Prelude to Foundation, by Isaac Asimov (pub. 1988)
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Caution: Spoilers. This is the sixth book in the Foundation series, in the order that the books were written by Asimov, though it is the first book within the chronological setting of the story. Therefore, you might wish to read it first. I, personally, choose to read the books in the order written, and I believe a certain foreknowledge of various events, gained from having first read books which are set later, helps one more fully appreciate this book. However, it's also possible that such foreknowledge might be seen as spoilers of this book (though on the other hand, reading this first could present spoilers of earlier books in the series- especially the fifth- if you choose to read them later). So, I leave it up to you to decide in what order you prefer to read the series. Just know that this review will be written with the assumption that you have already read the first five books, so if you wish to avoid spoilers of them, you may want to hold off on reading this review. Meanwhile, I'll try to leave a few of the twists of this book, itself, unspoiled... but I may be a bit less cautious about even such immediate spoilers than I have been in my reviews of earlier books in the series....
Before I properly begin my review, I want to mention that it's rather refreshing to once again see the occasional excerpts from the Encyclopedia Galactica, which were absent from the fourth and fifth books.
"Prelude to Foundation" is set the year 12,020 of the Galactic Era, at which point Hari Seldon was 32 years old. He comes to Trantor, capital of the Galactic Empire, from a provincial world called Helicon. Which can't help but make me recall the first story of the first Foundation novel- Seldon's first time on Trantor is much like that of Gaal Dornick, which I found rather amusing. Anyway, Seldon, a mathematician, was here to read a paper at the Decennial Convention. His paper was on psychohistory, which would use mathematics to calculate probable future societal developments. (From the previous books, I had gotten the impression that Seldon had developed psychohistory, but not invented it. Here, it seems to be his own original idea, though of course it was still based on older mathematical concepts, even if he was the first to show that certain things might not be entirely chaotic, and therefore not entirely impossible....) Anyway, Seldon is called before Emperor Cleon I, who wants to use psychohistory for his own benefit. Seldon assures him it's mere theory at this point, and would probably be impossible to truly develop it to a point where accurate or useful predictions could be made, and if it could, it might take several lifetimes of work.
Cleon is disappointed, but his advisor, Eto Demerzel, convinces him that they should keep an eye on Seldon, in case he should eventually work out psychohistory so that it becomes useful. And meanwhile, they must make sure Seldon stays out of the hands of their potential enemies, most importantly the Mayor of Wye (one of the sectors of Trantor, whose Mayors believe themselves to be the rightful rulers of the Empire, because of lineage from long ago). Later, Seldon meets a man named Chetter Hummin, who discusses the paper Seldon had read at the convention. He also helps defend Seldon in an attack by a couple of thugs, and warns him about Demerzel. It was also Hummin who presented Seldon with the notion that the Empire was in decay, and couldn't last much longer. (The previous books led one to believe this was itself a prediction of psychohistory. It may seem a bit ironic that the fact instead became the impetus for the development of the science, though the original assumption isn't entirely inaccurate, as psychohistory surely not only backed up Hummin's belief, but also provided a more specific assessment of the decline of the Empire.)
And so, Hummin not only convinced Seldon that he was in danger from Cleon and Demerzel, but also that he must make every effort to develop psychohistory into something usable, to either prevent the fall of the Empire, or minimize the trouble. Seldon himself constantly maintained it was impossible, but nevertheless, he ended up making his best effort to make some kind of progress. Meanwhile, Hummin arranged for him to stay at Streeling University (in the Streeling sector of Trantor), which the Empire's forces couldn't touch. There, Seldon met a woman named Dors Venabili, who Hummin had assigned as his protector. Being a historian, she might also be useful in helping Seldon figure out how to proceed with the psychohistory thing, seeing as he knew relatively little about history, himself. She came from a world called Cinna, though she'd been on Trantor for a couple of years, which meant she knew more about Trantor than Seldon did, but was still essentially an Outworlder herself, just like him. (She would often, in the course of the book, point out various aspects of human behavior, and suggest them as possible laws of psychohistory, though often she seemed sarcastic about it. At one point, Seldon mentions the "Laws of Humanics," which should be amusing to anyone familiar with Asimov's Robot novels; btw, I wanted to mention that I felt this book did a pretty good job of rationalizing Asimov's attempt to merge his Robot novels- and other series- with his Foundation novels.)
There was an incident one day which put Seldon in some danger, which led to Hummin deciding Seldon and Venabili should be relocated, this time to the Mycogen sector. The adults there have no hair, finding it to be taboo, so Hari and Dors had to wear skincaps. Also, women there were treated as inferiors. And outsiders, referred to as "tribesmen," are all disdained by Mycogenians. There were plenty of things that made Hari and Dors uncomfortable about the sector, but supposedly they had historical records going back farther than the Empire's records, so Hari was eager to learn what he could. He believes he needs a more simple system on which to base psychohistory than the impossible complexity of the Galactic Empire, and soon becomes interested in the possibility of a single world of origin for humanity, which is, according to Dors, a popular theory of late (as has been mentioned in the earlier books). She mentions a place called Earth, though a Mycogenian book mentions a world called Aurora (which we know was one of the original 50 Spacer worlds, 20,000 years ago, though Hari doesn't know this). There is also a legend about robots, which Hari becomes interested in. (Which rather led me to wonder something, a... recurring theme I've noticed in various Foundation books, about a character looking for something that was there all along. But I wasn't sure....)
