August/September 2004

Prelude to Foundation

A novel by Isaac Asimov
Bantam Books
Orig. 1988

Twelve years after his death, Isaac Asimov is arguably still the best-known science fiction writer in the world, with more titles to his credit than Wells and Verne combined. The recent release of the Will Smith movie I, Robot has raised more awareness of Asimov and his works. (I, Ronically the title comes from a story by Eando Binder, not Asimov: It was suggested by the publisher of his first collection of robot stories.)

Asimov is well known for not only having single handedly developed the concept of the mechanical man, or robot, out of the murk of the Frankensteins that populated the pages of the pulp magazines of his youth, but also for essentially originating the concept of a galactic empire. And that Empire is the central concern of his Foundation books, of which there are seven, proper, as well as a crossover, Robots and Empire.<

Prelude to Foundation details the story of Asimov's famous psychohistorian character, Hari Seldon, in the early years of his life. More specifically, it tells the story of Seldon's arrival on the galactic capital world, Trantor. In the Foundation trilogy, Trantor is presented as a city-covered world, but in Prelude to Foundation Asimov has refined this concept somewhat and made Trantor a much more interesting place.

Seldon debarks on Trantor as an essentially naïve rustic, a mathematician from a backwater world, on his first outing to the "big city," where he is to give a paper describing the theoretical underpinnings of what he is calling "psychohistory."

To Seldon's astonishment, he learns that the Emperor, Cleon, is interested enough in his work to summon Seldon to a personal audience. After the meeting, Seldon meets a journalist, Chetter Hummin, who suggests that Imperial interest equates to personal danger. Seldon learns almost immediately that Hummin's assessment is correct. No matter that not even Seldon, at this stage, believes that psychohistory can actually be made into a applicable science. He is forced to flee into several of Trantor's strange sub-cultural communities, trying to hide from Cleon's merciless First Minister, Eto Demerzel, and try to figure out if psychohistory can be made practical. The book is at its best when Asimov guides us through Trantor's various communities.

What we have here is a rather picaresque novel that serves to advance the Foundation series by going back to fill in the blanks left by the original trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation). Asimov hadn't detailed Seldon's early life before, beyond a few passing references and notes, and Prelude to Foundation provided him with an excellent opportunity to do that, all taking some crucial steps toward integrating his two main series, the Foundation books and the robot novels.

Prelude to Foundation has more action and movement in it than most of Asimov's books, which tend to be "idea" novels - people sitting around discussing things rather than having adventures per se. And no one would ever accuse Asimov of being one of the sf field's more daring experimenters when it comes to characterization. In fact, his arguably best-known character, R. Daneel Olivaw, isn't even a human being. (His second-best-known character, Susan Calvin, is so chilly and forbidding that even she barely qualifies as human - and the Mule was a mutant.)

As with all of Asimov's fiction, this novel is a quick read. A man who wrote as many books as Isaac Asimov could never have a demanding or opaque style - and this book is no exception. Its prose is crystal-clear and undemanding, if a bit dull at times - the Good Doctor wasn't one to do a lot of drafts, so infelicities like using the same word two or even three times in a paragraph or two occur from time to time. Nevertheless, the tale moves along at a brisk clip. Asimov's plot twists are essentially rather pedestrian and contrived (remember that he was working toward integrating two previously unrelated series), but entertaining for all that. The characters are serviceable, and Seldon is likeable if a bit dense, showing only flashes of the sage he became toward the end of his life.

I've recently read two other Asimov books - Foundation's Edge and I, Robot. His prose did improve as he grew older - the tales comprising I, Robot in particular are not really very well written and time has not been kind to them. Foundation's Edge is somewhat better, but—in his fiction style at least—Asimov never really got beyond the style he had developed in the Forties. He was unapologetic about that. Indeed, Foundation's Edge made it to the best-seller list, his first book to do so, no matter that it reads a bit like an inexpert attempt to copy Jack Vance. So go figure. His books are still widely read and as long as sf exists, it seems likely that the name of Isaac Asimov will be familiar to millions of readers.

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