Though not without its flaws, Forward the Foundation is a fascinating book, in which both author Isaac Asimov and his hero scientist Hari Seldon strive to finish the works that would define them after they were gone.
It is the seventh and final day of Foundation Week at Blogging the Hugos, and time to talk about Isaac Asimov's Forward the Foundation, from 1993, the last book of the series — and of his life. (If you're interested in what we had to say about the first six, here: Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation, 1983 Hugo winner Foundation's Edge, Foundation and Earth, and Prelude to Foundation.)
JW: Oh, lordy — so here we are at the end. Gosh, if just writing about seven books is as much of a grind as this has been, Asimov gets total props from me for actually authoring them (as well as the dozens and dozens of others, of course).
Forward the Foundation was, in fact, the last book he ever wrote; the tagline at the top of my copy reads, "The Ultimate Adventure in the Greatest Science Fiction Epic of All Time." Which is some genius copywriting, since, yes, it is literally the "ultimate" adventure in the Foundation series, in the "final" sense of the word — but not so much in the "best of its kind" sense, which is probably how most readers will take that. Sadly, Forward suffers from the same less than stellar writing we encountered in Prelude to Foundation. Actually, I would go so far as to say it's a degree worse.
Not that that will stop us from giving Asimov a pass and raving about it! (I mean, nothing has so far.) Even if it's clearly not the work of an artist in his prime, Forward is interesting because of how autobiographical it is. More than ever before, in this book, Hari Seldon, inventor of psychohistory and founder of the Foundation, serves as Asimov's alter ego; the story is rife with thoughts that are believed to mirror Asimov's own (even more closely than usual), and characters whose names are anagrams for people important to the author in real life. You're probably better suited than I am to dig into that material in depth, but I'll do my best to keep up.
Like the original Foundation trilogy, Forward is split into discrete segments separated by years, each with its own story arc. The first part, "Eto Demerzel," deals with the Empire's First Minister of the same name — who of course at the end of Prelude was revealed to be none other than Asimov's series-jumping robot hero R. Daneel Olivaw. As the closest adviser to Emperor Cleon I, Demerzel was nigh unto omnipotent in the last book, getting Hari and his companion Dors Venabili into places they had no business being and out of scrapes they should never have escaped.
But since then, his star has fallen somewhat. A political agitator named Laskin Joranum is raising public suspicion that Demerzel is secretly a robot, and Cleon's favor has begun to cool. Most of this section is about Hari's attempts to discredit Joranum (or "Jo-Jo," as his followers call him) and restore Demerzel's good name. He's partly successful.
As with Foundation's Edge and Foundation and Earth, we have a cast that largely carries over from the previous book: Hari, Dors, and Demerzel, plus Yugo Amaryl, the mathematical prodigy they discovered laboring in the heatsinks of the Dahl sector in Prelude, and the former urchin Raych, whom Hari and Dors (now married) have adopted and are raising as their son. But as interesting as it is to see what's happened with all these characters, it's not exactly a joyous reunion, is it? In Prelude, although we know the Empire is just a hairsbreadth from collapse, the people of Trantor don't, and so the story has a vitality that might be its best quality. Here, though, the gloom is in full evidence, from the very first sentence, in which Amaryl is insisting to Hari that Demerzel is in trouble.
Some of the grim melancholy must be informed by our knowledge that these are the last words Asimov would write. But it is built into the story, too. Of the four characters the book's sections are named for, three are no longer with us by the time it's over.
But gosh, I'm depressing myself, so let's turn to something equally as depressing but at least blackly humorous: When I was actually reading Forward, I have to admit I thought the whole Joranum plot was a bit silly — Asimovian cartoonishness without the thrilling plot and bang-up writing to sell it. I mean, a demagogue accusing the most powerful man in the Empire of not being human? And his accusations gaining traction? That's the stuff of a bad Law & Order episode, not a science-fiction classic.
Law & Order episodes are drawn from real life, though. As I type these words, the president of the U.S. has just this morning released his long-form birth certificate, in no small part because of the chest-thumping prevarications of guys like Donald Trump and Glenn Beck. I guess the takeaway should be that all of this has happened before and it will all happen again (rather than that Isaac Asimov could predict the future), but still.
Anyway, Hari tries to downplay the seriousness of the Jo-Jo problem until he physically breaks up an illegal demonstration on the campus at Trantor's Streeling University, by beating a dude down. Yep, Hari Seldon is kicking ass and taking names again. This time around, the unstoppable power of his greti style* isn't as big a surprise as it was in Prelude, but the fight is still significant for three reasons:
(1) It marks the first appearance of what I personally consider the most egregious offense Asimov commits as a writer in Forward: For this book, he's dubbed the Heliconian martial art that Hari practices "Twisting," and Jesus Christ, it sounds so goddamn stupid. It wouldn't be so bad if it didn't feel like it came up every other page: "You're not as good at Twisting as you used to be, Hari." "Raych is a better Twister than I am now." "Well, Dors, I've still got my Twisting." If Krav Maga is the most fearsome-sounding martial art in history, then Twisting is its absolute opposite — the Star's End to its Terminus, if you will.
(2) Thematically, the fight is pretty important, because in Forward the Foundation, we watch Hari Seldon go from reasonably fit and vital middle-aged guy to arthritic old man — one of the biggest conflicts in the novel even revolves around his consternation over being thrown a sixtieth birthday party. (Although one key element in the transformation is oddly absent. But we'll get to that.)
(3) Also thematically: This is merely the first fight in a Foundation book that simply teems with them. The surplus of physical conflict in Forward marks it as different from the rest of the series — in the previous stories, most of the fighting takes place off-page, or in a form other than fisticuffs, like with Magnifico's use of his Visi-Sonor or the mental battle in "Search by the Mule." But Forward the Foundation is all tussles and knifings and bombings and hitting kids with canes. It's a stark contrast from the start of the series, and Salvor Hardin's famous admonishment that "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent." And fittingly so. The Empire, at this point, is demonstrably incapable of functioning properly; it clearly needs to be given over to the care of psychohistory.
*This terrible joke can only be appreciated after a close reading of the text, gentle reader.
AW: We have been giving some rather generous passes to these latter-day Foundation books, haven't we? I mean, I've had my reasons — Foundation and Earth because it happens to line up perfectly with my own idiosyncratic interests, Prelude to Foundation because it's a breezy thrill, and now there's Forward the Foundation to consider. Honestly, this is the kind of book you can only write once, so in that sense it's grimly appropriate that this was Asimov's final work. As you say, it's primarily of interest because of the larger subtext. This is a book best read between the lines, and I think there's just enough there to paper over the less than stellar prose. But, as with the previous two Foundation books, it's awfully close to not enough.
Asimov put some subtle hints into Prelude to Foundation that Hari was meant to be his literary alter-ego — in particular, there's a passing reference to a former love who could never appreciate his devotion to mathematics, which echoes the reputed circumstances of Asimov's first marriage. Here, of course, it becomes a more central theme, but I do wonder how much of that is down to Asimov's original plans for Forward the Foundation and how much of it came out of his own failing health. Yes, Wanda Seldon in particular is a fairly obvious analogue for his daughter Robyn, and I suspect the slow fall of Hari's Trantor is based in part on the urban decay Asimov had witnessed in New York City, but still...I don't think this actually reads as a disguised autobiography.
Instead, what ties Hari and Asimov together, and what lends Forward the Foundation much of its melancholy tone, is that both were racing against time to complete their great work. As you say, it's difficult to judge how much of the power of Forward the Foundation is derived from the circumstances of its writing, and I'm not even sure whether that's an appropriate consideration or not. I think, in this very specific situation, it adds to the sense that this really is the capstone for the Foundation series, not to mention his writing and perhaps even his entire life. It's tough to deal with that sensibly, but at least Forward the Foundation feels like a more tonally appropriate finale than Prelude or Earth would have been.
But honestly, it isn't just the behind-the-scenes stuff that makes Forward the Foundation feel like the end of the line. The opener, "Eto Demerzel," is very much a final goodbye to R. Daneel, even if he makes one more chronologically later appearance. As is fitting for a nigh-immortal robot, the farewell isn't all that emotional, but his departure feels like Asimov has just made his fictional universe a little bit smaller. His entire mythos is crumbling in time with the degradation of Trantor. All this is pretty meta, and again I'm not sure how intentional any of it actually is, but the fact remains that it's there, and it does carry with it a certain melancholy power.
And moreover, the previous books made specific references to his other writings, but that's dialed back here in favor of something a little more subtle, a little more fundamental. As you mention, Asimov returns to the structure of the original Foundation, which seems only fitting. The stories themselves are far from spectacular, but they function as a nice overview of the types of stories Asimov wrote. The opener, "Eto Demerzel," recalls his old robot stories — indeed, it's pretty much a rehash of the short story "Evidence," although the solution is rather different and more psychological in nature.
"Eto Demerzel" is also, at its heart, a Seldon Crisis story. After years of relative tranquility, Hari faces a crisis that may jeopardize his entire plan to save the galaxy — which, at this point, isn't yet much of a plan, but still — and so he has to come up with the one simple solution to neutralize the apparent threat. I'd certainly like to think that Asimov was purposefully recalling some of his earlier styles, rather than simply reusing old ideas because he had run out of new ones. I hate to say it, but the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
It's amusing that, as you mention, this whole Donald Trump idiocy offers a bit of resonance to this story, particularly when you consider the fact that, much like Mr. Trump, the accuser, the demagogue Jo-Jo Joranum, has ridiculous and unbelievable hair — indeed, that's a pretty crucial plot point in the story. I suppose we could give Asimov some credit here for his prescience, but really it's just a mark of how ludicrous our world has gotten since the Good Doctor left it. (Not that I'm implying Asimov's presence was what kept our planet vaguely sane...but I'm not ruling it out either.)
And yes, there are lots of fights. For some reason, I don't actually find Twisting quite so ridiculous, but perhaps that's because I steadfastly refuse to actually contemplate what such a fight would look like. (It would look pretty damn ridiculous, I can only imagine.) Crucially, Hari isn't going around busting heads unless he has some provocation — and, as Dors seems quite quick to point out, the fact that he fights at all is arguably a sign of his own incompetence. Hari is at his best here as someone with a surprisingly sharp insight into human nature — one that no one seems willing to give him credit for, himself included — and the more satisfying moments in Forward the Foundation are generally those where Hari is saving the day in much the same way as his literary predecessor/chronological successor, Salvor Hardin.
JW: I want to talk for a moment about the generous passes we're giving, because I imagine there are readers out there thinking, This is bullshit. If the books are bad, SAY the books are bad. I can imagine a mind-set that thinks we have a duty to be brutally, rigorously honest about the merits of these novels and not to let our warm fuzzy feelings for the author interfere with that assessment.
Well, here is the thing: I think we have a duty to be honest about what we feel and think while reading these books; I don't think it's our job to try to separate our feelings about them from the books themselves, as if the Foundation novels existed in some purely objective form that could be examined outside the conduit of subjective human perception. And the most honest description of my thoughts and feelings while I've read Foundation and Earth, Prelude to Foundation, and Forward the Foundation is: I think they have major flaws, but Asimov's writing engenders such feelings of affection within me that I can overlook those flaws.
I realize how obvious the above might sound; it's largely just an encapsulation of what we've been saying over these past few posts. But as I said, my instinct is that some people may think we've been dodging the issue, and I wanted to clarify that, rather, I think we've been grappling with it as transparently as we can. I want to say one more thing on the matter, too: I am glad I've read the last three Foundation books and would readily recommend to anyone else that they read them, too (rather than say, "Stop at book four," as I might with other series). Here is why:
Our default mode when it comes to art is to presume we deserve "quality" — to presume that if we, say, take the time to read a book, and that book has a less than plausible plot or regrettable dialogue or writing that chafes the ear, we have been cheated. This default mode is no surprise. We've been conditioned to treat works of art the same way we treat countless other things, tangible and intangible, from scientific theories to brands of toothpaste to personal relationships: as phenomena that can be empirically examined and ranked on a hierarchy.
But although this manner of thinking has its merits, it's dangerous to fall into it completely. The point of art, after all, is not simply to fill our brains with thoughts and emotions that are pleasing to us, but to introduce us to different sorts of perception, different ways of thinking about the universe and the other conscious minds that inhabit it. That can be uncomfortable. (I daresay it better be uncomfortable once in a while, or you're doing it wrong.)
In the case of the last three Foundation books, the discomfort takes the form of disappointment. I think it is fair to say that for all our pass-giving, you and I are disappointed that the books aren't at least a hair better, in terms of plotting and general writing. I mean, no one likes to end on a low note.
But I think it's also fair to say that it is valuable, to both consumers and producers of art, to see a writer of Asimov's caliber trying to accomplish these ambitious aims: returning to a beloved universe he hadn't visited in three decades, tying it into his other stories, explaining how his great creation psychohistory came to be. Whether he fully succeeds or not, it's nonetheless fascinating to observe the attempt, and science-fiction literature is certainly better for his having made it. (I don't mean to suggest, by the way, that Asimov intended for the books to disturb us by being disappointing. Maybe a better way to say all this is: There's often more to be gained from watching a veteran artist fail than from watching a rookie succeed.)
Phew. OK, that was quite a digression. I'll move us on to Forward's next section, "Cleon I," in a second, but I want to note that I don't think the idea of Twisting is so ridiculous; I just hate that the word itself (in all its needlessly capitalized glory) pops up over and over again in the text. Some words and phrases can bear that sort of extreme repetition; some cannot. "Fuligin cloak" is a good example of the former; "Twisting" (like "the saucer students") falls into the latter category.
OK, "Cleon I," which obviously deals with the eponymous Emperor. Cleon is less amusing here than he was in Prelude, now that Demerzel is gone — and now that Hari has been made First Minister in his place. In general, Hari's problems become much more immediate here, ranging from an assassination attempt against him that Dors barely foils to having to ask Raych to infiltrate a conspiracy born from the ashes of the Joranumite movement they stopped in the previous section. Much of the story itself is — spoiler alert — largely a red herring, a way of marking time until we're hit with what I think is a fabulous twist ending, an ending that manages to both utterly satisfy and utterly discomfit all at once.
One bit early on sticks out to me, now that you mention how Hari's race to make psychohistory functional mirrors Asimov's rush to finish this book. From a conversation between Hari and Dors in Chapter 2 of this section:
"Undoubtedly, even if something happens to me, psychohistory will someday be developed, but the Empire is falling fast and we cannot wait — and only I have advanced far enough to obtain the necessary techniques in time."
"Then you should teach what you know to others," said Dors gravely.
"I'm doing so. Yugo Amaryl is a reasonable successor and I have gathered a group of technicians who will someday be useful, but they won't be as — " He paused.
"They won't be as good as you — as wise, as capable? Really?"
"I happen to think so," said Seldon. "And I happen to be human. Psychohistory is mine and, if I can possibly manage it, I want the credit."
Boldface mine. In an industry where other writers posthumously finishing a late author's works is a commonplace occurrence, that sure feels like an explicit statement of purpose: "I started these stories that beat out Tolkien for best series ever, and I'll be damned if I'm not the one who finishes them!" (Not, of course, that this prevented more Foundation books from appearing later, but, despite their having been authorized by his estate, Asimov's completion of Forward leaves a bright line separating those works from what I would call the Foundation canon.)
AW: For the record, I don't think any of the Foundation books are bad. There's the old chestnut that bad Asimov is better than about 99 percent of all other science fiction (feel free to quibble over the precise percentages, of course), and even when the novels don't quite work, there's a ton of interest here, particularly to people like myself who are interested in exploring his larger universe further.
What I think might be fairer to say is that the later Foundation books are inessential. I don't think you can really have a good grasp on sci-fi literature without having read the original Foundation trilogy, and I don't think you can really understand Asimov without reading Foundation's Edge. Even beyond their admittedly superior quality, the first four are all important books, and they have vital things to say about the science fiction genre, not to mention all the various themes and ideas that Asimov introduces that we've already discussed in exhaustive detail.
I don't think Foundation's Edge is necessarily better written than its successors — honestly, I think there's a not utterly insane argument to be made that, strictly in terms of style, Prelude to Foundation is the best written of the bunch, and that's probably the least essential of all seven. Ultimately, though, what makes these books essential for me is not necessarily the fact that I love Asimov so much — rather, it's that I love his ideas and his universe so much that I want to spend as much time in them as possible.
Sure, there's nothing here that can equal "The Mule" or "Search by the Foundation." But every little extra bit of texture that Forward the Foundation has to offer tells me something about this universe, and I'll gladly take even these table scraps. For me, that's enough to consider these last three books essential, so I suppose I'd have to couch any recommendation I would make in terms of how much the prospective reader connects with Asimov's ideas and world-building overall. And, just so we're clear, I'll happily cosign on all the points you just made.
Now then, let's talk about "Cleon I." You know, with the first three stories in Forward the Foundation, there really is some fun to be had in connecting them to different types of stories from Asimov's past. "Eto Demerzel" was fundamentally a robot story — like I said, it's pretty much his early short story "Evidence" redux — with a bit of Seldon Crisis thrown in. This time around, "Cleon I" feels very much like an old school, original Foundation story. The main antagonist, Gambol Deen Namarti, is every bit the stock villain and petty megalomaniac that Salvor Hardin and Hober Mallow frequently had to deal with (or is that will deal with?). And while "Eto Demerzel" turned on Hari demonstrating a grasp of psychology that would have made Asimov's robopsychologist Susan Calvin proud, here he relies on a ridiculously circuitous plan (not to mention tons of good luck) to avert disaster, much in keeping with how Salvor Hardin brought Anacreon to its knees in "The Mayors."
The big difference, of course, is that Seldon ultimately fails, and it's all because, on this one occasion, a single individual matters. As you say, it's a great twist, and I'd say the end of "Cleon I" represents the best bit of Forward the Foundation. And, like all twists that are actually good as opposed to just shocking, Cleon's eventual (spoiler alert!) assassination is a natural outgrowth of his character. He's fundamentally a decent sort, clearly someone who could have been quite happy living some mundane middle class life out there in the galaxy. But he instead has to be the emperor of the galaxy at a time when that title means practically nothing, and he lacks the power to prove his benevolence (or reveal his cruelty) just as much as he lacks the intelligence to figure out how to take back even a hint of all that power.
Honestly, my two favorite characters in Forward the Foundation are probably the two emperors — Cleon I and Agis XIV, whom we will be meeting later. As you've argued before, Asimov never really pulled off the sheer scale involved in having a galactic empire of 25 million planets, but the closest he gets to even vaguely grappling with it is in the depiction of its rulers. Cleon I has the only sane reaction possible to being the absolute ruler of quadrillions of people: He just spends all his time complaining about protocol, slowly growing fat, and waiting to be assassinated. It would have been an easy way out for Asimov to make Cleon powerless over all the other planets, but the unquestioned ruler of Trantor. It's rather neat that Asimov goes even further and restricts Cleon's actual power solely to the palace grounds, where he's clearly just as much a prisoner as he is an emperor.
So we're left with a rather pathetic figure, a fitting counterpoint to the other, future Cleon that Asimov introduced as the last strong emperor back in "The General." It's not just that the only time Cleon I can wield absolute power is when he is choosing his gardening staff — it's that even that is so dangerous that he gets killed over it. If ever there was a clear encapsulation of just how broken the Empire is, then surely that must be it.
JW: There are echoes of "The Mule" in the twist at the end of "Cleon I," too, and the comparison shows us how much more fragile psychohistory is in these early stages. Three hundred years from now, it will take a mutant with never-before-seen mentalic powers to divert the Seldon Project from its track; but in 12,038 GE, it can be done by a gardener with a grudge. (Here, by the way, is a handy timeline of major events in the Foundation stories. Neat!)
OK, let's move on to the next section of Forward, "Dors Venabili." My initial reaction to this section was that I didn't care for it, I think mostly because the whole thing hinges on a sort of stupid (IMHO), overly labored workout involving the phrase "lemonade death."
But that workout notwithstanding, there's actually quite a lot here. First is the overall tone, colored from the outset by open acknowledgment of Hari's age and impending mortality. The story starts with his eight-year-old granddaughter, Wanda, in a panic over her grandfather's increasing age. The contrast — new, small child; familiar, now gray-haired man — is simple, but it's effective. Where before we had merely the sense that the Empire was fading out, now we see that time has taken its toll on our hero, too.
"Dors Venabili" is also a murder mystery of sorts. I mean, it's not technically one, because there aren't any dead bodies until the final pages. But there are clues throughout, and a pervading, building sense that someone is going to die, and that it's going to be ugly. And sure enough, it is. Between the final showdown and the not-quite-a-trope-at-the-time of a little girl intimating to adults that dark forces are coming, this is easily the most sinister Foundation story.
It is also maybe the most personal? At least, the one thing I recalled about it from my first reading, years ago, and what lingered in my head this time round, was how consumed Hari is with getting old. He is about to turn sixty, and unhappy about it. His staff, friends, and family are planning to throw him a party, despite his attempts to dissuade them. I don't think there's any way I appreciated the treatment of this theme on more than a surface level back when I first read Forward, when I'm not even sure I was out of my teens. But now I'm 34, I'm married, and I have a baby on the way. Believe me, I don't think that's so old, but I'm certainly leaving that stage of life where I think things will carry on unchanging forever — that my body will never ache, that I'll always be attractive to young women, that there will always be time to do the work I dream of doing. Time noticeably passes more quickly for me now, and though I won't pretend to grasp it entirely, I can see why Hari is openly hostile to the idea of celebrating that fact.
I think my problem with "Dors Venabili" is that its two components don't quite gel for me — though the plot connects them, the mystery half and the getting-old half of the story feel more coincidental to each other than thematically linked. (That said, I bet I could be argued out of that conclusion.) But there are some other hidden gems here: I believe we first encountered the Prime Radiant in "Cleon I," but we see more of it here, which is a bit like seeing the Death Star plans at the end of Revenge of the Sith; and there's a great passage in Chapter 19 where Yugo Amaryl discusses the discovery of "the law of conservation of personal problems," which proves that if you reduce friction somewhere in the relationships among a group of people, an equivalent amount of friction just pops up elsewhere. That is the sort of delightful, resonant idea I come to Asimov for.
AW: You know, I did say that the first three stories in Forward the Foundation echo earlier kinds of Asimov stories. The first two draw on a lot of his classic '40s and '50s short stories, but "Dors Venabili" draws on something else. With the "lemonade death" line, Asimov manages to, against all odds, crowbar a Black Widowers mystery into the Foundation mythos. For those unfamiliar, the Black Widowers (and their lesser cousin, the Union Club mysteries) were a series of contemporary mystery short stories without any science-fiction elements that Asimov wrote for a magazine, specifically Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.
The mysteries usually revolved around some minor mystery in a guest character's life, and the six members of the Black Widower club would try to solve the mystery through — this is Asimov, so what else? — a lengthy, highly intellectual conversation. And yes, quite a few of them turned on puns just as bad as the "lemonade death" thing here. And yes, building the central mystery of the penultimate Foundation story — and one of the most tragic ones, to boot — around such a horrendous groaner of a pun may seem a bit crappy (and honestly, it kinda is), but it's also very, very Asimov. The man loved language and he loved to have fun with language, and I suspect he enjoyed having stupid fun with language most of all. If you don't believe me, track down his short-short "Death of a Foy," whose entire point is a pun so elaborate and gloriously stupid that it would make even Shakespeare blush.
But still, much as my hardcore Asimov fandom made the whole "lemonade death" thing amusing on some meta level, it's still awfully contrived and out of place in a Foundation story, and if "Dors Venabili" succeeds, it's pretty much entirely in spite of it. Still, as you say, there is quite a lot here, starting with the sense of impending doom, which reaches almost unbearable levels in the final story. Part of what makes this story so sad is how frayed the relationship has become between Hari and his wife Dors. Even going back to Prelude to Foundation, Asimov never spent a lot of time explicitly developing the romance between these two, or even explicitly acknowledging that Dors is a robot until the very bitter end.
One of the things I like about the Foundation stories is that when it does incorporate romance, it tends to be done relatively gracefully (well, at least as long as Golan Trevize isn't involved). I'm no great expert on the subject, but the quiet tenderness that Hari and Dors share rings true to me far more than if Asimov had tried to give Hari some epic, passionate romance, and it's nice that so much of their relationship is left unmentioned and uncommented upon. For a writer whose first impulse was to say everything and then say it all again, it's a remarkable bit of restraint, and I actually think it makes it more heartbreaking as we watch Hari and Dors drift apart and, ultimately, meet their fate.
I also like how little credit Hari gets throughout these stories, which seems entirely in keeping with the actual lives of people who get mythologized into iconic geniuses after their deaths. It's not just that the various leaders think he's a useless mathematician because he still has nothing to show for psychohistory — everyone, including Hari himself, considers himself a rank failure as First Minister, and indeed, it was only his perceived harmlessness that saved him from execution in the wake of Cleon's assassination. And yet, time and again, he proves himself an incredibly wily operator, consistently able to manipulate politicians into doing exactly what he wants, which of course reaches its apex in Hari's first/last story, Foundation's "The Psychohistorians." I particularly love his manipulation of General Tennar in this section, in which Hari tricks him into instituting a government-destroying poll tax without ever saying an actual word in its favor. Again, it just reeks of Salvor Hardin, and I'm totally fine with that — there's a reason why Salvor Hardin is my favorite character.
We've both been tough on the "lemonade death" mystery, and with good reason, but I do think it has at least one thing that works in its favor, and that is its ultimate resolution. Dors spends most of the story either playing detective or totally owning some highly trained imperial soldiers — the latter is admittedly pretty awesome, but the former's a rather irritating waste of time. But what's cool about it is that Dors does identify the guilty party, but she gets almost all the details wrong.
She assumes the bad guy has rigged a key piece of psychohistorical equipment to give Hari and Yugo Amaryl radiation poisoning over several years, explaining why both are aging so much. But Hari and Yugo are simply aging like all humans do (and like Dors, quite pointedly, does not), and they have become prematurely old purely through their own efforts. As it turns out, the device could never harm human brains...but it's extremely lethal to the positronic brains of robots. Dors Venabili, the tiger woman, is out of luck, and it's all she can do to violate the First Law and kill her assailant before he can move on to killing Hari and Yugo as well.
It's another great twist, one that both makes logical sense and goes back to the story's central themes of growing old. I'd argue it almost makes up for the whole "lemonade death" business that was necessary to get here, but I'm afraid I don't think it does. I wish Asimov had come up with some other starting point for the mystery, because it undercuts what is a legitimately great ending, a fitting conclusion for the robots that Asimov spent half a century writing about. But I suspect, in typical Asimov fashion, that once a pun as gloriously awful as "lemonade death" popped into his head he could never, ever abandon it. Otherwise he wouldn't be Asimov, now would he?
JW: No, he wouldn't. (And on that note, I found "Death of a Foy" online, and wow, that is just as splendidly awful as you promised.)
Without diminishing the genuine sense of tragedy that accompanies Dors's death, I have to say it feels strangely appropriate that she's gone when we begin the next, and final, section, "Wanda Seldon." Dors was a hard character to get a fix on — there was always a faint coldness about her, and even though her devotion to Hari was clear, she wasn't ever someone I can say I quite liked. I didn't actively dislike her, either; maybe the best way to put it is that I felt a regard for her. Anyway, something comes through in Asimov's handling of her, such that no matter how essential she might have been to Hari's work, she feels like an interlude. Just as you note about the little credit Hari gets being consistent with what we know about great figures in actuality, this sense — that she is deeply important to Hari, but that her significance goes largely unacknowledged by others — probably approximates what the wives and husbands (but especially wives) of real-life historical personages experience.
In any case, with Dors's departure, there's a sense of finally getting down to business, finally making psychohistory work — and then another issue arises. Hari's granddaughter Wanda, now twelve, finds an error in one of the equations generated by Yugo Amaryl's Prime Radiant. (Spoiler coming.) No, she's not a mathematical prodigy — she has a germinating mentalic ability, unknowingly used it to vaguely read Amaryl's mind, and picked up on his subconscious sense that the formula was wrong.
This plot development, I have to say, is just wonderful, because it feels totally out of left field and yet, simultaneously you realize it almost had to happen: Hari has met Daneel Olivaw; he knows telepathic powers exist; and though it's easy to forget, in this book Hari has to get not just one Foundation started, but also the Second. I will readily grant that as "Wanda Seldon" goes on, the mentalic powers start to feel a little bit like a cheat — as with so much in this book, the execution lacks a certain verve. But their introduction is just right, exactly the sort of glimmer that makes you want to keep reading.
(And of course, as Wikipedia notes, Asimov said his novel Nemesis wasn't part of the Foundation universe, but in this section's Chapter 5, he manages to squeeze it in there anyway and call back to it thematically, as you've noted he's done with so many other past works, by having Wanda's powers mirror that novel's story line.)
The rest of this section's plot is of a type I have a love-hate relationship with: man versus institutions. Whenever one hero takes on the system, I grit my teeth, because usually either (1) the hero's victory feels utterly unbelievable or, at best, temporary, or (2) the system wins, which is depressing.
But Hari's battles here — first with the board of the Galactic Library, to obtain more space for work on the Encyclopedia Galactica; later with the Trantorian judicial system — don't get me tensed up, I suppose partly because Asimov writes about them in such an effortless way (so that one senses Hari is stressed himself, but not hopeless) and partly because, well, we know he's gonna win eventually. I also like the struggle with the library board because it must be a deliberate allusion, here in this very last Foundation story, to Salvor Hardin's battle with the Board of Trustees of the Encyclopedia Committee way back in the very first one. The parallels are too clear for it not to be, and the irony too great: Imagine if Lewis Pirenne knew that precisely his brand of nattering nabobism had almost kept his beloved Encyclopedia Project from ever getting off the ground!
There is a lot of beauty packed into this last section, actually — some well crafted, some not so much. In the former category, I'd put Raych's emigration from Trantor to the planet Santanni, and his subsequent death. It happens so abruptly that it almost feels shoehorned in, but more like, yeah, that would be how these things happen: Someone is there, and then they're not. And then there are Hari's conversations with Emperor Agis, who as you said is just a fine character — the warmth radiates off of him palpably, and it's a welcome relief after Cleon and the chaos that followed his death; just too bad he's hamstrung by the Commission of Public Safety. Finally, it's good to see Bor Alurin appear right at the end of the book. Now there's a more spectral force than even Hari Seldon was in the early Foundation mythos — Alurin, the only psychologist to travel to Terminus, and the man who mentored Salvor Hardin.
On the sillier, or at least not as elegant, side, we have Stettin Palver, a young man who turns out to also have mentalic powers, and who will help Wanda start the Second Foundation. (As is evidenced by his last name, which he shares with his eventual descendant Preem Palver, the First Speaker from "Search by the Foundation." Giving him the tyrant Poochie's name too is a funny, if weird, touch.) We have the magistrate Tejan Popjens Lih — "one of the few judges left who upheld the civil code without wavering," and whose first two names are an anagram of Janet Jeppson. I would wager that these are anagrams too, though I don't know who their real-life counterparts are: chief librarians Las Zenow (Sal Owens?) and Tryma Acarnio (Marty someone?), the businessman Terep Bindris (Peter?), and the lawyer Civ Novker (Vic?). And then of course there's Rial Nevas, the young tough who roughs up Hari and Palver and then falsely claims they attacked him, after they successfully defend themselves — Rial is a liar indeed.
Speaking of that scuffle, I mentioned up near the top of this post that I felt one key element was missing from this book, and that's A Great Event that puts Hari into his wheelchair. I gather from a few scattered references to sciatica (yes, readers, Forward the Foundation has sciatica references) that we're supposed to assume he ends up paralyzed naturally. But while I often appreciate when Asimov opts to underplay something — well, in this case it just feels to me like a gaping missed opportunity. As I have mentioned before, the wheelchair is almost an extension of Hari Seldon in his first appearances — one of his trademarks, along with his piercing blue eyes. Leaving it out of his origin story is a little like King Arthur just showing up one day and going, "What, this? Oh, it's called Excalibur. I found it." I have to wonder if Asimov meant for Hari to be paralyzed in the fight with Rial, but jettisoned that idea since an injury of that magnitude would have made Rial's already implausible case against him even harder to buy.
That's my one gripe. That aside, there's a real poignancy to the book's epilogue, the transcript of a final hologram recording by Hari. (At least, I assume it's a hologram recording, not just because the closing line would be ridiculous if written, even for Asimov, but because its opening line, "I am Hari Seldon," is how the others all began. Those four words are the Foundation equivalent of "Space...the final frontier," but I didn't realize it till now.) Gaal Dornick is mentioned, and Linge Chen and all the other important folk — and then R. Daneel's name shows up in the last paragraphs. I am a hopeless sentimental, so I am tearing up as I write these words — but I have to think maybe Asimov was too, as he wrote his.
Of course the final page is an Encyclopedia Galactica entry. Of course it is.
AW: You've covered most of the important points of "Wanda Seldon," which is honestly for the best — like you, I get a bit choked up reading this final section, and my response to it is more visceral than intellectual. This is a story that crystallizes what's been lurking at the edges of all three of the previous stories — the world around Hari Seldon is crumbling, and so too is Asimov's universe falling apart all around us. Trantor is beginning to creak and fall apart, the orderly, intellectual world that Asimov worked on for fifty years has devolved into one overrun by thuggish ruffians, Hari's closest friends and family are dying left and right, and even every familiar name and concept we get introduced to means we're fast running out of story between this and "The Psychohistorians."
In fact, I will say that after I finished "Wanda Seldon," I went back and reread "The Psychohistorians" once more, just to see how it all lines up. Obviously, there are vast stylistic differences, Hari Seldon becomes a cypher once again, and there are some minor points that don't quite seem to line up in terms of continuity. But overall...I'd say Forward the Foundation does a good job of leading up to Foundation, and while I'd always recommend reading the books in the order in which they were written, it would also work just fine to read them in terms of their internal chronology. Honestly, if Asimov had had the time — which he rather pointedly did not — I would have loved it if he could have incorporated "The Psychohistorians" more concretely into Forward the Foundation, perhaps recounting the same basic events, only this time switching the perspective from Gaal Dornick back to Hari Seldon. I believe that's what the kids call bringing things full circle, although I admit that it probably would have been a shade too gratuitous.
Speaking of earlier Asimov works, you mention the Nemesis reference, and here I'd be remiss if I didn't point out the passing reference to Dors's research into "the Florina incident" from earlier in the book. It's a brief allusion to the Empire novel The Currents of Space, perhaps Asimov's most forgotten novel, in that it's certainly not very good, but it isn't really all that bad either. Indeed, if we're keeping score, I believe that, in these final four Foundation books, Asimov manages to make concrete references to all four Elijah Baley novels, two of the three Empire novels (only leaving out The Stars, Like Dust, which is frequently considered the absolute worst thing he ever wrote), plus The End of Eternity and Nemesis. That's a pretty impressive tally, particularly considering most of them are set roughly 20,000 years before any of the Foundation books. Actually, I sort of wish he had switched out Nemesis in favor of The Gods Themselves (even though that definitely doesn't belong in the Foundation universe, whereas Nemesis could be incorporated if you're willing to get creative), if only so all his major works could exist together in some very loose framework.
Anyway, back to "Wanda Seldon" itself. I heartily endorse what you've already said, and I'll just add how much I enjoy the character of Agis XIV, the puppet emperor of Trantor's real power brokers. He's a great character in a very Asimov-y way — he knows he's completely powerless and deals with that fact with a certain wry acceptance. It's fun — and perhaps a sly comment on the tendency to make science-fiction heroes improbably handsome — that Asimov goes out of his way to say that Agis looks ugly and stupid, and Hari is quite shocked to realize how sharp this new emperor actually is. He serves as a good reminder that there is still a universe beyond what Hari is wrapped up with — there's a poignant little moment where, just after Agis tells Hari that Raych has been killed, he starts complaining about how nobody in the Empire respects his authority, and then he stops himself. It's a very natural reaction, and it's the sort of little detail that helps the universe feel a little richer, a little more fully realized, as though Agis really does have an independent existence apart from his conversations with Hari Seldon. He's a small breath of fresh air in a section that often feels choked in Trantor's decay and Hari's mounting personal tragedy. Hell, he even busts out an Oliver Goldsmith quote, which means in the context of the story that quite possibly the only works of literature to survive for over 20,000 years are Goldsmith's writings and Isaac Asimov's Nemesis, which is a rather amusing touch.
But Agis XIV is also symbolic of why the world set up in Foundation really is inevitable, and why there truly is no point in saving the old Empire. After all, Agis is intelligent, not to mention reasonable and wise — he's the first politico in Hari's 48 years on Trantor to realize psychohistory is just a siren song, that it will destroy him if he gets bewitched by it just as it did the Mayor of Wye, Cleon I, Eto Demerzel, and General Tennar. If he had lived and ruled, say, 2,000 years ago, he would probably have made an excellent emperor, and indeed he probably could have fit much the same role as the last strong emperor Cleon II would 300 years later in Foundation and Empire. He's about the best anyone could hope for in an emperor at this late stage, and yet he is still only barely able to help Hari secure a bit of extra funding from the Imperial Library. Agis is a great character without ever quite making a legitimate case for the restoration of the Empire, which is of course exactly what Asimov needed to accomplish with him.
