Prequels are difficult. Just ask George Lucas or Brannon Braga.
While there is a great opportunity to fill in the backstory for characters and do a bit of worldbuilding, it feels like the risks often outweigh the rewards. A prequel series can also be limiting in how many surprises or revelations an author or creative team can throw the fans way before fandom starts crying foul or screaming that this detail or that one has violated continuity or a long-held character belief.
But long before Star Trek and Star Wars were looking to their past, author Issac Asimov was taking the opportunity to fill in a few gaps in his Foundation novels. Asimov’s output of the ’80s seemed to be almost obsessed with finding ways to connect various threads across his novels and short stories. And so it was that we come to Prelude to Foundation, a prequel to his popular, award-winning series that explored the early days of Hari Seldon and some of the steps in the creation of psychohistory.
Less sweeping in scope than the other Foundation entries, Prelude to Foundation focuses on an early adventure of Seldon in the days after presented a paper on psychohistory. As the Galactic Empire begins to crumble, multiple parties see Seldon’s psychohistory as their opportunity to gain, keep, or consolidate power. Most of the original Foundation trilogy puts Seldon on a pedestal and gives us the image of a wise figure forecasting the fall of an Empire and doing his best to shorten humanity’s coming Dark Age.
Prelude deconstructs Seldon a bit, making him less a paragon and more a flawed human being. Seldon becomes a bit unlikeable at one point as he runs roughshod over the values and beliefs of the Mycogen people, who have taken him in during the flight across Trantor. Seldon’s refusal to respect the customs of these people in how men and women are allowed to interact doesn’t exactly paint him in the best light — nor does his manipulation of their societal norms for his own convenience and to satisfy his own curiosity.
That may be part of what Asimov intended with Prelude. I’m not sure I noticed this upon my first reading years ago in high school, but it’s something that really stood out while listening to this audiobook. The other is the arrogance of Seldon in his breaking rules and customs to satisfy this own curiosity. While in the Mycogen sector, Hari becomes obsessed with the story of a 20,000-year-old robot possibly living in a sacred space to the Mycogen people, going so far as to break various customs and laws to get in and see if the robot is really there.
I find it interesting to read this after re-reading Foundation earlier this year. The original trilogy is very much a book of various characters sitting in a room and discussing big ideas while sweeping events take place off-stage. Prelude feels like it’s trying to be a bit more character-driven than the original trilogy was. It also feels like the middle third of the novel suffers from treading water. I’m not sure if this is because this was a re-read and I knew the big twist that was coming or that Asimov felt like he had to write a longer novel because that was just what was expected of him in the 80’s.
I always find the question of when and where one should read this novel an intriguing one. Asimov is working so hard to tie in various universes together in this one (and other books), that I always want to err on the side of reading them in publication order, rather than chronological. This, of course, contradicts Asimov’s wishes in the prologue — though Asimov does recommend that you read his entire set of novels to really get the full picture. (Nice marketing, Isaac).
Prelude to Foundation feels like a prequel that we didn’t necessarily need, but it’s one that still has some great moments that make it worth the time and effort to read it. I will admit I’ve never read Forward the Foundation, the second prequel. It may be time to correct that oversight.