There must be some law about how, the longer an author is allowed to play in their sandbox, the worse their stories get. At some point, every author who has a long-spanning saga feels encouraged to go back and fill in gaps in the chronology, creating that wonderful dichotomy of possible reading experiences: publication order and chronological order. L.E. Modesitt’s Recluce saga is one of the most notable modern examples. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series is a classic. Prelude to Foundation is one of the last Foundation stories Asimov wrote, yet it is chronologically the earliest. It is in many ways a great folly yet it also shows Asimov’s abiding love for a genre that he nurtured and helped kickstart into a thriving industry. I am starting to think Asimov himself is very much like this book: he should not be overlooked, but when you do look at him, he isn’t all that great.
Hari Seldon arrives on Trantor to give a talk at a conference. He speaks of a glimmer of an idea—psychohistory—and this is enough to get the attention of Galactic Emperor Cleon I. After a disappointing audience with the emperor, Hari thinks he is on his way home to Helicon. Instead, he is swept up by a journalist who is obviously so much more into a whirlwind adventure, touring various sectors of Trantor while under the protection of a love/lust interest, Dors. As Hari and Dors flee from sector to sector, experiencing each one’s diverse culture and customs, Hari considers whether predicting the future of humanity is indeed mathematically practical. The answer seems to lie in a common theme that arises throughout these novels: the forgotten origin of humanity, and the truth behind Earth and robots.
Frankly, as a novel, this book makes sense in many respects. Yet in some ways I miss the early Foundation novels that were compilations of shorter novellas. Working at that length, Asimov had reason to keep his plots crisp. Prelude to Foundation feels too long for all it accomplishes, too prone to filler. It is the indulgence of an author so established in his career that he gets a pass when it comes to editing.
In previous reviews of this series, I have tackled Asimov’s writing style as well as his relentless and gross male gaze. The latter is still present here, although I am pleased to report someone told him to tone it down. Sexism lurks beneath subtly undermined attempts to portray societies here as equal. Hari and Dors’ story is obviously one of those romances where the characters start at odds yet, as they overcome bigger struggles, they grow to love one another. Hari is just as much of a dog as the other Asimov protagonists; he just doesn’t have as much opportunity to put this into practice given the predicaments of plot.
In terms of big concepts, Prelude to Foundation is probably, at this point in the publication order of the series, Asimov’s most honest attempt to explain the nature of psychohistory. Up until now, he has handwaved it as incredibly complex mathematical formulas that only really really really smart people can know how to do. This book humanizes Hari in a way that the previous books couldn’t, and we come to see how fraught the early days of psychohistory were. And thus comes Asimov’s big idea, exemplified by the role of Chetter Hummin, this idea that it could be possible to guide humanity to a better future. Writing this in the late 1980s, having lived so long a life already and experienced so much of the tumultuous twentieth century, with its technological upheavals, I can bet that Asimov more than ever wished psychohistory could be science fact rather than science fiction. And the power hungry nature of those who would abduct Hari to use him for their own ends underscores this belief. For Asimov, psychohistory is the ultimate triumph of human ingenuity over human atavism: if we can predict and guide humanity in a way that overrides the follies of flawed individuals, we will be better. We will evolve.
I am close to the end of my re-read of the series. I intend to stop with Forward the Foundation; I don’t plan at this time to read any of the estate-authorized works, nor do I feel compelled to dive into the rest of Asimov’s oeuvre. I’m glad I embarked on this project, but my opinion of Asimov remains decidedly mixed. On one hand, he is so overrated. On the other, as noted above, his works contain a true genius of hopefulness about humanity, a commitment to writing science-fiction stories that show us ways forward beyond our own single world.
In my last review of this series, I will discuss how I feel about Asimov’s place overall in the canon of science fiction. For now, know this: Prelude to Foundation is a valuable insight into the final era of one of the most prolific science-fiction writers of the twentieth century. Given that, it would be, if it came from any other writer, a profound disappointment of a novel.