters Asimov creates in the series, Bel Riose is perhaps the most haunting, a solitary human who took up arms against History, and was executed for his sin.
posted by Kattullus (5 comments total)

posted by Sebmojo at 5:24 PM on November 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

This story started very, very slowly for me. I had to push myself through the first 50 pages though I think I enjoyed the last 50 pages. I did not catch the Roman History angle as I don't know a lot about Roman History. Interesting.
posted by wittgenstein at 6:30 AM on November 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

The sense of inevitability that Seldon will win is, I think, why "The General" is my least favorite part of the trilogy. I feel like something directly inspired by historical events needs to be either more space-operatic or more big-idea to work. The Big Idea that psychohistory will always prevail is too close, to me, to the idea that history has already happened. And once again, most of the big action is off-screen. It's just boring.

Contrast with The Stars, My Destination, which is pretty explicitly a re-telling of The Count of Monte Cristo but also has the Big Idea of the Jaunt and how it completely reshapes society (and Gully Foyle's revenge).
posted by infinitewindow at 9:29 PM on November 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I wonder how inevitable it felt to its first readers. Just the existence of the books is a spoiler in a way that the single story in a magazine just wouldn't be. Of course, it's impossible to know now.
posted by Kattullus at 7:21 AM on November 12, 2015

Post about the next section, "The Mule".
posted by Kattullus at 5:25 PM on November 14, 2015

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