This is the prequel to the infamous Asimov Foundation series, actually the sixth book written decades after the original trilogy was written. If you’re read any of my reviews of the original trilogy, you’ll remember that I wasn’t impressed. I couldn’t even finish the second one, it was so bad. The writing was horrible, the character development nonexistent, the plot development no better, the dialogue laughable. However, when I read the fourth Foundation book published around 1982, I was much impressed. He had come a long way, although his writing could still use some improvement. At least he had learned how to use transitions. His next book, the final book in the series, irritated me with its characters’ constant nonstop sniping and bitching at each other, so I didn’t finish it and gave it a poor review, although for all I know it could have turned out to be a decent book. I just hated the characters too much to finish it. So it was with some trepidation that I started reading this one.
Prelude to Foundation, the first prequel but actual sixth book in the series to be published, was published in 1988, late in Asimov’s career. His writing, again, was much improved over his earlier work, but it still could have been better. Nonetheless, I was very taken with this book. I thought it had a much better plot than I expected it to, a lot of action, more than expected, a shocking amount of sexuality, which is very un-Asimov-like, a direct tie-in with his robot series, which I enjoyed, and a marvelous finish to a rather tension filled ending. Frankly, I had a hard time putting it down.
The book follows the early career of the young mathematician, Hari Seldon, elder hero of the original Foundation trilogy and creator of the science of psychohistory, which can very nearly foretell the history of society and culture. In this book, he is always on the Galactic Empire’s capital planet/city of Trantor, home to 40 billion people and 800 domed sectors, where he gives a paper at a mathematics conference which garners a lot of attention and from which he is the next day brought to the emperor’s own quarters, and asked to use his psychohistory to help determine the fate of the empire. He tries to explain that it’s theoretical, not practical, that it would take decades, a lifetime, maybe longer, to mathematically prove what he has theoretically proved. He is thrown out in disgrace, later attacked by thugs, defends himself with a new friend named Chetter Hummin, who claims to be a journalist, and who tells him the Empire and the man behind the emperor, Eto Demerzel, is after him. He must flee.
Hummin takes him halfway across the planet, charging Hari with furthering the research and discovery of psychohistory because the empire is crumbling and decaying, and gets him a job as a professor at a university, where he meets a history professor named Dors Vernabili. Hummin tasks Dors with being Hari’s personal protector and she takes it seriously. But one unforeseen accident occurs with Hari coming close to dying, and Hummin arrives and takes them across the planet once again to a backwards sector which is really, really strange. There, hair is forbidden. They’re forced to wear skin caps and even cover their eyebrows, wear robes identifying them by gender, and no woman can talk to a man unspoken to. It’s a very patriarchal society. However, Hari discovers they maintain an ancient history of some sort, dating back over 20,000 years to the original planet of man’s founding. Determined to get the details of this, he continues his quest. At great peril. They discover the first world was probably called Aurora (from the robot series) and featured a lot of humanoid machines called robots, which no one had ever heard of. They begin to suspect the main temple has one somewhere and Hari vows to break in and interview it to learn about mankind’s history to help formulate his psychohistory. Well, they break in, find a broken down metallic robot that doesn’t look humanoid, are caught and are sentenced to death. Just at that moment, Hummin appears and talks their way out of it and takes them to another sector, another poor sector, where he rents them a room with a typical family, leaving them to just survive. Not knowing what to do, they travel around, hear rumors that an old fortune teller in a really bad part of town tells tales of an original planet and vow to go see her. But there are knife fights there, so Dors buys two and they go. They meet a dirty street urchin who takes them to this old woman, who tells them about a place called Earth and about a robot called Day-ee and a man called Bay-ee (both references to the robot series), and they don’t learn much more, so they leave. And are attacked by 10 armed men. Dors takes the leader on with her knives and seriously wounds him while Hari uses martial arts techniques to knock a couple of them around. They escape, but the wife of their rented room is ticked at them and barely lets them back in. The next day, there’s a near riot outside of the house while they go back into the bad area to meet with a local leader. While there, a soldier appears and wants to take them with him. They assume it’s Hummin’s doing, so they go willingly, but it soon appears they are going to the dreaded sector of Wye, where the mayor has been trying to take over the empire for some time now and where they have a major army and where Hummin has been telling them to avoid like crazy. And there they are! They meet, not the ancient mayor, but his younger daughter, who has taken over mayoral duties and who, naturally, wants to use Hari and his psychohistory for her own personal gains. They hope Hummin will come once again to rescue them, but he doesn’t. One morning, however, they are awoken to gunfire and find Wye has been invaded by Imperial troops and that the original mayor has ceded control over to the Emperor. They expect to see Hummin magically show up, but to their surprise, Demerzel appears. And all is explained. And is it a HELL of an ending!!! What a freaking great ending! I actually found it touching, I kid you not. I did not expect that. I expected Imperial involvement, but not that. And Dors. There were hints, but it was never fully explained. We were just left to speculate and perhaps that’s for the best.
One complaint though. The dialogue in this book, as in virtually every Asimov book, is atrocious! Simply horrible. Dors talks about her “gown.” A man they’re staying with unexpectedly just happens to have pairs of “underpants and foot socks” for each of them. The dialogue is overly formal and stilted, wooden and academic. Far too 1940s US and certainly not believable for 20,000 years in the future. Hell, no one talks like that now! It’s ridiculous! Hell, all I can figure is it’s the dialogue of Ivy League PhD ubergeek scientists who don’t know how to converse or interrelate in any way and this is how he has his characters talk, even when they’re talking about sex or something casual like that. It’s silly. I read some passages to my non-sci fi reading wife and she laughed her ass off. Said it was horrible. And it is. It’s an embarrassment. He may have had the reputation, he may have been a good idea man, he may have been able to construct future worlds, but he couldn’t spin a decent conversation to save his life. He had no idea how to do so. It’s rather sad. I would have hated talking to him. I suppose it would have been a fairly silent conversation. Again, in this book, people say things like, “Mistress Vernabili”
and Master Seldon,” in everyday conversation. Crap like that. Isn’t that just a little over the top formal? Oh well. It’s a darn good book. It’s a five star book that I’m knocking down to four stars because the dialogue is so incredibly bad. I desperately want to give it five stars, especially after such an outstanding ending, but I just can’t justify that. The grammatical and literary technical difficulties are too great to ignore. Nonetheless, strongly recommended.