I suppose prequels in general face this challenge — on the one hand, they need to craft a compelling world that you want to spend time in, but on the other hand, they need to demonstrate why that world is doomed and why it must be replaced by the world seen in the chronologically later books. As I said earlier, I think "Wanda Seldon" leads in quite nicely to "The Psychohistorians," but in a larger sense I think Forward the Foundation reveals the degradation of Trantor without feeling as though we're just filling in a few gratuitous blanks before Foundation. (Of course, there is more than a little disagreement on this point.) Part of that is because the journey toward Foundation is such a tragic one, and that reaches its bleak crescendo here in "Wanda Seldon." Every section is named after a character who leaves Hari forever during the story, which means there's about half a dozen characters who could have been the title character this time around.
But what makes this feel like a Foundation story is that it still isn't really about people, it's about process, about the slow inexorable march of history. Raych Seldon may have died a hero's death on Santanni defending his university from anti-imperial rebels — that's certainly what Agis XIV tells Hari, but we never actually see it. His death remains an abstraction, a tiny statistic that's just more evidence of the Empire's irreversible fall. There's a particularly bleak note in the epilogue about Agis — we don't even get to find out whether he was exiled or assassinated, because even Hari doesn't know. Again, we're seeing death through the prism of psychohistory — it doesn't matter if Agis is actually dead, because it's merely his disappearance from Trantor that actually matters in the historical sense. His continued survival is irrelevant, so it's not important to know it, although it certainly does cause Hari great pain to know how powerless he was to save those close to him, even while he created a science that could save all humanity. Now that is tragedy as only psychohistory could present it. Indeed, in that sense, I suppose it's actually sort of weirdly appropriate that we don't get an event that puts Hari in his wheelchair. The slow decaying process of sciatica might not feel very dramatic, but it's very much in keeping with a saga that was never about big dramatic moments.
And then there's the epilogue. Like you, I find this section incredibly emotional, but I'll try to pull myself together enough to comment on a couple small points of interest. I mentioned earlier that I would have enjoyed a section that brought things full circle by showing "The Psychohistorians" from Hari's perspective, but honestly this epilogue does all that just as well. It does of course reference "The Psychohistorians" quite a bit — it's set two years later, so anyone reading the series in precise chronological order should remember to slot Foundation's first story in before the epilogue of Forward. There are a lot of lovely little touches here, but my favorite is when Hari wonders whether the Foundations will succeed, only to realize that there's nothing he can do about it now except hope for the best. Seldon observes: "Ah well, there's really no point in speculating. As the ancients would say: The die is cast." Considering this whole damn thing started in part as a way to transplant Edward Gibbon's Decline of the Roman Empire into science fiction, closing with a Julius Caesar quote seems appropriate beyond words.
As you say, it's only fitting that the saga closes on an Encyclopedia Galactica entry. And then there's the very final lines of that entry, which of course also represent the last word on Foundation as a whole:
"It has been said that Hari Seldon left this life as he lived it, for he died with the future he created unfolding all around him..."
I'd say you could substitute "Isaac Asimov" in there and it reads just as well, and I imagine that was rather the point. It's a far more fitting epitaph for the series — and moreover, Asimov's entire career — than what we found in Foundation and Earth, particularly since that final ellipsis suggests there's still more to say, even if we won't get to find out precisely what that is. It's an ending that speaks to everyone who ever read Asimov and was intrigued by his way of thinking, his way of conceptualizing the world. His worlds were about the triumph of intellect over brute force, about building worlds where science could be a real beacon of hope for humanity, where everything is fundamentally knowable if you're willing to actually stop and think about it. To me, that's science fiction in the truest sense of the term. Yes, I can understand why Asimov's style doesn't work for everyone, I can understand why the message I present here might not ring true or perhaps might not be what people take away from these books at all.
But, at the end of the day, those are the things I take away from the Foundation saga, and why Isaac Asimov means so much to me. I hope the nearly quintillion words I've written (I'm estimating) for this series have helped others understand that a little bit better. And so with that, I say to you, Mr. Wimmer — take us home.
JW: I have very little to add other than to thank you, my friend — not just for your contributions to this endeavor (which have increased its quality by at least a couple orders of magnitude), but because you're responsible for making the whole thing happen, by emailing me way back in March of last year and suggesting we collaborate on the Asimov entries in Blogging the Hugos. I know we've expressed our mutual appreciation and basically gotten all warm and fuzzy plenty of times in the course of emailing each other, but I wanted to say it publicly, too. This has been an awesomely fun exchange, one I won't ever forget, and again, it just would have been a hell of a lot blander and far less substantive without your depth of knowledge and enthusiasm. (And if you want to say anything nice about me, you will have to do it in the comments, because this is my column and I get the last word, and I will not have my hard-won reputation as a total cock tarnished by anyone's compliments here, where they might be saved for posterity.) Anyway, all of the drinks are on me next time we see each other. ALL OF THEM.
Thank you also to all the readers and commenters who have made it this far with us. That people have been reading (or at least clicking on) these posts, and that the comments have been so overwhelmingly positive is really, truly appreciated. Thanks, you guys. I know, I know — it's getting a little deep in here, but seriously, this project feels like it has taken SO long, and to be finally bringing it to a close is both a relief and just a touch poignant.
But this is it. And so, like Hari Seldon's, our faces grow peaceful and tired, both at once. We are finished.
Blogging the Hugos is a series examining the Hugo Award–winning novels in (more or less) chronological order. In the next installment: Startide Rising, by David Brin, from 1984. Follow @blogginghugos on Twitter for updates.
Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. Alasdair Wilkins lives in Los Angeles and is a reporter for io9.