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

There are great expectations from the Apple TV adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s trilogy. Fans and critics hope it will keep up with the times, while maintaining its most distinctive feature — big questions, treated on a breathtaking scale.
Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books featured very few women. To right the balance for a new audience, the Apple TV show has recast the character of Gaal Dornick as a woman. (Apple TV) PREMIUM
Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books featured very few women. To right the balance for a new audience, the Apple TV show has recast the character of Gaal Dornick as a woman. (Apple TV)
Updated on Sep 25, 2021 01:54 PM IST
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ByGautam Bhatia

Almost 80 years ago, a niche American genre periodical called Astounding Science Fiction published a set of eight sci-fi stories, loosely based on the fall of the Roman Empire. The writer was Isaac Asimov, and the stories were later collected into a trilogy, collectively known as the Foundation series. In succeeding decades, Asimov would go on to add more novels, both by way of prelude and by way of afterword, creating a sprawling, seven-book series spanning several generations and a galaxy.

On September 24, 2021, a TV adaption of Foundation was released on Apple TV. Perhaps the only surprise about this is that it took this long. Ever 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 — stared out from the science-fiction shelves of New Delhi bookshops in the early 2000s, when I was growing up. Twenty years later, the shelves have widened, become more diverse, playing host to a range of new names: Kim Stanley Robinson, Ann Leckie, Liu Cixin, Arkady Martine, Becky Chambers, Andy Weir, and many more, but Asimov and Foundation remain.

The writer’s own legacy has been subjected to serious reassessment. Protected by celebrity in his own time, Asimov’s history of sexual harassment has begun to be talked about more openly, as has his work’s (and the genre’s) troubled relationship with sexism and misogyny. Even the Foundation series feels remarkably dated in its treatment of gender. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of Apple TV series is that Gaal Dornick, the male mathematician with whom the story of Foundation begins, is cast as a woman. Asimov could imagine a far-future, spacefaring Galactic Empire, but he could not, it seems, imagine a world beyond gender hierarchies.

And that is 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 waned sharply in the real world, in recent years. While the later novels do complicate this theme somewhat, the dominant strain is unmistakable. Looking back with the benefit of many decades of hindsight, the ways in which complex social problems are resolved in the series can sometimes feel almost too easy, too pat.

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Jared Harris plays Hari Seldon, the psychohistorian who foresees the downfall of the Galactic Empire and maps a future course of action that will seek to control historical events in order to protect and promote the best elements of the failing civilisation. (Apple TV)
Jared Harris plays Hari Seldon, the psychohistorian who foresees the downfall of the Galactic Empire and maps a future course of action that will seek to control historical events in order to protect and promote the best elements of the failing civilisation. (Apple TV)

So what explains Foundation’s longevity? The answer, I believe, is a complex one. The construction of a literary canon is a political act, with agents and editors, marketing and publicity budgets, and periodicals and reviews playing critical roles even before a book finds itself in the hands of its intended readers. But that is not all there is to it. Books age quickly, bestsellers for one generation becoming unknown to the next.

Foundation’s enduring appeal, therefore, probably lies in something deeper than the political economy that vaulted it towards contemporary success, or the fact that it was an elegant and pathbreaking ode to the power of science and reason, released in what is still considered (albeit problematically) the “golden age of science fiction”.

Its appeal lies perhaps in the fact that Asimov was one of the first writers to use the genre of science fiction as a terrain for exploring layered moral, ethical, social, and political questions, on a grand scale. Admittedly, after Asimov, there have been others who have done the same thing just as well or, arguably, better: think of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, Iain M Banks’s magisterial Culture novels, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice or Essa Hansen’s Graven series, just a few names among many.

In many ways, though, 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 with one another? How does one save a species from hurtling towards its own ruin? On what principles should society be organised? What are the limits of science, of the knowable? There are echoes of these questions in today’s tangles around capitalism, migration, and race; perhaps most notably the climate crisis; and even at the personal level, in determining the ethical and moral character of one’s own actions, and the role of “reason” in guiding what we do.

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At the core of Foundation is the science of psychohistory, invented by the mathematical genius Hari Seldon. Psychohistory holds that while the conduct of individual human beings is unpredictable, the behaviour of large groups of people is not, and indeed, can be modelled through statistical laws. Presciently, in Asimov’s tale, this allows scientists to predict the future of big conglomerations. In his case, the conglomerations include a Galactic Empire. There’s one catch: while one can more or less “see” centuries ahead, the society under observation must never know of the predicted trajectory, because if it does, it will inevitably alter its behaviour, and falsify the prediction.

