Thursday, February 18, 2010

Asimov’s Mule


Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was one of the most gifted Science Fiction writers of the twentieth century. He is mainly known for his Science Fiction although the majority of what he wrote was a huge mass of non-fiction, mainly popularized books about Science and various other areas of interest. In fact among Asimov’s efforts were a two volume Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, a guide to Gilbert and Sullivan, and a history of the Byzantine Empire! Asimov was probably the most wide ranging Science Popularizer of the twentieth century. When he died Asimov had published more than 400 books in his lifetime. Some were reprints of previously published material but more than 300 were not. Very few authors in history have matched this level of productivity.1

Despite this output, (which included mysteries and one Sex help book parody2); Asimov will probably be best known for his Science Fiction. This includes his Robot stories and novels. Several have been made into movies.3 Among his Science Fiction work perhaps the best known is his Foundation novels. Originally they started as stories for the Science Fiction magazine Astounding Stories. They were later collected into three books and published as such in the early 1950’s. Asimov then shelved the idea for c. 30 years and then wrote four more Foundation novels and decided to tie in his Robot novels and stories with his Foundation material.4

In 1966 Asimov’s three initial Foundation Novels were given the Hugo award for being the best Science Fiction series of all time.5 From all this it appears that the Foundation novels have a pretty high reputation. Well they do and they deserve it.

The story in the novels is relatively simple. The galaxy is governed by a huge galactic empire, centered on the single city world of Trantor, headed by an Emperor. There is in the galaxy no other forms of intelligent life but humans, who inhabit in the galaxy millions of worlds. For more than 2000 years the galaxy has been at peace under a Pax Galactica; however all is not quite what it seems. The empire is falling. A Scientist named Hari Seldon has through the development of Psychohistory, i.e., the application of statistical mathematics to human behaviour calculated that with a few centuries the empire will fall leaving behind chaos and Barbarism and that it will take 30,000 years for order to emerge from the barbarism. Hari Seldon figures out he cannot stop the fall of the empire but he can shorten the period of Barbarism considerably. Hari Seldon and his associates engineer the establishment of two Foundations at either end of the galaxy and so engineer the initial set up that in 1000 years a new empire will be ruling the galaxy.

One Foundation is found on the planet Terminus on the outer periphery of the galaxy, where it faces repeated challenges, which it overcomes in crises that force it to choose one and only one solution, as mapped out by Hari Seldon’s psychohistory. The Foundation defeats the initial attempt by the newly independent break away states to annex the Foundation. Then it cements its domination over them through its technical and scientific expertise. Then it defeats both internal and external threats from the remaining states in the periphery. Then the Foundation faces the threat of the dying Empire, and it beats that one off also. So far it has faced four crises and threats and as beaten them all off. Now it is facing its fifth crisis when the Mule enters the picture. The Second Foundation remains mysterious and unknown.

The Mule is Asimov’s wrench in the system; something unexpected. The fifth crisis is supposed to be a combination of internal crisis, brought on by corrupt hereditary rule within the Foundation and external attack. The Mule mucks it up.6

It is pretty obvious that Asimov’s model for his series of stories is the fall of the Roman Empire. In this case the Foundations take the place of the Church as centers for new civilization and order.

Into Hari Seldon’s scheme for the eventual working out of a new order it is assumed that certain things would stay the same. It was thought by Hari Seldon that the sheer mass of humans in the galaxy, trillions of them, would cancel out the effects of any single human being, so his scheme would work.

The Mule changes everything because he is a mutant and a singularly unique one. Physically he is nothing impressive:
His thin face drew together in front into a nose of generous planes and fleshy tip that seemed all but prehensile. His long, lean limbs and spidery body, accentuated by his costume, moved easily and with grace, but with just a suggestion of having been thrown together at random.7
For all his absurd looks the Mule has one frightening talent that is at once subtle and very hard to beat. To quote:
‘…You see- he is capable of adjusting the emotional balance of human beings. It sounds like a little trick, but it’s quite unbeatable.’ Bayta broke in, ‘The emotional balance?’ She frowned, ‘Won’t you explain that? I don’t quite understand.’

‘I mean that it is an easy matter for him to instill into a capable general say, the emotional of utter loyalty to the Mule and complete belief in the Mule’s victory. His general are emotionally controlled. They cannot betray him; they cannot weaken – and the control is permanent. His most capable enemies become his most faithful subordinates. The warlord of Kalgan surrenders his planet and becomes his viceroy for the Foundation.8
Later another character says the same thing.
‘Forgotten to tell us what?’ put in Toran, quickly.

“About the Mule’s mutation, of course. He tampers with emotions. Emotional control! I haven’t told you?

