IT IS POSSIBLE that the late Isaac Asimov knew when he was writing "Forward the Foundation" that it would be his last novel. It is certainly a fitting capstone to a remarkable career.
Although most of his nearly 500 books were on other subjects (notably science fact), Asimov was best known and will probably be remembered as a science-fiction writer. In his last decade or so, Asimov wrote several novels tying together his two most popular series, the "I, Robot" stories and the "Foundation" trilogy, which in its original form was once chosen by the Science Fiction Writers of America as the "best series of all time."
One of those recent novels was "Prelude to Foundation," in which the founder of "psychohistory," Hari Seldon (whose semi-mystical presence through a series of recordings played long after his death permeates the original "Foundation" stories), is presented as a young man embroiled in thrilling adventures. The shadowy figure whose help is vital to Seldon's survival turns out to be none other than R. Daneel Olivaw, the robot detective of Asimov's science-fiction mystery novels, still operating thousands of years further into the future.
"Forward the Foundation" comes between that "prequel" and the original first book of the "Foundation" series, in which Seldon appeared only briefly in the beginning as a very old man. The latest books follows Seldon's life, checking in at key moments near his 40th, 50th, 60th and 70th birthdays in four self-contained novellettes (the format of the first "Foundation" novel), with an epilogue recorded presumably near Seldon's death at 81, about the time of the great Vault recordings that will resonate through the centuries while the Galactic Empire collapses.
"I could not have written this book forty - or thirty, twenty, or even ten - years ago," said Asimov a year before his death, when he was working on this book. After acknowledging that Hari Seldon had evolved into his alter ego, Asimov continued: "In my earlier books Hari Seldon was the stuff of legend - with "Forward the Foundation" I have made him real."
Many reviewers hate reviewing books like "Forward the Foundation." There is very likely nothing I can say that will either induce you to buy the book or dissuade you from doing so. Confirmed Asimov fans will no doubt make it a best seller, while those who consider him a science-fiction dinosaur will pass it by.
There's something to say for both sides in that argument. On the one hand, I have read all the new books as well as the old in the Robot/Foundation series and will probably reread them all in sequence someday. On the other hand, if you were in a bookstore with only enough money for one book, I could not in good conscience suggest this one over, say, Kim Stanley Robinson's "Red Mars."
And yet . . . I almost could, because it is Asimov's last book, and because he has written what is obviously a very personal novel, though not autobiographical in the ordinary sense.
The incidents and details in Hari Seldon's life are nothing like those in Isaac Asimov's. Asimov was never a high government official, just to take an obvious example. But Seldon's watching Trantor - the great enclosed world-city, capital of an empire that spans the galaxy - fall apart around him while maintaining a level of magnificence and sophistication that will stun young Gaal Dornick from the sticks (in the first published "Foundation" story), cannot help but remind the reader of the New York City that Asimov inhabited nearly all his life.
Hari Seldon at 70, stolling near the University sector with his younger friend, Stettin Palver, points to some trash on the walkway and says, "In the old days, you would never see litter like this. The security officers were vigilant and municipal maintenance crews provided round-the-clock upkeep of all public areas. But, most important, no one would even think of dumping his trash in such a manner. Trantor was our home; we took pride in it."
One interesting thing about this speech is that Seldon knows there never was an idyllic time when no one would even think of dumping his trash on the sidewalk. He's been all over Trantor, knows that it has slums the size of our present-day cities. It is not the sight of the trash that infuriates him, it is the fact that it is now such a common sight. He knows what the very real decay he sees about him means. The Empire has already fallen. It doesn't matter whether or not the Emporer (or the First Minister, or the Junta, or whoever is in power) can impose his will on a rebellious planet if they can't even keep the streets clean at home.
In the epilogue, Asimov may have been expressing his own hope of seeing the 21st century by having Seldon reach 81, the age Asimov would have been in 2001. Looking back and seeing ahead, Seldon stands at the end of his life but at the beginning of his legend, knowing that his name will live after he is gone. And in this final farewell, we see not just his attitudes and reflections but even his life circumstances have come finally to resemble those of his creator.
Isaac Asimov gave Hari Seldon immortality long ago, and Seldon - along with Susan Calvin, R. Daneel Olivaw and others - long ago returned the favor. This book is not a bid for such immortality, but a reflection by one who knows just what such very mortal immortality consists of.
That's not all it is, of course. The four novelettes each tell an interesting story that is a key to how the Foundation - or, more properly, Foundations, for there are two of them - came to be. While not perfectly consistent, the bulk of Asimov's important fiction has now been tied into a vast future history with a line through the first story in "I, Robot" to the novel "Foundation and Earth."
This is not a deep, introspective modernist or post-modernist novel. It's pure Asimov, clear and direct and simple even when discussing complexities. Nor is it a perfect work of art. For one thing, we could have done without the attempt to drag "Nemesis" into this universe. But quibbles aside, this is a good novel. If you didn't know who Asimov was and had never heard of the Foundation, you might still enjoy it.
The added dimension, however, of the book's place in Asimov's life and career, and the subtlety with which Asimov uses Seldon to comment on life, mortality and fame, make this book much more rewarding than just another yarn from a master storyteller.
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