This Isn’t Exactly Asimov’s Foundation but That’s Okay.

Before we can discuss Apple TV+’s new sci-fi series “Foundation” we have to look at the origin of the story.

When famous science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov was just 21 years old he was on his way to meet with John W. Campbell the famous editor of Astounding Magazine. Although he had been writing professionally for three years and had sold five stories to Campbell, he was a relative unknown. That fifth story “Nightfall” would really make his mark in the sci-fi world but it had not yet been published. The meeting was supposed to be a story pitch man Asimov had no idea what to pitch. Using free association, he opened the book to an image of a soldier. That made him think of military empires, the Roman Empire, a Galactic Empire! He had his idea. He had just read Edward Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” and decided he would retell the story in an outer space setting. The result was a series of eight stories that appeared between May 1942 and January 1950 in Astounding. Then in 1951 he added a new introductory story and the entire set was published as three books known as the “Foundation Trilogy”. The series was awarded a Hugo award in 1966 as “Best All Time Series” – a special one-time award that many expected would go to the “Lord of the Rings”.

In 1981 Asimov was persuaded by his publisher to write a sequel fourth book “Foundation’s Edge” published in 1982 followed by another sequel in 1986 and then two prequels in 1988 and 1993 bringing the collection to a total of seven books. These prequels and sequels also tied in the Foundation series to other series of books including the Robot series and the Empire series.

In 1981 when Asimov prepared to write the first sequel, it had been 40 years since he had begun the series and so he went back to reread his original trilogy. Here is what he wrote about the experience…

I read it with mounting uneasiness. I kept waiting for something to happen, and nothing ever did. All three volumes, all the nearly quarter of a million words, consisted of thoughts and of conversations. No action. No physical suspense.

What was all the fuss about, then? Why did everyone want more of that stuff? – To be sure, I couldn’t help but notice that I was turning the pages eagerly, and that I was upset when I finished the book, and that I wanted more, but I was the author, for goodness’ sake. You couldn’t go by me.

I read the original trilogy sometime in the early 1970s and although I enjoyed it, I have to agree with Asimov’s assessment. Not a lot goes on. It’s a lot of people sitting around talking about the politics of the fall of the Empire.

Asimov goes on to explain

I was on the edge of deciding it was all a terrible mistake and of insisting on giving back the money, when (quite by accident, I swear) I came across some sentences by science-fiction writer and critic, James Gunn, who, in connection with the Foundation series, said, “Action and romance have little to do with the success of the Trilogy – virtually all the action takes place offstage, and the romance is almost invisible – but the stories provide a detective-story fascination with the permutations and reversals of ideas.”

Oh, well, if what was needed were “permutations and reversals of ideas,” then that I could supply.

I was unaware until recently that there were any sequels or prequels. In preparation for watching the new TV series on Apple TV+ I decided to reread the original trilogy and discovered the four additional novels. I had heard rumors that the TV series might dip into some of the material of the prequels so I ended up reading all seven books back to back.

I have to say that I enjoyed the prequels and sequels much more than the original material but of course Asimov had matured by 40+ years and the new stories did contain some action and excitement other than simply the “permutations of ideas”.

As always, if you want more information about the topics in this blog such as details of the Foundation series you can click on any of the links in this document which will take you to IMDb and Wikipedia articles on the topics.

I’ve always thought that the title “Foundation” was an unintentional perfect title because many of the themes and tropes introduced in the series have become the foundation for many sci-fi stories and epics in the years since then. Many have said that Frank Herbert’s classic series “Dune”, a film version of which will be out in October, was his response to Foundation. And Asimov has acknowledged that much of Star Wars has been ripped off from his stories that he doesn’t care because he acknowledges that he simply ripped off Gibbon’s Fall of the Roman Empire. Star Wars hyperspace drives, the mind probe, and a Galactic Empire with a capital planet that consists of a city covering the entire planet (Coruscant in Star Wars, Trantor in Foundation) and other ripoffs will jump right out at fans of both works.

In anticipation of the new series, I went to IMDb and looked at the cast list. The first thing I noticed was that several characters had switched from male to female. One could hardly expect to find strong female characters in positions of importance from a sci-fi story written by a 21-year-old grad student in 1941. So the swap of genders seemed like a good choice. But the thing that disturbed me most was that I saw characters in the cast list that did not exist in the original source material. That made me worried that they were going to stray far afield from the original material. “Foundation” had had previous false starts of adaptation to film or TV. Some said that it was “unfilmable” and I worried that they would make significant changes to make it filmable. Check out this interesting article written before the release of this series about the history of attempting to adapt Asimov’s work to film or TV. Various scenes from the trailers also indicated there was much more action in the story than was in the original books. I had a bad feeling about the whole thing.

Now that I’ve seen the first two episodes which premiered September 24 on Apple TV+ I found that indeed they have made significant changes to the story but it is mostly thing is that they have added. And those additions, at least so far, are very positive changes.

The main story of both the book and TV series is about mathematician Hari Seldon who has invented a branch of psychology and mathematics called psychohistory. The core idea is that although you cannot predict individual behavior if you have a large group of people (such as the quintillions of people scattered across 25 million worlds of the Galactic Empire) you can accurately predict the future. Seldon’s equations show that the Empire will fall within 500 years. Nothing can be done to save it. That will lead to 30,000 years of Galactic war, barbarism, and chaos. However, that can be mitigated by the establishment of a Foundation. It will be a repository of human knowledge and experience that will survive the fall and rebuild a second Empire in a mere 1,000 years rather than 30,000.

