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Ossus Library Index Science Fiction Index


A novel by Isaac Asimov (1988, Bantam Spectra)
Book 1 of the Foundation prequels

In a flight from the government across Trantor, Hari Seldon attempts to make psychohistory practical.




Read May 10th to 19th, 2005 for the second time  
    Like all of Asimov's later books, this one is filled to the brim with talk, and not much else. The characters reason their decisions endlessly, both to themselves and to each other. It gets dull rather quickly to go through that for everything.

The story, what there is to it, concerns Hari Seldon, a young mathematician who had proven theoretically that human society could be modelled by mathematics. He is tricked into thinking that he is a hunted man (it seemed obvious to me, even it I have read the book before), and flees from sector to sector across Trantor. We get to visit a small university in Streeling sector, then, when Seldon gets into trouble there, he is hidden away in Mycogen and Dahl, and finally captured by Wye. Everywhere Seldon is hidden, he gets into trouble. For the man who tricked him into thinking that he was being hunted, Hummin, also convinced him that he could help save humanity by developing psychohistory, and he sees leads everywhere.

Initially, Seldon is convinced that it is not a practical science. As he learns more of history and society, however, he becomes increasingly convinced that he could do it -or at least start it. Exposure to the very different cultures in the different Trantorian sectors helps illustrate some of humanity's cultural extremes. It also helps give Seldon a sense of history, which after all makes up the second half of "psychohistory".

The story is entirely character driven, with minimal plot. I had trouble getting over the initial drive that convinced Seldon to move forward with his work. The events leading up to his residence at the University were not naturally-occurring. It was obvious that Hummin was influencing the people they met, which made it frustrating to read about, because it takes away the natural human drive. If the tales are supposed to be about humanity, then the humans must be allowed to make their own choices. When The Mule shows up in the later Foundation and Empire, he influences the people with his mind, but since he is the bad guy, it can be excused, as the unaltered human ingenuity is what defeats him.

For those of us familiar with the rest of the "history" leading up to this book, especially the robot novels, we know that R. Giskard and R. Daneel Olivaw were robots who could read and alter people's minds. Daneel was also humaniform, indistinguishable from a human being on the outside. Taking this into account, it was obvious that Hummin had to be Daneel. It didn't occur to me that Hummin was a mispronunciation of 'human", though. I did recall from previously reading this book that Demerzel was the same person as Hummin. I just couldn't figure out why everybody hated Demerzel, but none recognized him as Hummin, to whom everybody owed favors. It turns out that Demerzel was only ever seen by a handful of people in the Imperial Palace.

Back in Robots of Dawn (and Robots and Empire as well), Giskard was the one who coined the term "psychohistory". Daneel seems to have forgotten, and I wonder how Seldon got a hold of the term.

Most of the story takes the form of discussions between Seldon, Hummin and/or Dors. (It's strange that Asimov uses the men's last names to identify them, but Dors gets first-name treatment.) Seldon, whose thoughts we get to see most often, was full of so many questions, most of which had no real answers. His dialog and thoughts felt like a rushing whirlwind. It is as if every possible argument for and against an action or idea must be explored thoroughly before he can continue.

Through Seldon and Dors, Asimov has a lot of good observations about humanity, especially social behavior in groups or as individuals, under stigma or oppression. Most of the characters that we meet are very different from each other, even if they don't get enough story to become very deep.

This book illustrates how language issues can get confusing or misleading. It becomes obvious that the characters are not speaking English when they refer to terms like "religion", "temple", "aerie", and so on as being unknown. The terms must have equivalents in Galactic Standard, but the terms they are speaking about are from another language -ours. It's like having a Klingon word stuck in an English sentence in Star Trek, but the author does not differentiate between foreign words and common ones. It is nice to see, however, that the language has indeed changed in twenty-thousand years, and on twenty five million planets!

