Book Review 44: Prelude to Foundation

His eyes were watching the Emperor carefully, as though to see how far he might go on his own. "Still, if that be so, one could have any person make the prophecy."

"Not all persons would be equally believed, Demerzel. A mathematician, however, who could back his prophecy with mathematical formulas and terminology, might be understood by no one and yet believed by everyone."

Page 5

There is a big hole in my Science Fiction reading. I have read very little Asimov. It's time to start changing that and get back to the original cannon.

Prelude to Foundation, by Isaac Asimov is the fist book in the Foundation series, the second to last one written in the Foundation series, and, according to Wikipedia, the 9 book in the Asimov Foundation universe.

The Foundation novels began as short stories in the 40s, became a trilogy of novels in the 50s, and expanded beyond that through the rest of the century. If you would like to know more about the way the Foundation novels were written, you can get an overview here.

Prelude to Foundation is an intellectual novel. It is a story less about characters and plot, and more about ideas and concepts. There's some suspense, sure, and I wanted to know what happened next. But I didn't feel a visceral connection to the fate of the characters. Knowing a little bit about where the series is going made the characters a bit larger than life - historical heroes, rather than normal people struggling against the odds.

The story takes place in the Galactic Empire, thousands of years in the future. Humanity populates hundreds of thousands of worlds, and Earth is merely a legend few people have heard about.

The novel opens with the Emperor discussing things with his top aid, and conversation turns to the topic of a mathematician.

Hari Seldon is a young mathematician who presents a paper about his new theoretical framework -- psychohistory. The goal of psychohistory is to mathematically predict the future by studying the events of the past. It's a powerful idea that has some challenges:

  • It's theoretical.
  • It can only predict major changes.
  • It requires huge amounts of input data.
  • It's creator doesn't believe it's possible.

The Emperor wants it to predict his future. Seldon explains it won't work. Chetter Hummin, a reporter, convinces Seldon that he now needs to flee the Emperor and hide in the sub-societies of the Empire's home world.

Thus we get a chase novel that visits strikingly distant societies while Seldon pushes the boundaries of law and tradition to determine if his psychohistory might really be possible.

The story and plot appealed to my intellectual curiosity, which makes it quite different from a lot of the other novels I read. In that respect, Asimov is the complete opposite ofHaruki Murakami.

Normally I write these review a week or two after reading the book. In this case it's been about a month and a half. While I did mark a number of interesting passages at the time, they've become more interesting to me as their context has started to fade.

Asimov says a lot of things about human nature and modern society. And he uses different anecdotes within the novel to symbolize the broader direction the novel is going. And sometimes he gets too blunt with that.

"What can we do? We test constantly for any mutations that may spring up, any new viruses that may appear, any accidental contamination or alteration of the environment. It rarely happens that we detect anything wrong, but if we do, we take drastic action. The result is that bad years are very few and even bad years affect only fractional bits here and there. The worst year we've ever had fell short of the average by only 12 percent—though that was enough to produce hardship. The trouble is that even the most careful forethought and the most cleverly designed computer programs can't always predict what is essentially unpredictable."

(Seldon felt an involuntary shudder go through him. It was as though she was speaking of psychohistory—but she was only speaking of the microfarm produce of a tiny fraction of humanity, while he himself was considering all the mighty Galactic Empire in every one of all its activities.)

Page 228-229

The last sentence of the first paragraph makes the point perfectly clear. We don't actually need the parenthetical expression.

The central problem that Seldon encounters is that he is trying to build a model of the entire universe, but the sheer scale of it makes it nearly impossible. It's like when Steven Wright talks about having a map that's 1:1 scale. He can't figure out how to fold it.

"In other words, you can't get any picture of the Universe as a whole except by studying the entire Universe. It has been shown also that if one attempts to substitute simulations of a small part of the Universe, then another small part, then another small part, and so on, intending to put them all together to form a total picture of the Universe, one would find that there are an infinite number of such part simulations. It would therefore take an infinite time to understand the Universe in full and that is just another way of saying that it is impossible to gain all the knowledge there is."