‘But there was a second assumption, a far more subtle one! Seldon assumed that human reaction to stimuli would remain constant. Granted that the first assumption held true, then the second must have broken down! Some factor must be twisting and distorting the emotional response of human beings or Seldon couldn’t have failed and the Foundation couldn’t have fallen. And what factor but the Mule?9
Later in the story the Mule describes his talent as follows:

To me, men’s minds are dials, with pointers that indicate the prevailing emotion. It is a poor picture, but how else can I explain it? Slowly, I learned that I could reach into those minds and turn the pointer to the spot I wished, that I could nail it there forever. And then it took even longer to realize that others couldn’t.10
This talent is added to the mix of a profoundly wounded psyche as the Mule says:

My mother died before she saw me. I do not know my father. I grew up haphazard; wounded and tortured in mind, full of self-pity and hatred of others. I was known then as a queer child. All avoided me; most out of dislike; some out of fear.11
The Mule further says:

“but the consciousness of power came, and with it, the desire to make up for the miserable position of my earlier life. Maybe you can understand it. Maybe you can try to understand it. It isn’t easy to be a freak – to have a mind and an understanding and be a freak. Laughter and cruelty! To be different! To be an outsider!

“You’ve never been through it!”

“ But I eventually did learn, and I decided that the Galaxy and I could take turns. Come, they had had their innings, and I had been patient about it – for twenty-two years. My turn! It would be up to the rest of you to take it! And the odds would be fair for the Galaxy. One of me! Trillions of them!”12
Later the Mule is confronted by an antagonist who says concerning the Mule’s mental state:

We didn’t foresee that you were not merely a mutant, but a sterile mutant and the added psychic distortion due to your inferiority complex passed us by. We allowed only for megalomania – not for an intensely psychopathic paranoia as well.13

The Mule however does have some interesting characteristics. He is, for example, a musician who enjoys playing and composing on a musical instrument called a Visi-Sonor. This remarkable instrument enables the player to create a combination of sound and sight for the listener / viewer.

The Music crashed in twenty cymbals, and before her an area flamed up in a spout and cascaded down invisible steps into Bayta’s lap, where it spilled over and flowed in rapid current, raising the fiery sparkle to her waist, while across her lap was a rainbow bridge and upon it little figures -...14
Also the Mule wants people to understand him:

He said, tolerantly, “Seat yourselves, Go ahead; you might as well sprawl out and make yourself comfortable. The game’s over, and I’d like to tell you a story. It’s a weakness of mine – I want people to understand me.”15
The Mule is also capable of sincere affection and friendship which he demonstrates in this story.16

He is in other words a complicated villain; evil but not wholly so. Basically warped and twisted by an unusual mutant talent, bad biology combined with a truly horrible upbringing. He is of course eventually defeated but read the novels to find out how.

The Mule is probably Asimov’s most interesting character and a bit of a surprise. In that Asimov tended to be an idea person, characterization was never his forte. In fact Asimov’s characters tended to be two-dimensional, while his ideas overwhelmed characters in his stories.

As for the source of the Mule character? My personal belief is that the source is Adolf Hitler. Not only did Asimov create the story that introduced the Mule just after World War II,17 but the Mule has certain similarities with Hitler.

Aside from the rather unpleasant upbringing, megalomania and inferiority complex that Hitler clearly had. There were also rumours that Hitler was sterile. The main contention is emotional manipulation. Hitler was a gifted orator who could manipulate individuals and audiences through the power of his oratory. To quote one author.

Hitler responds to the vibration of the human heart with the delicacy of a seismograph, or perhaps of a wireless receiving set, enabling him, with a certainty with which no conscious gift could endow him, to act as a loudspeaker proclaiming the most secret desires, the least admissible instincts, the suffering, and personal revolts of a whole nation…I have been asked many times what is the secret of Hitler’s extraordinary power as a speaker. I can only attribute it to his uncanny intuition, which infallibly diagnoses the ills from which his audience is suffering.

Adolf Hitler enters a hall, he sniffs the air. For a minute he gropes, feels his way, senses the atmosphere. Suddenly he bursts forth. His words go like an arrow to their target, he touches each private wound on the raw, liberating the mass unconscious, expressing its innermost aspirations, telling it what it most wants to hear.18
Like Hitler the Mule is able to manipulate, juggle human emotions and like the Mule Hitler appeared for a time to be able to subject history to his personal desires.

In several other respects the Mule is like Hitler, in that he kills millions. There in one of the books a planetary slaughter ordered by the Mule that kills millions. Although it does appear that unlike Hitler the Mule is not a genocidal madman.

All in all an interesting villain and a fascinating character.

An Artists conception of the Mule

1. A List of Isaac Asimov’s Books, Here.

2. Asimov, Isaac, The Sensuous Dirty Old Man, Walker, New York, 1971.

3. Two examples are Fantastic Voyage, 1966 and I Robot, 2004.

4. Asimov, Isaac, There’s Nothing like a Good Foundation in Asimov on Science Fiction, Avon Books, New York, 1981, pp. 281-285.

