April 5, 2022

Is "The Mayors" the single best story in Foundation?

Is "The Mayors" the single best story in Foundation?

(repost from 11/30/21 on reddit - inspired me to make a podcast. Bridle and Saddle was the original story that became The Mayors)

"Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent." - Salvor Hardin

Let's recap, shall we? The story begins with Hardin, thirty years after his rout of the Lewis Pirenne's Encyclopedists, in the greatest political peril of his career. The upstart Actionist Party, led by the young firebrand Sef Sermak, is on the verge of calling for Hardin's impeachment for treason. His justification is Hardin's seeming indifference to the threat posed by the powerful Four Kingdoms dominated by Anacreon - the enemy he'd stymied a generation earlier.

A new development threatens to accelerate Hardin's political demise. Anacreon has discovered a derelict Imperial battle cruiser which would double their considerable military strength if it were to be made operational. The Actionists are appalled to learn that Hardin plans to help the enemy by restoring the vessel and presenting it to the powerful regent of Anacreon, Wienis, without condition. Hardin's impeachment now seems assured.

On Anacreon, the young Prince Lepold will soon come of age and be crowned as King, and Wienis sees his opportunity to use the occasion to launch a surprise attack on Terminus and claim power for himself. Now we meet Hardin's secret weapon – religion. The Ambassador to Anacreon, Poly Verisof, doubles as High Priest of the newly created and highly popular religion of the Galactic Spirit founded by the great prophet Hari Seldon. With his network of temples and priests spread throughout the Four Kingdoms, Verisof has enthralled the people by the miracles of science controlled by the Foundation. He and Hardin arrange their counterstroke to the machinations of the power hungry regent of Anacreon.

On the eve of Lepold's coronation and Sermak's call for impeachment, Hardin departs for a surprise visit to Anacreon, making a quick tour of the Four Kingdoms to confer with his representatives and finally meeting with Verisof. As the hour of coronation approaches, Hardin apparently walks into a trap in which Wienis imprisons him in his chambers. As the clock approaches midnight, Lepold mounts his nuclear powered throne, a luminous aura surrounds him and the throne levitates and proceeds toward the window where he is to be crowned before the adoring crowds. Unbeknownst to him, Verisof and his priests have whipped them into a frenzy of opposition by revealing the plans for an imminent attack on Terminus, which they know to be the sacred home of the Galactic Spirit.

At the stroke of midnight, the aura around Lepold blinks out and the throne crashes to the floor, as all power on Anacreon is suddenly lost. Wienis, in rage, flies to his chambers and demands Hardin restore power immediately. He reveals that his flagship cruiser is enroute for Terminus to reduce it to ruins. Hardin, unperturbed, tells Wienis to watch the televisor on the wall, which at that moment flashes to life. On screen is the son of Wienis, the admiral of the fleet on board the invading flagship. He informs his father that the crew has mutinied upon learning of their sacrilegious mission and the fleet is returning to bombard the royal palace unless the Foundation's demands are met.

Wienis orders his soldiers to kill Hardin, but none dares to pull the trigger on his blaster. Wienis grabs one of the weapons and shoots Hardin, but he has employed a force field of his own and the blast is harmlessly dispersed. Wienis then turns the weapon on himself and shoots his own head off.
Hardin calmly says, "A man of direct action to the end. The final refuge."

An epilogue of sorts concludes the chapter. It is the second appearance in the Time Vault by the holo-recording of Hari Seldon, who confirms the strategy Hardin has executed and warns the Foundation that they shouldn't get overconfident. They're only 80 years into a 1000 year plan after all. A lot of work is still left to do, and the core of the old Empire remains strong.

I think this narrative, without much modification at all - maybe make some gender changes as it lacks any female characters as written - would make for an amazing TV episode. There are other great moments in the story to come, most notably during the rise and fall of The Mule, but this particular story is beautifully written. No paranormal forces or mentalics are needed, just the ingenious strategy of using science as a religion, which will continue to be an essential element of Hari Seldon's great plan for the return of civilization to the fallen empire. Most of all, it is a wonderful portrayal of Asimov's favorite kind of hero; a master strategist who uses wits over weapons to achieve the seemingly impossible.