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.
I still don't like the title
From a plot perspective, Forward the Foundation follows Prelude to Foundation in telling the life story of Hari Seldon. This time, however, it is separated into discrete stories that are roughly a decade apart from each other. These stories tell of the challenges Seldon faces in realizing psychohistory, but also the challenges he faces in his personal life, especially the troubles of loss and aging. As this was the final book Asimov penned before his death, it doesn't take much imagination to read the subtext: that this is ultimately an autobiographical book, one in which Asimov himself grapples with the world around him and the legacy he will leave behind.
Despite what I wrote last time about my dissatisfaction with Asimov's decision to go backwards in the chronology, this book is staggering in its depth and insight. Make no mistakes; it does fill in some of the gaps in the overarching story of the series at large, but that's clearly not the primary aim. Instead, it's about a man who is both remarkable and flawed, driven and plagued with self-doubt, humanist and cynical, loving and distant. Most of all, though, it is about what we leave behind, what remains of the loved ones we lose along the way, and what meaning we can take from our life's work.
Near the end of the book, Seldon gives a speech in defense of his beliefs that isn't overly flowery or impressive, but which is incredibly moving not only because the speech fits Seldon's character, but also because it's difficult not to hear Asimov speaking directly to you. I'll freely admit that, both times I have read this novel, it made my eyes well up a bit, even though, like I said, there's nothing especially remarkable about the speech other than its earnestness.
He's got the whole galaxy in his hand
The book does go to some very dark places, dealing with the nitty-gritty details of a society in steep decline, of the populace at large losing its humanity to enormous social forces that seem utterly inexplicable. Hari Seldon's journey is one defined by trying to make sense of this darkness and find a light to guide future generations through, even as he faces devastating losses in his personal life.
Perhaps it's not reading too deep into things to argue that Asimov himself took great comfort in the idea that the present can be reduced to a scientific, mathematical calculation, that no matter how barbarous humanity can be, the future will be guided by science and reason. Both the Robot and Foundation series as a whole, then, could be seen as Asimov's testament to that ideal, and maybe it's the single most important thing we can take away from his writing.
Getting down to specifics, though, Forward the Foundation combines the best aspects of the original trilogy--its episodic nature, clever mysteries, surprise twists, and intriguing villains--with the best aspects of his later work--its more personal approach, more refined sense of detail, and Asimov's capacity to tie up loose ends in a satisfying way--to produce something that is actually fun to read, despite the heavy stuff outlined above. It's not completely flawless--for instance, the third part, "Dors Vanabili," feels a little too meandering with a climax and resolution that come completely out of nowhere--but it definitely deserves a spot on the list of the grandmaster's greatest novels. The politics are nuanced, the characters are fascinating, the riddles are clever, the language is brilliant, and the imagery is sublime.
Da Vinci... robot... moon?
It also addresses many of the problems I have with its immediate predecessor. While nothing in Forward the Foundation alleviates my biggest single gripe about Prelude (namely, the fact that Seldon doesn't believe in psychohistory at first and is forced on a path against his will), it does very quickly establish that Seldon must take responsibility for his own agency from this point on. Eto Demerzel very bluntly points out that he can't solve Seldon's problems for him any longer, and it isn't long before Demerzel walks out of the story altogether, followed in various stages by nearly all of the other people Seldon has grown to rely on.
In these stories, psychohistory is driven by Hari Seldon, and it is obvious that, without Seldon fighting to keep it alive, it would never survive the fall of the Empire. Sure, Seldon didn't birth all of its core principles or even initially believe it could be what it would become, but in a way, that makes it feel more honest, more like a real-life scientific achievement. Every character contributes to the inevitable success of the Foundation, and Asimov is very clever to point out how, in any large-scale human endeavor, it takes hundreds of individuals sharing ideas and working together to make it work. Seldon is, in this book at least, the driving force, but he would never realize psychohistory entirely on his own.
Fans of the series might still walk away from this book disappointed that Asimov never got around to Galaxia, and though a part of me certainly shares in that disappointment, I don't think I would sacrifice Forward the Foundation for it. Asimov, knowing that he was dying (he was fighting HIV he had contracted from a blood transfusion, though that would be kept secret until ten years after his death), wanted to express his feelings about what it all meant the best way he knew how, and what better cypher than Hari Seldon, the closest character in all his fiction to Asimov himself? Though he knew his grand chronology would never be truly finished--that others would have to pick up the mantle after he was gone--he wanted to have a sense of completion. He wanted his life's work laid bare around him, to know that it all meant something. It does.
-e. magill 7/29/2021
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: