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?