I think I liked the Mycogen sections the best, as Seldon proceeded to break every strict custom that these people had! It is also there that we get most of the archaic terms. The women are subjugated almost to the point of non-existence, which makes it more satisfying when he gets one of the women to talk to him. Seldon tours a microfarm, which produces some of the most delicious spices and foods on Trantor, and learns about a sacred book the Mycogenians have. The book speaks about Aurora, which we know was the first of the Spacer worlds, and about robots, implying that one of them, The Renegade, is still alive and will return in time. This leads Seldon and Dors to infiltrate the Mycogenian temple to see a metallic robot in the Elder's chamber. It was, alas, a trap, but Hummin steps in to save them. This is the second most obvious instance of mind-tampering, after Seldon's initial flight.

In Dahl, Hari tours a heat-sink, with workers considered to be lower-class than other people in the same sector. His hosts don't like the way he keeps bringing lower-class people to their house, and eventually do something about it. In the meantime, however, Hari meets a gifted self-made mathematician who will probably take a central role in the next book, and he meets with Raych, a young boy who guides him through troubled neighbourhoods, saves them from the Imperial security forces and will eventually be adopted by him. In Dahl, Seldon learns about Earth, and how the Renegade helped the people of Earth.

Eventually, they are captured by Wye -or saved, if it can be put that way. But Demerzel was prepared for an uprising from Wye, and managed to take control before a coup on the Imperial throne could be mounted. Near the beginning of the book, when the Emperor and Demerzel discuss the Mayor of Wye, there appears to be a repeated conversation, and I can't figure out why. Demerzel brings up the topic very early in the book, suggesting that he might have Seldon killed rather than seeing him fall into the Mayor's hands. Later, when Seldon arrives at Streeling University, they have nearly the same conversation, but neither one seems to recall that this point has already been made. Very strange that this was left standing in the book.

Aside from giving us insights into the very self-righteous and somewhat arrogant Hari Seldon, the book also gives us a tour of Trantor. As mentioned in the book, the planet is a veritable galaxy of societies in itself. We even get to visit Upperside, where Seldon gets lost in a copse of trees growing on top of the domed planet, and nearly freezes in a sleet storm. We get insights into the self-sufficiency of a world that is completely covered, through the microfarms, the heat sinks, and the energy dispersal systems of Wye.

The most interesting parts of the book, however, were references to the other books or concepts in the over-riding series. Mention of robots, Aurora, Earth, and their feud are very neat because they illustrate some sort of continuity. This is made more plain when Seldon explains to Hummin/Demerzel how he deduced that the man was a robot -a mind-altering robot. The final chapter actually resembles the ending of a mystery novel, in laying bare how everything happened, and it is nice to have it included here, even though it takes the form of exposition. Seldon thought he would need to see the entire Galactic Empire in order to develop psychohistory, but given that Trantor is a mini-Empire of itself, he found a starting point on a single world.

Then there is Dors. I liked her as a no-nonsense character who takes it upon herself to protect Seldon. I recalled, but wasn't sure if I recalled correctly, that she was a robot. That was only confirmed when she used the knives so expertly in Billibotton. That was a very well-written fight -and very revealing when she didn't kill the instigator, though she could have done so easily. Seldon falls in love with her almost immediately, but she never returns it, until the end. But I wonder if she was simply trying to please him then, as well. The fact that she was able to hurt humans means either that she also believes in Daneel's Zeroth Law, or that Daneel managed to figure out how to make some humans more important than others, as the Solarians did in Robots and Empire.

Just in case psychohistory doesn't work out, Daneel mentions off-handedly that he has an alternate plan in the works -very likely Gaia, the planet the Mule comes from, and featured n Foundation's Edge.

The Foundation novels, even the ones written later, seem more mature than the robot or Galactic Empire novels. Even while written around the same time as the other later books in the series, the others seemed much more focused on sexuality, while Seldon was much more academic in his thinking and attitudes. Obviously attracted to Dors, he still respected her enough to avert his eyes when she was caught topless, and so on. I think this is probably due to the fact that Seldon was a mathematician, and therefore Asimov could apply some of the research skills he undoubtedly learned in his youth to the character. I think the best line of the whole novel comes when Seldon asks "why don't people keep asking questions -even the simplest questions?" That is something an academic would say.

If he had lived to continue the series, would we have seen more Galactic Empire novels, hopefully without robot interference?

In all, the book held my interest, but not much more than that. This is the weakest of the series, I would say.



Also read February 5th to 14th, 1990  

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