Foundation

I’ve been watching the new Apple TV+ series Foundation, but wanted to get a few episodes in before commenting. This is an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation book series. In that series, set in the far future (20,000 years), a vast galactic empire rules the entire galaxy.

Hari Seldon is a mathematician who has developed the science of psychohistory. This science allows him to predict the future of society. Any one person’s actions are unpredictable. But the actions of billions or trillions of human beings average out into deterministic patterns. Using this science, Seldon predicts that the empire will fall within a few centuries, leaving the galaxy in a dark age that will endure for 30,000 years.

However, Seldon has a plan to form a Foundation, an organization which will work to preserve human knowledge and publish it in an Encyclopedia Galactica. He states that the existence of this encyclopedia will shorten the dark age to only 1000 years.

His predictions of a future fall of the empire get him and the Foundation into political trouble. The Foundation is subsequently exiled to a planet at the edge of the galaxy. But it turns out that this is all according to Seldon’s plan, and the encyclopedia isn’t the real plan.

The original Foundation series were short stories written in the 1940s and published in Astounding Magazine. These stories were subsequently grouped into three books published in the early 1950s. They were followed by actual novels, two sequels and two prequels, written by Asimov in the 1980s, and additional novels written by other authors.

The series is classic science fiction. The Nobel economist Paul Krugman once noted that it inspired him to become an economist, since economics was the closest he could get to the fictional science of psychohistory.

There have been discussions of a movie or TV adaptation for decades, but most who looked at it considered the series unfilmable, for a couple of reasons. First, each of the short stories in the original series take place in their own generation, with most or all the characters changing between stories. Second, most of the stories consist of political or philosophical debates, with the lion share of the action taking place offstage.

So when Apple TV+ announced their series, there was never any doubt it would have to be different from the books. The only question is how well it might still capture the spirit of Asimov’s vision.

Some of the changes are what you might expect when adapting material written during and immediately after World War II. The first change is that the cast has far more diversity than in the original stories, where most of the arguments noted above were between men smoking cigars. A lot of the characters were changed to women and/or different ethnicities. Another expected change is that the world is far more fleshed out with a lot more action on stage.

Moving a bit beyond that, situations are more dangerous and dramatic than in the books. So Gaal Dornick, rather than the book’s male mathematician coming from a provincial planet to Trantor to work for Seldon, in the show is a black female coming from a repressive religious society that condemns her interest and skill in math; she becomes estranged from her faith in order to come to Trantor. And her arrest is far more harrowing than the relatively polite treatment in the books.

But what’s really striking is just how much stranger and exotic this universe is compared to the one Asimov describes, making it feel much more like a society thousands of years from now than the original stories.

For instance, the emperors are clones of one another, with three alive at a time: the younger known as “Brother Dawn”, the middle as “Brother Day”, and the elder “Brother Dusk”. Brother Day is the actual ruler with Brother Dusk advising while Brother Dawn learns. It’s an interesting setup that allows for the empire to have a consistent set of faces across generations.

The show begins where the original story begins, with Gaal Dornick’s trip to Trantor. However, it is aware of the prequels, so there are references to ancient robot wars. And it includes the character Demerzel as a robot aid to the emperors, although as a woman. It also appears there will be a lot more effort to make the transition between generational stages of the story more smooth.

So the overall feel of the story is very different from the books, a fact that I’ve seen a few purists express dismay over. But the overall story, at least so far, seems true to Asimov’s vision. And the production values are first class. I don’t know how much money Apple TV+ has sunk into this thing, but they definitely didn’t cut any corners. Finally, the added detail, both in terms of bizarre far future technologies and exotic human cultures, give the series a depth I wasn’t expecting.

All of which is to say, this isn’t your father’s version of Foundation, but I’m still enjoying it a great deal. I might feel different at the end of the season, but right now after the fourth episode, I highly recommend checking it out.

Have you seen it? If so, what did you think?

