Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Review - Prelude to Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Short review: Seldon wanders around Trantor developing psychohistory. Because the best way to develop a new science is to do it on the run.

Hari Seldon speaks
The Emperor is nonplussed
Olivaw monster!

Full review: Despite being the "first" book of the Foundation era, this is one of the last books written in the series. It probably wasn't worth the effort. In context - the original Foundation trilogy was a masterful piece of science fiction writing when it was produced: innovative, interesting, and thought-provoking. Then, late in his life, Asimov decided to expand on the Foundation trilogy, and in the process, mash it together with his Robot books. The result was not pretty.

The basic plot line follows Hari Seldon, the man who developed psychohistory. It begins just as Seldon gives a speech about the potential science of psychohistory, a discipline for which he has only worked out the preliminary foundations. The Emperor Cleon I is interested, and interviews Seldon, but becomes convinced that psychohistory is nothing more than a theoretical toy. Seldon is then contacted by a journalist named Chetter Huminn who convinces him that Cleon's first minister (and the true power in the government) is after Seldon, and Seldon has to hide. Most of the book details Seldon's travels about Trantor with his bodyguard (and later wife), a woman named Dors, as he both tries to work out the fundamentals of psychohistory and evade the first minister. Along the way he finds and adopts a boy named Raych, and collaborates with another scientist named Yugo.

In the end, it turns out that Huminn is actually the first minister, and is also actually the robot R. Daneel Olivaw who has been benevolently guiding humanity for thousands of years. The whole of Seldon's time on the run was orchestrated by Olivaw so he could work out psychohistory to the point where it would be a useful science. There are some explanations as to why Olivaw thought it necessary to engage in the charade, but they only make him seem more ridiculously omniscient than before, and sink the series to further depths of silliness. Asimov's writing saves the book from the ridiculously convoluted plot, but that doesn't make the book any better than average. And for a book tied to both the excellent Foundation trilogy, and the original Robot books, average is a disappointment.

Previous book in the series: Foundation and Earth
Subsequent book in the series: Forward the Foundation

1989 Hugo Longlist
1989 Locus Award Nominees

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