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First Books: Prelude to Foundation by Isaac Asimov

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“The trouble is, Hari, that a human being is easy to identify. . . . But what is humanity?”

Whether large or small, permanent or fleeting, many of us have experienced regret. It’s because of this human condition that one can sympathize with mathematician Hari Seldon in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. The first book in this seven-volume saga, Prelude to Foundation, opens with Seldon, in the year 12,020 Galactic Era, having just delivered a paper on psychohistory, a theory of prediction, at a conference on the planet Trantor. Although still in the speculative stage and its ultimate fruition uncertain, Seldon comes to the attention of the Emperor of the Galactic Empire and is summonsed to the palace the next day—and so begins Hari’s remorse.

After hearing that psychohistory is not ready for practical use, the Emperor wants Hari to falsify a prediction in his favor. Being an honest guy, Hari refuses. Allowed to leave the palace for his flight back to home to Helicon the next day, Seldon is led astray by a Trantorian journalist, Chetter Hummin, before the sun sets. Told that the Imperial forces will track him if he returns to his home planet, Hari reluctantly agrees to become a fugitive on Trantor, living with local hosts and attempting to stay under the radar. Along the way he picks up a female sidekick, Dors Venabili, a historian who specializes in the rise of Royal Trantor and who is sworn to protect him. What follows, partly due to Hari’s stubbornness and sometimes downright obnoxious behavior, is a series of misadventures. If you don’t appreciate semi-unlikeable characters, don’t bother reading this one. Hari is far from charming.

Prelude to Foundation, first published as a series of eight short stories in Astounded Magazine between 1942 and 1950, is a classic science fiction novel. It’s set far in the future, involves fantastic modes of travel, and imagines advances in technology that seem to foreshadow some of our devices today—book-films for example can easily be seen as the next step in the evolution of eReaders.

As with most science fiction, Prelude to Foundation asks larger questions of the world we live in today. While traveling to other sectors of the galaxy, Seldon and Dors are exposed to their diverse inhabitants, many of whom hold fast to their individual cultural traditions, some of which offend the two travelers—and undoubtedly the reader. It’s unsurprising that Asimov, as someone who eschewed religion, preferring Humanism to the religious Judaism of his ancestors, touches on the misogynistic practices that are often prevalent in fundamentalist communities. For example, in the sector Mycogen, women are prohibited from speak to men and are the relegated to the kitchen.

Also raised is the notion of class. After violating the laws of a spiritual sanctuary on Mycogen, Hari and Dors are whisked off to Dahl, a sector where the people are inherently unsavory. Instituted within the community is a hierarchy. The lowest of the low, designated by employment in the “heatsinks,” the energy-producing plants that the sector is known for, are looked down on by those fortunate enough to have other professions.

Readers of political philosophy will find the ruling tactics of the future familiar. A political agitator in Dahl explains to Hari and Dors:  “The Imperial forces must keep their hands off, but they find that they can do much even so. Each sector is encouraged to be suspicious of its neighbors. Within each sector, economic and social classes are encouraged to wage a kind of war with each other. The result is that all over Trantor it is impossible for the people to take united action. Everywhere, the people would rather fight each other than make a common stand against the central tyranny and the Empire rules without having to exert force.”

And, one of the first things Dors says to Seldon when they first meet at the university where she teaches, she explains the admission policy of accepting a mixture of students, those who are local and those from the “Outworld”: “Professionals are turned out by any university anywhere, but the administrators of the Empire—the high officials, the countless millions of people who represent the tentacles of Empire reaching into every corner of the Galaxy—are educated right here on Trantor. . . . It’s important that the officials of the Empire have some common ground, some special feeling for the Empire. And they can’t all be native Trantorians or else the Outworld would grow restless. For that reason, Trantor must attract millions of Outworlders for education here. . . . That’s what holds the Empire together. The Outworlds are less restive when a noticeable portion of the administrators who represent the Imperial government are their own people by birth and upbringing.”

This mixture of fantasy and politics makes Prelude to Foundation a fast-paced and often thought-provoking story. The twist at the end will leave the reader wondering what happens in the second book, Forward to the Foundation. If you’re looking for an old-school science fiction series for your summer reading pile, this is it.

::[excerpt]::

Hari Seldon remained uncomfortably silent for a while after Hummin’s quiet statement. He shrank within himself in sudden recognition of his own deficiencies.

He Had invented a new science: psychohistory. He had extended the laws of probability in a very subtle manner to take into account new complexities and uncertainties and had ended up with elegant equations in innumerable unknowns. —Possibly an infinite number; he couldn’t tell.

But it was a mathematical game and nothing more.

He had psychohistory—or at least the basis of psychohistory—but only as a mathematical curiosity. Where was the historical knowledge that could perhaps give some meaning to the empty equations?

He had none. He had never been interested in history. He knew the outline of Heliconian history. Courses in that small fragment of the human story had, of course, been compulsory in the Heliconian schools. But what was there beyond that? Surely what else he had picked up was merely the bare skeletons that everyone gathered—half legend, the other half surely distorted.

Still, how could one say that the Galactic Empire was dying? It had existed for ten thousand years as an accepted Empire and even before that, Trantor, as the capital of the dominating kingdom, had held what was a virtual empire for two thousand years. The Empire had survived the early centuries when whole sections of the Galaxy would now and then refuse to accept the end of their local independence. It had survived the vicissitudes that went with the occasional rebellions, the dynastic wars, some serious periods of breakdown. Most worlds had scarcely been troubled by such things and Trantor itself had grown steadily until it was the worldwide human habitation that now called itself the Eternal World.

::[links]::
Prelude to Foundation on the publisher’s website
More on the Foundation series at io9.com

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Written by Gabrielle

July 5, 2011 at 7:21 am

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