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Prelude to Foundation (1988)

Isaac Asimov

New York: Bantam Books; ISBN: 0-553-27839-8; Pages: 434

Review © 2003 Branislav L. Slantchev

Written over 30 years after the first Foundation book, this prequel takes place several decades before the events in that novel. Hari Seldon is a 32-year old mathematician who has just delivered a paper on the theoretical possibility of psychohistory at a convention on Trantor. Almost immediately a few unsavory characters take an intense interest in his discovery: some, who have realized its political ramifications even if they don't believe that it can ever be made practical; and others, who have realized the immense consequences of this theory being made practical, even if there is only a faint hope of that.

The Emperor is the first to try to recruit Seldon and get it to "predict" the glorious rule of his dynasty in the future. When the mathematician stubbornly insists psychohistory is just theoretical, the Emperor apparently releases him but under the surveillance of the sinister Eto Demerzel. By accident, Seldon befriends a journalist by the name of Hummin, who takes him in a wild flight from the Imperial Forces across the entire planet-city of Trantor.

Accompanied only by the beautiful Dors Venabili, a professor and historian, Seldon shuttles from one sector of the city to another, trying to get some inspiration that might help him resolve the insurmountable complexity of making social predictions in a Galaxy with 25 million inhabited worlds. Everywhere he runs into trouble with the sector denizens whose customs he oddly refuses to accommodate. And every time he is unfailingly saved by a deus ex machina appearance of one of his few friends, mostly Hummin, who seems to exert remarkable influence all over Trantor for a journalist.

Seldon goes first to Mycogen, where the depilated men oppress their depilated women much like one would expect in an ancient Islamic community. He violates their taboo by entering the Sacratorium where he discovers the nonfunctional remains of a metallic robot. He then goes to Dahl (which resembles present-day India in many ways) where he runs into the local underground, and thereby afoul of the security police. He is saved only to find himself a "guest" of the Mayor of Wye, who has designs on the Imperial throne herself. And then...

The writing, I must admit, is better than in the old novels. The action is generally tight and well-paced except for the numerous digressions to explain future technology, customs, or robotics in a way that marks science fiction geared toward adoring Star Trek fans. In a sense, all the personal is swamped by the implausible anti-gravity lifts, moving stairs, bad fast food (even in the future!), and endless descriptions of extremely varied sectors. At one point I railed against the tendency of sci-fi authors to homogenize all future worlds in a rather naive way, with planets replacing nation-states. That is, the tendency is to populate the Galaxy with very different worlds, but each with planetary government.

At first I thought that Asimov has finally broken the mold when he indulged in Trantorian sections so wildly different from one another. But if you then look closely, the variety seems artificial and, unfortunately, with sources very detectable in present-day cliché. For example, the poverty-stricken Dahl is populated by short, dark-skinned people, where all men wear moustache. Some, who encounter Seldon's gracious condemnation of the social caste system, admire him and seem grateful to him... in a way that would clearly be beneath the dignity of anyone who actually believed in equality. In a way, the white colonial (again) bestows the grace of acknowledging their existence!

The sector of Mycogen is even worse because Asimov uses the opportunity to make some rather transparent and mundane statements about the rights of women in society. But he is totally off-base here too because if there was anything annoying about the sector, it was Seldon (and, to some extent, Dors), who behaved like a dumb petulant child that simply refused to honor the (doubtless difficult to grant) hospitality of their hosts.

This, by the way, is a recurrent complaint throughout. Seldon is a naive simpleton, a rather boring and self-absorbed guy, who cannot fathom even the simplest matters of courtesy. Under the unjustifiable guise of "academic exploration" he feels he can barge in on everyone, poke his nose everywhere, violate every local custom, brutalize his hosts, and evade any sort of punishment because... well, he's "on a mission from God." He should have gotten the short end of the stick many, many times.

Why he did not, of course, should have given him doubts about his friend Hummin. But it never does. For some bizarre reason, the logical mathematician is ready to accept that his journalist friend can be everywhere, arrange everything, bail him out of impossible situations, and even prevent an intrigue from the most powerful woman on Trantor. But how? And why, the heck, is Dors ready to risk life and limb for someone whom she's just met and whose work she does not understand by her own admission?

But Seldon never anticipates the obvious. SPOILER ALERT. DO NOT READ THE REST OF THIS REVIEW UNLESS YOU HAVE READ THE NOVEL. I, for one, knew that Hummin must be Eto himself. I had my suspicions from the beginning: that episode with the two thugs simply did not ring true; why would Eto ever arrange this was unclear despite the unconvincing explanation. When he bailed him out in Mycogen, however, I felt pretty sure. Asimov simply does not manage to conceal the twist that well.

And what about R. Daneel Olivaw? After the contemptible conclusion of the Foundation saga in Foundation and Earth, I expected that Asimov would now attempt to link the series even tighter. And therefore, it was easy to guess that Hummin/Eto was Daneel. I even thought Dors was a robot because she was too much of a Heinlein type and as we all know Asimov does not understand that female type at all. So she had to be... unnatural. Of course, our ever open-minded Seldon would not be denied the pleasures of the flesh even if it were not quite human.

This brings me to the major flaw of all Asimov's writings in the 1980s. He cannot shake the idea that Humanity needs some sort of benevolent guidance in order to survive or do well. There's also someone in charge for the good of all, whether it is an Empire, a Foundation, a Mutant, a Robot, or a New Consciousness. Asimov seems to regard humans as basically incapable of progress and survival. I resent it and that's why I simply dislike the idea of a 20 thousand year-old positronic brain who is governed by the Zeroeth Law. Law or no law, the question posed by Juvenal two thousand years ago is still in search for an answer: sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

August 15, 2003