Welcome to the second Summer of Asimov, where we'll be examining the third of the so-called Big Three Golden Age Science-Fiction authors. We've already covered the technologist Arthur C. Clarke and the political futurist Robert A. Heinlein, so now we get to the philosophical fantasist, Isaac Asimov. Covering Asimov adequately over one summer proved to be a daunting task, especially with the pandemic, so I've had to split it into two. This year, we'll mostly be covering the Foundation series, in anticipation of the hopefully-as-good-as-it-looks television series coming out later in the year (which I will of course be reviewing). So sit back, relax, and enjoy some vintage, epic science-fiction from one of the grandmasters of the genre.
Welcome to the Hotel Galactic Empire
Before he conceived of the Foundation, Hari Seldon was just an ordinary mathematician with an extraordinary idea, one he considered an interesting thought experiment more than a practical science. This idea, psychohistory, was announced in a talk at a conference of mathematics to little fanfare, but it was noticed by the power brokers of the Galactic Empire, including--but certainly not limited to--the Emperor himself, Cleon I. Cleon demands an audience with Seldon, only to be put off by the mathematician's insistence that he cannot predict the future nor would he be willing to pretend to for the purposes of propaganda. Before he leaves the Imperial world of Trantor to return to his pastoral life in the quiet reaches of the galaxy, Hari Seldon finds himself ensnared in a grand chase, held in check by those who would use his ideas for their own gain.
Thus begins Prelude to Foundation, a novel set roughly fifty years before "The Psychohistorians." Asimov wrote this after Foundation and Earth, which sets up a future Galaxia that he never got around to writing about before his death. I have tried to set aside my disappointment with this fact, but no matter how objectively I try to read the book, I can't help but wonder why he thought a prequel would bear more interesting fruit than a true sequel. My opinion of Prelude to Foundation is therefore complicated, but before I get into what I consider its major flaws (including one critical one that I simply cannot forgive), let me discuss its strengths.
As a longer novel and a self-contained story, it has more room to breathe than the concatenated short stories that make up the original trilogy. Because of this, Asimov has the opportunity to really explore the planet of Trantor and its various subcultures, fleshing it out into a more realized setting that never gets tiring. He goes into more detail about the logistics of the galactic capital--technological, economical, and political--and crafts a story in which it is logical to see our supposed hero, Hari Seldon, travel from one unique area of the planet to another. Too often in science-fiction--even in bonafide greats like the Dune series--planets are reduced to singular ecosystems: desert planets, forest planets, swamp planets, etc. However, Trantor feels very much like a full world full of different regional cultures, beliefs, and enviromental realities, even though, essentially speaking, the entire planet is one enormous city.
That's some dramatic lighting!
For this reason, Asimov is free to explore a broad range of characters and social ideas, including a surprisingly passionate declaration of humanist principles late in the novel when Seldon is faced with irrational prejudices against different groups of people. He touches on sexuality, socio-economic classes, racial disparities, and even religion--including the fascinating secular religion of Mycogen--and does so in a way that feels perfectly organic to the story and important for Seldon's mission of reducing human sociology to a set of mathematical variables.
There's also a pretty good romantic subplot throughout between Seldon and his companion, Dors Venabili. Asimov writes strong female characters well--though he spent too much time in his early career ignoring them--and Dors is one of his best, almost as memorable as the great Susan Calvin from his robot stories. The sexual tension between them is occasionally awkwardly written and hard to decifer, but after reading so much Heinlein and Clarke in previous summers, it's hard not to appreciate how much better Asimov seems to understand women.
That said, the novel suffers from the usual problems associated with prequels. It has a difficult time sustaining tension, and some parts feel like unnecessary digressions from what is a story whose ending we already know. Granted, Asimov does adeptly throw in a few twists by the end, but of the three main ones, at least two are painfully obvious to anyone paying close attention. It's not Asimov's cleverest mystery, though the final few chapters are still perfectly entertaining and adequately exciting.
Trantor is made of domes, but they're supposed to be pushed into each other and covering almost all of the planet surface (and opaque)
My biggest problem, though, involves what Prelude to Foundation does to the character of Hari Seldon. No, I do not believe Seldon should be a flawless character, and yes, I think he has a satisfying arc from naive provincial to streetwise Trantorian. However, Seldon is a passenger in his own story, and from a strictly academic perspective, he is neither the protagonist nor the antagonist. He is shuttled from place to place by the machinations of others rather than his own agency, and he is constantly having to be rescued from various perils at the last possible moment, a trope that gets old very quickly.
Most unforgivable is the fact that, while he did indeed come up with the basic idea of psychohistory prior to the start of the novel, he is dragged kicking and screaming into figuring out how to make it practical by people who already think the Empire is in a state of decline. He is essentially forced, by the character of Hummin (the true protagonist), to do what he is destined to do, and so the entire Foundation is not, in fact, Hari Seldon's invention, but rather Hummin's, by proxy. Instead of Seldon being a true scientist who uncovers an uncomfortable reality and must convince the galaxy of the truth of things, he himself must be talked into reaching a predetermined conclusion by Hummin, who already believes it to be true without the benefit of psychohistory to prove it. This is a galling retcon I have a very hard time accepting.
[This final paragraph contains a massive spoiler, so if you don't want that, my basic conclusion is that Prelude to Foundation is a well-written novel with a fantastic setting, but it does more violence to the Foundation series than good.] This all stems, of course, from Asimov's determination to tie up the connections between his robot stories and the Foundation stories. In so doing, he makes it so that humans don't solve their own problems. Instead, R. Daneel Olivaw is made into a godlike figure who, as a robot, solves all of humanity's problems by forcing Seldon down the path towards creating the Foundation (and even telling him to create two of them). As much as I love Daneel as a character, I find it deeply frustrating that he essentially subsumes the character of Hari Seldon and that Asimov thus recontextualizes the entire Foundation series as just one long epilogue to Robots and Empire. I would have much prefered that Asimov spent the last decade of his career writing about what happens after Foundation than with reworking its previously established origins.
-e. magill 7/8/2021
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: