Warning: do NOT make this your first Foundation novel. It will not give a good introduction and will spoil later books for you. Please start with the original trilogy from the 1950s. Publication order is best.
When Asimov was asked by his publisher to write more Foundation novels, the idea of a prequel would not have been hard to come up with. After all, the first Foundation novel starts at a juncture in time when the great and old mathematician Hari Seldon puts his plan in motion for the establishment of the Foundation, and after that we only see Seldon in short pre-recorded appearances. His name towers over the whole series, but as readers we hardly know anything about him. The same goes for Trantor, the world-covering city where he lived. We never really see it in its heyday except for a short chapter at the beginning of the series. A Foundation prequel therefore offers tremendous opportunities for interesting storytelling and world-building.
So, how does Asimov take up these opportunities?
Set 30 years before the start of Foundation (1951), young academic Hari Seldon is called to the Emperor Cleon I to explain about his theory of psychohistory. The theory is merely a theoretical idea, a brainstorm, and Seldon doesn’t believe it has any practical value at all, to the chagrin of the Emperor. He is dismissed, only to get pursued by competing agencies trying to get their hands on him. Seldon as a character is… pretty much the same as every other Asimov character. It’s hard to describe him past his occupation. They all talk the same. But he is young and away from home, (presumably) intelligent and easily influenced.
The story is a flight from one sector of Trantor to another, showing us facets of the great world city. Seldon is partnered up with a woman, Dors, who looks after him and romantic tension increases between them. Meanwhile, Seldon is wracking his brain to find a way to make psychohistory practicable, while mystery deepens about the motivations of those who help him and who are after him. If I lay it out like this, it sounds more exciting than it actually is to read. Asimov is not much of a thriller writer. The dialogues are all a bit long-winded and tension is not cultivated in the text. And what about the world-building? Some of the Trantor cultures have a Jack Vancian flavour to them but lack Vance’s sardonic wit. Asimov’s rational, analytical tone conveys no flavour of mood. The world-building is inserted in patches whenever Hari and Dors move around, and none of it really bowls me over.
The two Foundation sequels (Foundation’s Edge (1982) and Foundation and Earth (1986)) were an opportunity for Asimov to tie this universe to the robot novels, and no doubt he thought that this prequel offered another opportunity to do so. The way I see it, he sacrificed Hari Seldon’s story to crowbarring in more robot stuff. His story serves to make references to other novels. Although, I also understood that the next book, Forward the Foundation (1992) deals with large parts of Hari’s life, so if we take Prelude as just a… well… a prelude… then it makes sense that the story doesn’t cover much time.
The book is dull. Asimov’s forte is good ideas, but when there are none, then nothing else works out because his characters, prose and plotting are all terribly pedestrian. On top of that, he turns Seldon into an idiot. The motivations he gives Seldon for his idiotic decisions are flimsy and unconvincing. I ended up not liking Seldon and not enjoying his journey.