5. Isaac Asimov in Wikipedia, Here.

6. Asimov, Isaac, Foundation and Empire, Avon Books, New York, 1952, Part II, The Mule, pp. 83-224, Second Foundation, Avon Books, New York, 1953, Prologue, pp. Vii-viii.

7. Asimov, 1952, p. 106.

8. IBID, p. 201.

9. IBID. pp. 206-207.

10. IBID. p. 219.

11, IBID, pp. 219.

12. IBID, pp. 219-20.

13. Asimov, 1953, p. 67.

14. Asimov, 1952, p. 140.

15. IBID, p. 219.

16. See the ending of Asimov, 1952.

17. The story The Mule was published in the November and December 1945 issues of Astounding Science Fiction See Foundation and Empire, in Wikipedia, Here.

18. Bullock, Alan, Hitler a Study in Tyranny, Revised Edition, Harper & Row, New York, 1964, pp. 368-369. Quoting former Nazi Otto Strasser.

Pierre Cloutier


  1. "The Mule changes everything"

    In Asimov's history of the future nothing really changes. The Mule is an amusing blip on the radar screen.

    If Augustine of Hippo and premillennialism were stimuli for Asimov's thinking about the 1000 year period after the fall of the Galactic Empire, then historical figures from a century or two after Augustine might have provided Asimov with ideas for constructing the Mule character.

    The idea that you might be able to transpose the Roman Empire and the Galactic Empire is an anti-science fictional premiss for a story.

    "Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology."

    In the Foundation Fictional Universe, even the Visi-Sonor, a device that allows for mind control, has no lasting impact on Humanity.

    The Psychohistory concept that was developed by Campbell and Asimov requires a Static Universe in which human behavior never changes, just like the behavior of gas molecules never changes.

  2. "Nothing really changes" because the Second Foundation works mightidly too put things back "on course". The Mule changes everything by making it a requirement after conquering the First Foundation that the Second Foundation move heaven and earth to get things back on course and by threatening to derail Seldon's entire plan. That is what I meant by saying the mule changes everything. In the context of the story he does indeed change everything by being a threat that no one envisioned in the slightest.

    In fact things are so much back on course that the Protagonist of Foundation's Edge is very suspicious and thinks the Second Foundation or someone is manipulating events, because after the interruption of someone like the Mule things going back so closely to right on course is shall we say hard to believe. Further the Second Foundation is designed to ensure things stay on course otherwise the chances are overwhelming that in the end they will not stay on course. After all all the deviations from the plan mentioned are a few percentiles and over the course of 1000 years they add up to failure in the plan being implemented which is why the Second Foundation was created.

    As for people within two centuries of the fall of Rome providing a model for the Mule. No such character who could manipulate people via anything like emotional manipulation can be found. Also the sorely maladjusted upbringing to say nothing of the megalomania and psychopathogy fit Hitler very well. Hitler could manipulate people emotionally with his oratory individually and enmass. He was a stunningly effective orator. That he could manipulate people emotionally through his oratory was often remarked on during his lifetime. So the source for the Mule, or should I say inspiration, was more likely Adolf Hitler than any historical character in the two centuries after the fall of Rome.

    As for your definition of Science Fiction, that is one and not necessarily the only one. It takes place in a future with all sorts of changes in human society and technology. As for no lasting impact on humanity Asimov does have such impacts in his Foundation series - the First Foundations miniaturization of technology for one thing and new technology that makes "jumps" through hyperspace easier. The Visi-Sonar is a musical instrument that is in a very loose sense cabable of emotional manipulation but it is not used for such a purpose because basically only someone like the Mule could so use it with any reliability.

    As for your last paragraph; that is precisely the point. In Foundation and Empire Ebling figures out the Mule's power because human responses are being distorted. In fact Ebling discusses the assumptions of psychohistory which assume that their will be no fundamental change in human responses or human technology. In fact Ebling gives two examples of technological change that would undermine psychohistory. But it is hardly a static Universe. The key word here is fundamental. Obviously has indicated above change does occur.

    Your definition of Science Fiction is unduly restrictive and would consign much Science Fiction to out of Science Fiction. I further note that you miss that the point of Hari Seldon's plan is in fact to create a society radically different from the old Galactic Empire. In fact the whole point of he plan has revealed in Foundation's Edge is to create a conscious, so to speak, Galaxy - Galatica! incorporating all the life and yes none life in the Galaxy. That would be a radically different and changed way for humans to live. Even the Second Foundation, which is oblivious to how it is being manipulated to create Galatica plans for a system of rule quite different from the old empire.