Foundation series

Galaxy quest: Will Asimov’s Foundation series find new life on screen?

Nearly 80 years ago, a niche American genre periodical called Astounding Science Fiction published a set of eight science fiction stories, loosely based on the fall of the Roman Empire. The writer was Isaac Asimov, and the stories were later collected into a trilogy, known collectively as the Foundation series. Over the following decades, Asimov added more novels, both prelude and afterword, creating an extensive series of seven books spanning multiple generations and a galaxy.

On September 24, 2021, a television adaptation of Foundation was released on Apple TV. Perhaps the only surprise about this is that it took so long. Since its initial publication, the series has been a gateway drug for generations of science fiction readers. Copies of the original trilogy – Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation, released between 1951 and 1953 – rolled off the science fiction shelves of bookstores in New Delhi in the early 2000s when I was growing up. Twenty years later, the shelves have grown, diversified and welcomed new names: Kim Stanley Robinson, Ann Leckie, Liu Cixin, Arkady Martine, Becky Chambers, Andy Weir and many others, but Asimov and Foundation remain .

The writer’s own legacy has been subjected to serious reassessment. Protected by fame in his day, Asimov’s history of sexual harassment began to be spoken about more openly, as did his work’s (and gender’s) troubled relationship with sexism and misogyny. Even the Foundation series seems remarkably dated in its treatment of the genre. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of the Apple TV series is that Gaal Dornick, the male mathematician with whom Foundation’s story begins, is cast as a woman. Asimov could imagine a galactic empire far and wide, but he couldn’t, it seems, imagine a world beyond gender hierarchies.

And that’s not the only aspect of the series that might not have aged particularly well. An underlying theme in Foundation is faith in technocracy, a faith that has declined sharply in the real world in recent years. Although later novels complicate this theme somewhat, the dominant strain is unmistakable. Looking back with the benefit of decades of hindsight, the way complex social issues are solved on the show can sometimes seem almost too easy, too simple.

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Jared Harris stars as Hari Seldon, the psychohistorian who foresees the fall of the Galactic Empire and plots a future course of action that will seek to control historical events in order to protect and promote the best elements of the failing civilization. (AppleTV)

So what explains Foundation’s longevity? The answer, I believe, is complex. Building a literary canon is a political act, with agents and publishers, marketing and advertising budgets, periodicals and journals playing a critical role even before a book finds its way into the hands of its readers. readers. But that’s not all. Books age rapidly, with the bestsellers of one generation becoming unknown to the next.

The Foundation’s enduring appeal therefore likely lies in something deeper than the political economy that propelled it to contemporary success, or the fact that it was an elegant and innovative ode to the power of science and reason, published in what is still considered (albeit problematic) “the golden age of science fiction”.

Its appeal may lie in the fact that Asimov was one of the first writers to use the genre of science fiction as a terrain for exploring large-scale moral, ethical, social and political issues. Certainly, after Asimov, there were others who did the same thing as well or, arguably, better: think of The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, the masterful novels Culture by Iain M Banks, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie or The Graven series by Essa Hansen, just a few names among many others.

In many ways, however, Foundation remains a point of origin: when Asimov got it right, the questions he raised are with us even today. How do the past and the future interact? How to prevent a species from rushing to its own ruin? On what principles should we organize society? What are the limits of science, of the knowable? There are echoes of these questions in today’s entanglements around capitalism, migration and race; perhaps most particularly the climate crisis; and even on a personal level, determining the ethical and moral character of one’s own actions, and the role of “reason” in directing what we do.

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At the heart of Foundation is the science of psychohistory, invented by mathematical genius Hari Seldon. Psychohistory holds that while the conduct of individual human beings is unpredictable, the behavior of large groups of people is not, and can in fact be modeled by statistical laws. Premonitoryly, in Asimov’s tale, it allows scientists to predict the future of large conglomerates. In his case, the conglomerates include a Galactic Empire. There is a catch: while one can more or less “see” centuries ahead, the observed society must never know the predicted trajectory, because if it does, it will inevitably change its behavior and distort the prediction.

The events in the books span centuries and are far-reaching. There is no single hero or villain, which made the tale difficult to adapt to the screen. (Bantam Books)

The story of Foundation unfolds from this premise. Using psychohistory, Seldon predicts the impending downfall of the Galactic Empire and the many millennia of “dark ages” that will follow. But he also predicts a way to shorten the interregnum, before the advent of a Second Empire: by creating two Foundations, one public and one secret. These will be new civilizations that preserve the best of the existing, at opposite ends of the galaxy. Together, they would eventually form the basis of an eventual Second Empire.

