Thursday, December 8, 2011

Review - Forward the Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Short review: Seldon takes the reins of power and develops psychohistory under the benevolent guidance of omniscient robots.

Some benevolent robots
A hero lessened

Full review: Later in his life, Asimov went back to writing about the events surrounding the Foundation trilogy, his seminal work of science fiction. (As a side note, this was actually Asimov's final published piece of fiction, and was published posthumously). This book takes place immediately before the events that commence with the book Foundation. It details the years of Hari Seldon's life immediately before he established the Foundation project, and also attempts to explain why he was considered such a dangerous individual by imperial political forces.

Through much of the book Seldon serves the Emperor Cleon as First Minister, using the power granted by his position to push forward research on psychohistory, eventually perfecting it into a useful tool. This changes the nature of Hari Seldon that was implied in the original series which seemed to depict him as a rogue mathematician who challenged the establishment by coming up with a predictive theory of history. Instead, Seldon is now firmly entrenched as a member of the government, leveraging the resources of the Empire to develop his theory. Instead of being an outsider who poses a threat to the accepted orthodoxy, Seldon is reduced to the head of a government project that some think has gone awry. Along the way, Seldon's enemies (and random events) strip away most of his loved ones, and he finally sends the last of them into exile to found the Second Foundation.

And like most of the other books extending the Foundation series, this book features Asimov's robots shepherding humanity towards their own secretive goals. Olivaw, having decided that psychohistory must be developed, manipulates events to place Seldon in power as First Minister which seems to be an odd choice. After all, if you want to develop a scientific discipline, it seems that having to fill the job of running a galaxy-wide Empire while doing your research on the side would be a hindrance, not a help. And Seldon's constant companion is the robot Dors, who is supposed to guard Seldon while he completes his work. The upshot of these elements is that it is clear that Seldon's project is the result of robot guidance and robot protection - and it is only when that guidance and protection are removed that things begin to go wrong for Seldon, which results in his conviction and exile.

All of these elements serve to diminish Seldon as a character, especially the presence of the nigh-omniscient guardian robots (although Dors proves remarkably dim concerning one critical plot point). Not only that, the plan for the development of psychohistory seems remarkably dumb for one worked out by omniscient robots. Science develops by the interchange of ideas. Scientists publish papers. Other scientists with similar skills study those papers and then expand upon or express criticisms of the ideas in them, producing their own papers to be disseminated among the academic community. It is this give and take that drives the development of science, a fact that Asimov, as a biochemist, probably understood. But when developing psychohistory, Seldon does almost all of the work as part of a nonpublic government project, making suppressing it easy to do when his enemies catch up with him. If he had disseminated the information widely, then the science probably would have developed much more quickly, and the genie would have been much more difficult for his opponents to cram back into the bottle. But what do I know: I'm not an omniscient virtually immortal robot.

Like most of the later Foundation-related books, this one is not as good as the original trilogy. Given that the original trilogy is rightly regarded as an essential work in the genre, a little fall-off is somewhat to be expected. Unfortunately, as often happens, by explaining the events that were implied in the original books as back-story, the tale is somewhat diminished. In the prequels, Seldon's character is transformed from a maverick scientist to a political functionary, which I think diminishes him. As in Prelude to Foundation, the introduction of the robots into the story is also jarring. However, the story is pure Asimov, and like most Asimov, it is an interesting, and reasonably well-presented story.

Previous book in the series: Prelude to Foundation

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