Page 169

Seldon's background is in math, and while it's a powerful field, understanding the future requires understanding the past. So early on Hummin pairs Seldon up with with Dors, a historian, both to protect him, and to help him develop his theories. While he might understand numbers, she has the broader understanding of how politics work and societies evolve.

That's what holds the Empire together. The Outworlds are also less restive when a noticeable portion of the administrators who represent the Imperial government are their own people by birth and upbringing."

Seldon felt embarrassed again. This was something he had never given any thought to. He wondered if anyone could be a truly great mathematician if mathematics was all he knew. He said, "Is this common knowledge?"

"I suppose it isn't," said Dors after some thought. "There's so much knowledge to be had that specialists cling to their specialties as a shield against having to know anything about anything else. They avoid being drowned."

Page 89

This is one of the things I find compelling about this novel. Even though he sometimes does hit the reader over the head with the symbolism, Asimov still includes great commentary on how our own society works.

That last paragraph itself is an interesting commentary on the challenges of information overload in our own digital age, while the first is great description of the importance of parceling out political jobs to a diverse group of supporters.

Asimov comments on how the most beautiful things in the world are, by their very nature temporary. He uses a description of some wonderful snacks to illustrate the point.

She was right. He tried to have the dainty linger in his mouth; he tried licking it carefully; tried biting off a piece. However, the most careful lick destroyed it. When a bit was crunched off a piece, the rest of it disappeared at once. And each taste was undefinable and not quite like the one before.

"The only trouble is," said the Sister happily, "that every once in a while you have a very unusual one and you never forget it, but you never have it again either. I had one when I was nine --" Her expression suddenly lost its excitement and she said, "it's a good thing. It teaches you the evanescence of things of the world."

Page 227

One of my favorite passages describes Seldon's thought process when lost in the wilderness. Staying still was not an option.

What should he do?

If he was facing the wrong direction, there was a chance that light would be visible right or left—and it wasn't. If he had followed the wrong crease, there was no possible way he could return to the copse and locate a different crease.

His only chance lay in the assumption that he was facing the right direction and that the meteorological station was more or less directly ahead of him, but that the meteorologists had gone and had left it in darkness.

Move forward, then. The chances of success might be small, but it was the only chance he had.

Page 128

Many times in life people spend time trying to figure out the best way to go. Choosing the best course of action, or the best path to follow, isn't nearly as important as moving in a "good enough" direction.

Of course if you're actually lost in the woods, staying put is probably the best practice. This is where the metaphorical woods diverges from the literal. If ever you find your self lost in the metaphorical woods, it's best to make a guess about the right direction and to just move forward.

Rescuers will find us in the literal woods; the only ones who can rescue us from the metaphorical woods is ourselves.

And then there are moments in the book that make me think the Matt Groening was an Asimov fan.

"The robot you see near the center was, according to tradition, named Bendar and served twenty-two years, according to the ancient records, before being replaced."

Page 294

Prelude to Foundation is an interesting and long book. If you are a science fiction fan you have probably already read Asimov or you probably should. His influence on the genre is profound, and Prelude to Foundation is a great place to begin exploring that influence.


TopBanana said...

I still think it's best to read the series in the original order they were written.

'Foundation' comes first :)

kruel74 said...

I remember reading it in 1987 when I was just 13 and was in love with it. How your review brings me back to the story

Cromely said...

@TopBanana: I can see that, but the idea of going out of chronological order just seems so ---- wrong.

@kruel74: Glad to hear it.

Tina Kubala said...

I'm excited you are reading Asimov for the first time. It's been over ten years since I read many of the books, but I claim Asimov as my favorite author.

Prelude was my favorite of the Foundation novels. I read the trilogy first.

Did you know Asimov's robot novels and empire novels come before Foundation in the same universe? I love the robot books most of all. The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun are just about my favorite Asimov novels.

You are right, I think, that Asimov tended to be more about ideas. His people, especially female characters, are not always as full as I'd like. But the ideas make up for what I'd otherwise miss.

Cromely said...

@Tina: When I started to write the review is when I learned the Robot books are also part of the universe, though I understand that maybe ret-conned.

It may take a few years, but at this point I look forward to reading through the universe.