13 thoughts on “Foundation

    1. I can see that. At least HBO Max has a ton of content. Apple’s still seems pretty limited. There are a couple of other shows on it I plan to eventually check out, but neither of them were sufficient to make me subscribe until Foundation.

      Finished Trigun this morning. Not bad, but I found the ending frustratingly underdetermined. Vash was carrying his brother, so he’s still alive? And if alive, how is anything resolved? And I would have liked to see if anything actually happens between Meryl and Vash (although it sounds like the romantic tension was only introduced in the anime, not the manga). I was also pretty exasperated with Vash and his adamant aversion to and guilt about killing, even when his friends lives were on the line. Oh well, it was entertainment.

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      1. Indeed, I’m more likely to subscribe to HBO Max than Apple TV+ right now. That might change, especially if I drop YouTube TV, which I’m way overpaying for given what I watch there.

        It seems like they hoped for a second season of Trigun by leaving some things unresolved. Or it’s just the Japanese storytelling mode of ambiguous open endings. I think, like you, I enjoyed watching it okay, but it doesn’t particularly stand out for me. I’d give it decent Eh! rating.

        Last night I started watching Full Metal Panic? Fumoffu, which comes between the original Full Metal Panic! and that sequel season, The Second Raid. Those are more mecha action thrillers with a political bent, but this is a satirical comedy (no mecha, but there is a parody of one). Only 12 episodes. The five I watched last night had me laughing.

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        1. One nice thing I remembered about HBO Max, is they have a CrunchyRoll hub, which as it turned out includes the Berserk series I started. If I go back to watching it, it’ll probably be there rather than in VRV’s clunky interface. (I got VRV as an experiment. Not sure it’ll last much longer.)

          But after finishing Trigun this morning, I went back to Dr. Stone, which is pretty good. The main character is a super science nerd who wakes up in a post-apocalyptic future and proceeds to use science to accomplish all kinds of things. In the process, he makes cool observations about the way science works.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, the original stories have a very old school feel to them and aren’t for everyone.

      I’m actually using Apple’s Roku app, so Apple exposure is minimal. I wouldn’t have bothered if it required their hardware. I once had an Apple TV box and was utterly underwhelmed by it. But their Roku app isn’t bad.

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  1. It’s been such a long time since I read the Foundation novels that I can’t really tell where the story is taking liberties with the source material. There are plenty of scenes where I think: “Oh yeah, that sounds familiar.” Oddly enough, the Brother Dawn, Day, and Dusk thing was one of those things that felt familiar to me, but I guess that wasn’t in the original books. Or maybe they’re borrowing that idea from a different Asimov novel? I don’t know.

    Anyway, I’m really enjoying the series so far.

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    1. It’s been several decades for me. I seem to recall the earlier portions somewhat clearly, I think because it took a few tries before I really got into series. (My dad read it first and repeatedly urged me to read the whole thing.) The further we get into the material, the more hazy my memory becomes. I barely recall the later sequel and prequel novels. I also never read the stuff by other authors.

      All of which is to say, the clone thing could come from somewhere I just don’t recall, or maybe even never read.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I was reading an article from Inverse earlier today, and it said Dawn, Day, and Dusk were never in any of the books. I think they’re a cool idea, though. The concept feels very Asimov-ian to me, so much so that I genuinely thought I remembered them from the books.

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        1. I agree it’s a cool concept, particularly for the TV show since it allows the same actors to be the face of the empire throughout. But it seems like a theme in the original stories was how weak the later emperors were (similar to the Roman emperors during the western empire’s decline), and I wonder how well the clone thing will work with that. Although the other theme was that it wasn’t about how strong a person they were, but the political structure they found themselves in, so the clones could work in emphasizing that.

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          1. In the last episode, I got the sense that the most recent Brother Dawn was maybe not as good a copy as the previous clones. He spoke out of sync with the others and, of course, there was that whole jumping out a window bit. So even though they’re clones of the same person, we might still see them deteriorate and become less effective rulers over time.

            Just spitballing a thought on that.

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