What Seldon Engineers Happen, and The Original Trilogy charts the evolution of the First and Second Foundations, amid a collapsing galactic empire and resulting chaos.

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In the fractured world we inhabit today, the temptations (and perils) of psychohistory are evident. It is comforting to think that the future is not only knowable, but that through careful scientific, even technocratic tinkering, it can be brought along a rational path to progress. In a world where it has become increasingly difficult to think or imagine totalities, Hari Seldon and his successors in the two Foundations make it possible to believe that the whole can be both seen and piloted.

But the promise carries a peril. In Second Foundation, Asimov complicates his own picture by introducing the Mule, a genetic mutant with vast powers that Seldon did not, could not have foreseen, and whose entry into the picture changes the course of future history.

When I recently spoke with mathematician and science fiction writer Chandler Davis, a contemporary of Asimov, for an upcoming interview in Strange Horizons magazine, he pointed out that while Asimov came from the Marxist tradition, Second Foundation introduces a element of doubt in the confident picture painted by his previous two novels, a warning that we may never understand history well enough to predict the future, let alone shape or direct it.

This tension between certainty and doubt, which runs through the warp and weft of the Foundation series and plays out on a galactic stage, feels fresh even today. Many of the moral choices facing Asimov’s protagonists, whether the political and business leaders of the First Foundation, or the mathematicians and scientists of the Second, stem from the desire to maintain the course of history. in order in a messy world, with an undercurrent that often asks: is it even possible – or worth it – in the first place? At the end of the seventh novel, Foundation and Earth (1986), an answer is suggested, but not prescribed; the reader decides.

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But while there are themes that fit perfectly into a 21st-century adaptation of Foundation, there are others, as noted above, that perhaps represent the limits of Asimov’s vision and point to other possible directions. It seems somewhat anachronistic, for example, that a highly advanced space civilization continues to rule through recognizable, Earth-bound political forms: empires, kingdoms, theocracies, plutocracies. In this sense, the Foundation was limited even in its time. As early as the 1970s, in works such as Les Dépossédés and Le mot pour le monde est forêt, Le Guin painted powerful portraits of societies that were not in the grip of the hierarchies of power that are so familiar to us. Even as Asimov was writing his sequels, the Strugatsky brothers in Soviet Russia and Iain M Banks in the UK had published memorable novels about post-capitalist, post-scarcity space societies of a whole new genre.

More recently, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire and A Desolation Called Peace pick up the conversation, challenging Asimov’s easy comfort with Empire as the default mode of governance. Certainly, in Foundation and Earth, Asimov explores the possibility of a Gaian system – each living being in synergy with each other and with the planet – but equally, there is a vast spectrum between the Empire and Gaia, the possibilities of which seem to be foreclosed in the series.

The Apple TV series therefore has its work cut out for it. Foundation has achieved almost mythical status in the science fiction canon, something like the equivalent of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: a sacred halo that accompanies the title of pioneer. But much like Lord of the Rings, the elements that may have managed to come together in the perhaps more insular genre communities of the 1940s just don’t translate well into 2021. Perhaps the most true that the TV series can give back to Foundation is therefore to adopt a respectful but ruthlessly critical approach, much like Asimov’s own immanent critique of psychohistory.

And if it is still in its infancy, if the first two episodes, released together on September 24, have anything to do with it, the Apple TV series seems well on its way to meeting this challenge. In the opening scenes, we are taken straight to the heart of the decaying Galactic Empire and the conflict between Seldon’s psychohistorical analysis of its impending downfall and the stubborn reluctance of its rulers to accept the fact of their own decadence. We see much of the action through the eyes of Gaal Dornick herself, and from the start there is an underlying note of doubt about the possibilities of science and mathematics to save a dying civilisation; indeed, even the unflappable Seldon suffers from self-doubt.

If the series can carry on as it began and continue to combine criticism with Foundation’s most distinctive characteristic – a sense of big questions, handled on a jaw-dropping scale – then it could become a science television classic. -fiction of the 21st century, just as its basic text has become a classic of 20th century science fiction literature.

(Gautam Bhatia is editor of Strange Horizons magazine and author of the science fiction novels The Wall and The Horizon)

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