Thursday, March 8, 2012

Prelude to Foundation

I grew up on Asimov’s robot stories and his short stories. Primarily in the late seventies, when I could still claim to be a “kid.” Those short stories – plus a handful of novels, such as The Caves of Steel, Pebble in the Sky, The Gods Themselves – set the standard for science fiction within my young mind. Asimov’s writings knit the neurophysiological branches which thickened into a massive trunk somewhere in the universe of my brain which has a gigantic neon sign that flashes two letters continuously, night and day: S and F.

It laid the foundation, if I may intend a pun.

Flash forward thirty years and about three hundred science fiction books later. The shape of that limbic neurological structure has changed, warped, morphed, expanded, restructured, and whatnot, but it still bears the unmistakeable image of Isaac Asimov.

Okay, enough heapments of praise. The dirty little secret: Over those three decades I read next to nothing of Asimov. What I did read I hastily discarded a hundred pages with the dreadful lament I Could Not Get Into It. That Asimovian novel was Foundation.  That dreary period was about a week sometime in the summer of 1990.

Two years ago on vacation, watching my little daughter take her first tennis lessons, I noticed some dude in the bleachers reading Foundation. I thought: I should revisit that. People change over the years. I’ve changed. Maybe the book’s changed to me. I filed it away in my reticular activating system and left it at that.

Then, I found Prelude to Foundation in the hospital gift store when Patch was in a few weeks ago with pneumonia. Used, for $1.25. Signs, signs, everywhere signs, I thought, and I plunked down a dollar and a quarter and bought it.

I have not been able to put it down. That’s a good sign, right? I mean, I read it during my lunch break and late at night when the house was quiet and settling. I read it at traffic lights, I read it using the facilities. Over the past seventeen days I chugged along through it, a pleasant enough read, enjoying the ride but wondering whether I’d remember the particulars a year from now.

Asimov’s Foundation series basically involves the invention of psychohistory by mathematician Hari Seldon. No, it’s not the biographies of galactic serial killers. Psychohistory is a mathematical (read: predictable) formulation of future human behavior. Something like what economics tries to do and gloriously fails at doing. But with politics and sociology and religion and science and warfare and, and, and, all thrown in. The ghost of Seldon manifested in psychohistory arrives at critical junctures in Asimov’s future histories and tells the contemporary heroes and heroines what needs to be done.

Or something like that. Like I said, I never got through Foundation.

But Prelude aims to show the roots of this process, young Hari banging out his new science based on the intrigue and (mis)adventures he has on Trantor, seat of the Galactic Empire. What I like best, aside from the easygoing masterful prose of the, er, master, is the diversity of characters and cultures Seldon encounters on the run for his life. At least four wide societies, by my reckoning, and a dozen or so actors, though one, whose culture seemed to be straight out of central casting 1945 Brooklyn street urchin, I found highly annoying.

So up to last night I was enjoying the ride, doing about thirty or forty pages a day, a pleasant diversion, B+ type literary experience. Then, the final twenty pages …

How to say it best? I was mentally storm-tossed. Sturm und Drang, SF-style. A literary orgasm, I told my wife, who found the analogy somewhat unappealing, though I insisted it was the most accurate of the bunch.

What happened?

A reveal! The wonderful reveal, when the author raises the curtain and you see things anew, characters and situations who are not what they seem, excuse me, Not What They Seem. The scales fall off the eyes, you slap your head with the palm of your hand as goose bumps raise up and down the arms, and exclaim aloud: Aha! Why didn’t I see that coming! It’s brilliant!

But wait! Not just one reveal, but two! A second, a mere five or six pages later. Whoa. The first reveal was of the internal kind. That designation I leave for the story and plot within the book. The second reveal was even greater, for it was . . . let’s say it all together . . . it was an external reveal! Doctor Asimov links this book with one of his earlier works – a work that really influenced me as a youngling (see paragraph one). Man, was I in seventh heaven last night as I read those final pages. Prelude to Foundation had gone from a B+ to an A to an A+ in about two thousand words.

Incredible. That’s why he’s the master, I suppose.

So, I will be picking up more Asimov where I can find it, or where it can find me. And I’ll be sure to give Foundation a second go round. Plus all six or seven other novels in the series . . .

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