The events in the books span centuries and are wide-ranging in scope. There’s no single hero or villain, which has made the tale hard to adapt for screen. (Bantam Books)
The events in the books span centuries and are wide-ranging in scope. There’s no single hero or villain, which has made the tale hard to adapt for screen. (Bantam Books)

The story of Foundation unspools from this premise. Using psychohistory, Seldon predicts the imminent fall 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 rise of a Second Empire: by setting up two Foundations, one public and one secret. These will be new civilisations that preserve what is best of the existing, at opposite ends of the galaxy. Together, they will eventually form the basis of an eventual second Empire.

What Seldon engineers does come to pass, and the original trilogy traces the evolution of the First and Second Foundations, amidst a falling Galactic Empire and the chaos that brings.

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In the fractured world that we inhabit today, the temptations (and perils) of psychohistory are evident. There is comfort in the thought that the future is not just knowable, but through cautious scientific, even technocratic, tinkering, can be made to follow a rational path towards progress. In a world in which it has become increasingly difficult to think in, or to imagine, totalities, Hari Seldon and his successors in the two Foundations make it possible to believe that the whole can both be seen, and be steered.

But the promise brings with it 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, foresee, and whose entry upon the stage throws the course of future history off-kilter.

When I spoke recently with the mathematician and science-fiction writer Chandler Davis, a contemporary of Asimov, for a forthcoming interview in the Strange Horizons magazine, he pointed out that while Asimov came from the Marxist tradition, Second Foundation introduces an element of doubt into the confident picture painted by its two predecessor novels, a warning that we may never even understand history well enough to predict the future, much less mould or steer it.

This tension between certainty and doubt, which runs through the warp and weft of the Foundation series and is played out on a Galactic stage, feels fresh even today. Many of the moral choices faced by Asimov’s protagonists, whether it is the political and commercial leaders of the First Foundation, or the mathematicians and scientists of the Second, stem from the desire to keep the course of history in order in a disordered world, with an undercurrent often probing to ask: 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 hinted at, but not prescribed; the reader decides.

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But if there are themes that fit seamlessly into a 21st-century adaptation of Foundation, there are others, as indicated above, that perhaps represent the limits of Asimov’s vision, and point towards other possible directions. It feels somewhat anachronistic, for example, that a highly advanced, spacefaring civilisation still continues to govern through recognisable, Earthbound political forms: empires, kingdoms, theocracies, plutocracies. In this sense, Foundation was limited even in its own time. As early as the 1970s, in works such as The Dispossessed, and The Word for World is Forest, Le Guin painted powerful portraits of societies that were not in thrall to the power hierarchies so familiar to us. Even as Asimov wrote his sequels, the Strugatsky Brothers in Soviet Russia and Iain M Banks in the UK had published memorable novels about post-capitalist, post-scarcity spacefaring societies of an entirely new kind.

More recently, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire and A Desolation Called Peace take up the conversation, questioning Asimov’s easy comfort with Empire as a default mode of governance. True, in Foundation and Earth, Asimov explores the possibility of a Gaian system — every living being in synergy with every other and with the planet — but equally so, there is a vast spectrum between Empire and Gaia, whose possibilities appear to be foreclosed in the series.

The Apple TV series, therefore, has its work cut out. Foundation has achieved an almost mythic status in the science-fiction canon, something like the equivalent of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: a sacred halo that comes with the title of pioneer. But much like Lord of the Rings, elements that may have passed muster in the perhaps-more-insular genre communities of the 1940s simply do not translate well into 2021. Perhaps the truest service that the TV series can perform for Foundation, then, is to take a respectful but unsparingly critical approach, much like Asimov’s own immanent critique of psychohistory. 

And while it is early days yet, if the first two episodes, released together on September 24, are anything to go by, the Apple TV series looks set to meet this challenge. In the opening scenes, we are taken straight into the heart of the decaying Galactic Empire, and the conflict between Seldon's psychohistorical analysis of its imminent fall and its rulers' stubborn unwillingness to accept the fact of their own decay. We see much of the action through the eyes of Gaal Dornick herself, and right from the beginning, there is an underlying note of doubt about the possibilities of science and mathematics to rescue a dying civilisation; indeed, even the unflappable Seldon is shown to suffer from self-doubt.

If the series can go on like it started, and continue to combine critique with Foundation’s most distinctive feature — a sense of the big questions, treated at a breathtakingly huge scale — then it could become a classic of 21st-century science-fiction television, much like its base text became a classic of 20th-century science-fiction literature.

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

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Tuesday, December 07, 2021