The opening episode of the series follows quite closely the short story that Asimov added to his original eight when the stories were collected into book form. We follow mathematician Gaal Dornick who is arriving at the Galactic capital planet Trantor to work with Seldon. This is one of the characters that the TV series switches to female. They also expand the back story of Gaal and her homeworld Synnax. It is a world where religion rules and science and mathematics are forbidden. Although still a believer at heart, she has been forced to renounce her faith in pursuit of mathematics. She has won a contest to solve a complex mathematical problem and earned her a job with Seldon. This back story is fascinating and is absent from the original books.

I mentioned that the cast list including characters that are not in the books. The main characters added are a trio of people who serve as the Galactic Emperor. Although the Emperor plays a big part in other parts of the Foundation Series, he is absent in the original short story that is depicted in the first episode. The trio consists of a young boy about eight years old, a grown man brilliantly portrayed by Lee Pace, and an old man portrayed by Terrence Mann. They are known as Brother Dawn, Brother Day, and Brother Dusk. They are clones of a previous Emperor Cleon I and this continuous line of clones have ruled as Emperor for 400 years. We get to see the younger version being trained in the ways of politics, the political savvy of Brother Day as he deals with political unrest of the Outer Worlds, and the wise counsel of the elder Dusk who is struggling with his own mortality.

The performances of Pace and Mann are so seamless that at one point I thought perhaps the elder was also portrayed by Pace in makeup until I checked the cast list. The insights into the political atmosphere of the time and the way that the trio of Emperors deal with it adds greatly to the original story.

From interviews with Pace I get the idea that these characters will continue years into the future with Pace playing the role of different clones of the same line as they rotate through the line of succession. One interesting twist, Day asks Seldon is there anything we can do to slow down the fall of the Empire? Seldon says “Yes, stop making clones of yourself.” The idea is that they had the same leadership more or less for 400 years and they need fresh ideas at the top. Something they won’t get as long as they keep reincarnating themselves. I thought that was a clever concept not in the original work because the clone leadership did not exist in the original stories. It showed me that the writers can innovate around Asimov’s core concepts quite well.

We were also introduced to Demerzel, a character from the prequels who carries a secret that I felt was revealed too soon in the TV series. This is another character that has been changed to female and of the three main characters who have had a gender swap I tend to disagree with this choice although I suppose in the end it doesn’t matter. It’s just that this character plays a larger role in Asimov’s Future History timeline and that character has always been male. She serves as an advisor to the Emperors and mother figure to the young boy clone .

We should also briefly discussed the world-building that they’ve done in the series. The sets and costumes are detailed and lavish. This is going to be on par with what we anticipate from the upcoming film of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” which will be in theaters in October. It’s trying to be an outer space version of “Game of Thrones” (without the nudity) and so far it seems to be succeeding.

Depictions of key elements of Asimov’s stories fully met my expectations such as the holographic projector known as the Prime Radiant which contains Seldon’s equations and the Imperial Library which so closely matched my mental image I wonder if perhaps I had seen a glimpse of it in the trailer before rereading the books.

I believe that the changes made for the TV series have added to and not significantly detracted from Asimov’s original story. The changes are not just to add action and stunning visuals (although they do that phenomenally well) they so further add to the political intrigue which is the core of Asimov’s work.

There are some spoilers below. So for now I have to say I am much more optimistic about the series than I was from the trailers and other early release material. The show has great potential.

It is only available on Apple TV+ and new episodes of the 10 episode first season will appear each Friday.

I’m rating it “I Really like It” and highly recommend it.

***Minor spoilers ***

As previously mentioned, there isn’t any action or adventure in the original trilogy although the prequels and sequels make up for that. So the writers of the TV series need something visually spectacular for the medium of television and they deliver a very memorable spectacle. There is a space elevator on the capital planet of Trantor. You park your spaceship in orbit and ride an elevator all the way to the surface. There is a terrorist attack that destroys the space elevator. The elevator shaft which is hundreds of miles long comes crashing down onto the planet wrapping itself most of the way around the surface killing 100 million people. It is an amazing bit of special effects with very memorable visuals. A retaliatory attack on the homeworlds of the suspected terrorists is much less memorable or innovative.

At the end of the original short story and the end of the first TV episode, we find Seldon and his followers exiled to a distant planet Terminus to establish the Encyclopedia Galactica Foundation which will preserve human knowledge and experience through the upcoming fall of the Empire. The Emperor exiles them to get them out of the way and doesn’t want to destroy them thus creating a martyr and implying that perhaps Seldon was right and the Empire is falling. This exile was part of Seldon’s plan all along.

The book jumps 50 years to a new story set on Terminus but the TV series 2nd episode begins to cover the four-year journey to the planet Terminus. Something that is not covered in the books. In fact, this is one place where the sci-fi technology breaks down from “reality”. Terminus is 50,000 light-years from the capital Trantor but they have been forbidden from using “jump drive” technology to get there. How you travel 50,000 light-years in just four years without some sort of FTL Drive is a bit of plot-driven technology that sadly is not explained.

It does give us an opportunity to develop a romantic story between Gaal and Seldon’s right-hand man Raych Foss. It also gives us interesting insights into Seldon’s relationship with his followers.

I won’t spoil any more of the story beyond that but it does take some interesting turns and we will have to wait and see where we go from here.

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