Of course, Hari again brings trouble upon himself, so he and Dors must leave the Mycogen sector, again with Hummin's help. This time, they went to the Dahl sector, a working-class place which is supposedly disdained by other sectors. Here, Hari learns a bit about prejudice. He also meets an uneducated worker named Yugo Amaryl, who wanted to become a mathematician, from whom he learns that Dahlites know of Earth. Yugo directs him to a woman called Mother Rittah, who passes on stories about Earth, as well as of a robot called Da-Nee. But to find her, Hari and Dors had to enter a dangerous slum within Dahl, called Billibotton. There, they met a boy named Raych, who would prove helpful, in a number of ways. He introduces them to a man named Davan, the leader of an anti-Imperial movement, who would like to use psychohistory for his own purposes. Hari would like to help, but he's not yet in a position to do so. And once again... trouble finds Hari and Dors, but they manage to escape the authorities, through the help of a powerful friend of Davan's.
Hari assumed that friend would turn out to be Hummin, but actually, he, Dors, and Raych end up being delivered to the Mayor of Wye, Rashelle. Who, of course, wants to use Hari's psychohistory, to help in her own plans for overthrowing the Emperor. Though she didn't want to rule an Empire of 25 million worlds, she only wanted Trantor and a few nearby worlds, letting the rest of the galaxy break into splinter groups to peacefully rule themselves and coexist with one another, through trade and tourism. She just needed Seldon to convince the galaxy that such peace was possible. (In fact I liked her plan, and in a way it reminded me of a couple of stages of the Plan which Seldon himself eventually develops.) But Hari and Dors both realized her plan wouldn't work, though there was nothing they could do about it. Luckily, Hummin once again came to their rescue. However, when he showed up, Rashelle revealed a twist about Hummin that I did not see coming, though it made sense, when I thought about it. What that twist was, is one of the few things I won't spoil for you.
Soon after, Hari himself revealed a suspicion he had about Hummin, which was a suspicion I myself had had all along. A notion which I suppose would have been natural for anyone who'd read the fifth book to consider. (Which is rather why I say that reading that book before this could be a spoiler for this book, while reading this book first could serve as a spoiler for the fifth book.) Well, I said at the outset that I'd consider anyone reading this review to have already read the first five books, so the following will not be considered by me to constitute a spoiler: Hummin is R. Daneel Olivaw, a humaniform robot who has existed for 20,000 years, and because of the Zeroth Law of Robotics, cannot allow humanity to come to harm. So he's been working to preserve the Empire as best he can, and one of the methods he uses involves manipulating human emotions, through a mentalic power he possesses. However, he must use as much restraint as possible, because of the First Law, as well as because it's impossible to know for certain what results will be produced, in the long run. Psychohistory would ease the pressure, if it gave him foreknowledge of what actions would turn out to be best for humanity. (I want to mention that it did seem, at the end of the fifth book, as if psychohistory might have been Daneel's idea, rather than Hari Seldon's, and I'm glad to learn that even if Daneel's encouragement was crucial to its development, that it was, in fact, Seldon's idea, and that Seldon and his team of human mathematicians, were the ones who actually did the work.)
Anyway, it's clear that in various stages of Seldon's experiences, various things came up that would lead to the eventual development of psychohistory, things which may not have been apparent to him at the time, though many such things might be obvious to those who have read the earlier books (which is a major reason I think it's best to have read them before reading this book). Religion is discussed a bit, for example, and that would play a major part in the early history of the Foundation (and it occurs to me now, if you haven't already read the previous books, just saying "the Foundation" will be meaningless to you). Anyway... Hari's experiences sometimes seem to discourage him as to psychohistory's possiblity, and sometimes encourage him. But all of them are important, all the different sectors he sees, people he meets, and especially things Dors says. In the end, he realizes (and this is a spoiler for this book itself, but one I think that the structure of the story makes easily predictable) that Trantor itself, made up of 800 separate sectors, could serve as a simplified model of humanity, upon which to base the mathematics of psychohistory, though this would still take at least a lifetime to work out.
So, he'll spend a lifetime working on it. Along with a staff, and all the resources he requires, with whatever help Daneel can (discreetly) provide. However, Daneel himself has already set a second plan in motion (though I suppose we could call it the first plan and psychohistory the second), which those who have already read the fourth and fifth books will know of, though its nature isn't specified in this book, so I won't specify it here. However, it does lead Daneel to advise Hari to himself have two plans, which of course leads the reader to think of the Second Foundation. Nice touch. (As I've said, there are lots of touches that will appeal to those who've already read the previous books... such as the title 'Mayor' for Wyan leaders, reflecting the title of Foundation leaders.) And... what else can I say? There was also, throughout the book, the rather obvious possibility that Hari and Dors could be developing feelings for each other. There was also a perhaps slightly less obvious possibility, a suspicion I had about Dors... which is so clearly implied, in the end, as to be practically impossible to believe isn't true, even if it's never explicitly stated to be so. *shrug* But it doesn't matter. The heart wants what it wants, n'est-ce pas? ...No doubt I'm forgetting other elements from throughout the book which I wanted to comment on. But I suppose it's not important, it was a really good story, anyway. (Though I couldn't say how much it would be liked by those not already immersed in Foundation history. I'm sure it'd at least be okay. But hey, I'm really not trying to influence anyone's decision on the order in which to read the series, okay?)