Tag: foundation

My Initial Thoughts on Apple TV’s Adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation (with Spoilers)

SPOILERS AHEAD: Given my initial apprehensions about Apple TV’s adaptation of Foundation, and my many readings of Asimov’s series of the years, I couldn’t find a way to write this post without including spoilers both to the two episodes that have appeared thus far, and to the books. If you have not yet watched the first two episodes of Apple TV’s Foundation, or have not read the Foundation novels and plan to either, be warned: spoilers to both lie here within.

This past Friday, I sat down to watch the first two episodes of Apple TV’s production of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. If you are here to find out if my apprehensions were well-founded, or if I liked what I saw, and want to avoid any spoilers, read no further than the next three sentences: I loved it. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Indeed, I enjoyed it so much I watched it a second time on Sunday.

To understand why I enjoyed it as much as I did requires knowing something about the Foundation stories, and that is why spoilers are required. If you are not interested in anything more than whether or not I liked it, you have the answer now, and can stop reading. Thanks for stopping by. If you are curious as to why I think it so good, thus far, read on, but be warned, spoilers follow.

1. Understand that this is an adaptation

I went into this with the clear recognition that this was an adaptation of Asimov’s work. Adaptations, at least good ones, are not meant to be strict copies of the original canon. They bring to bear the views and artistic insights of those involved in adapting the story. Some adaptations are bad: the 2004 adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s I. Robot is one example, in my opinion. There was very little of the heart of the robot stories in that movie. A good adaptation maintains the heart of the original and builds upon it. Think of The Shawshank Redemption. It is an outstanding adaptation to an outstanding story, but it is not an exact copy. There are important changes that make it different, interesting, and yet you can see the core there, and how it was built upon.

The core is there in Apple TV’s Foundation. Almost from the outset, we hear the names “Salvor Hardin”, “Hober Mallow”, and “the Mule.” We hear them in the voice of Gaal Dornick, who in addition to playing a pivotal role in the story, acts as the episodes’ narrator. And even that stays true to the original stories. In “The Encyclopedists,” written in 1950 as a kind of prequel to the original Foundation stories (which themselves were written in the 1940s), we are told:

…the best existing authority we have for the details of [Hari Seldon’s] life is the biography written by Gaal Dornick, who, as a young man, met Seldon two years before the great mathematician’s death.

2. Depth and background has been added to the story

But Gaal Dornick is not a young man in the Apple TV adaptation; she is a young woman and one with an interesting background. This is an example of the depth and background that as been added to the story in the adaptation.

Isaac Asimov wrote about ideas. He wasn’t much for backstory, and where it existed in his original Foundation stories, it was there to further the ideas about which he wrote. Readers have often complained, for instance, that many of Asimov’s stories, including the early Foundation stories, completely lacked women. Asimov argued that at the time he wrote these stories (he was 21 when he started the first Foundation story) he had no experience with women. That is a flaw in the Foundation stories that he attempts to correct in some of the later stories.

In Apple TV’s Foundation, the adaptation faces this head-on. Gaal Dornick is woman. Salvor Hardin is a woman. And perhaps best of all, Eto Demerzel is a woman.

I loved the backstory given to Gaal Dornick, and I liked the idea of the triumvirate of Dawn, Day, and Dusk, that make up the cloned descendants of Cleon I who rule the empire. These are details that breathe life into characters originally written to serve ideas in the story, rather than be living, breathing people in their own right.

Raych is another character that has been introduced early, and here, things are more subtle, because Raych was fleshed somewhat in the latter Foundation novels in the 1980s. We know in the Apple TV adaptation that Raych is Hari Seldon’s son, but we know he is his adopted son. We don’t know much more than that.

3. Moving through time

Gaal Dornick narrates the story, and we see that story move between the “present” time, when the Foundation is on Terminus, 35 years after the trial of Hari Seldon. We see the mysterious Vault, and the kids who try to make it as far into the null field that surrounds the vault as they can, to plant their flag. We learn that Salvor Hardin, the “Warden” has made it the farthest of anyone, that she doesn’t seem to be affected by the null field. We don’t know what the null field is, or why it is there, or what it is hiding in the vault, other than rumors of a ghost.

Of course, if you’ve read the books, you have a good idea of what is going on here. The null field is a kind of mental barrier that can’t be passed by most people. And there is only one group who could create such a mental barrier. I’ll come to that a bit later.

The episodes set up short segments on Terminus in the present, and then flash back 35 years to the time when Hari Seldon’s predictions are revealed to the galaxy during his trial.

Once again, the heart of the Foundation stories are preserved here. The trial of Hari Seldon differs mainly in that Gaal Dornick is also on trial, and that she is there to verify his claims. A line from the original remains in the script, when the advocate in the trial presses Seldon on the fact that the empire has been around for 12,000 years and seems as strong as ever. In the book, Seldon says, “The rotten tree-trunk, until the very moment when the storm-blast breaks it in two, has all the appearance of strength it ever had,” The Hari Seldon on screen in the adaptation says something very similar.

4. The core story is being told in the best way possible for the medium

Isaac Asimov had no idea where the stories where going when he wrote them. Remember, that the original Foundation trilogy was a collection of stories that originally appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in the 1940s. Asimov wrote the first without any idea of what would happen next. John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding, tried to convince Asimov to produce an outline of the future history of the Galactic Empire, in much the same way Robert A. Heinlein had produced an outline for his Future History stories, but Asimov refused. That wasn’t how he worked.

Those adapting the story had an advantage that Asimov never had: they knew the entire story before they ever started out. And it was clear to me that they planned to take full advantage of that fact.

Serious spoilers ahead, so take heed.

I was delighted to see Eto Demerzel show up early in the first episode. Demerzel was introduced in the Foundation stories late in the game, in Prelude to Foundation, published in the late 1980s. If the Galactic Empire has been around for 12,000 years, well, guess what, Demerzel has been around longer. She has used different names, and appeared under different guises (including male guises) because Eto Demerzel is robot. We get hints of this in the second episode, when Dawn watches her repair herself from an injury she sustained.

She is not just any robot, however, she is a robot named R. Daniel Olivaw, who made is first appearance in Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel. While she appears as the Empire’s advisor, she is an ally of Hari Seldon and his cause.

Hari Seldon always intended for the Foundation to be established with imperial support, but away from the eyes of the empire. He used his predictive science of psychohistory to try to get the Foundation established on Terminus–and his plan succeeded. But there is a question that no one has yet asked: his science is predictive; how then, did he manipulate events in his favor?

There is a scene in the first episode that gives a clue. On her journey from Synnax to Trantor, Gaal experience the Jump–that passage through hyperspace that allows a galaxy-spanning empire to exist in the first place. Passengers are put to sleep during the jump because, as the spy Jerill says, “Your mind might separate from your body.” Except that Gaal awakens during the sleep and sees the passage. One of the Spacers asks, “How can you be awake?” and then puts her back out. What is it that makes Gaal different?

Toward the end of the first episode, we get a second hint. Just before terrorists blow up the star bridge, Gaal looks up to the sky and tells Hari that the sky is not right, that there is something wrong with the bridge. How did she know before it happened?

The answers to these question, I suspect, lie with the idea that the adaptation has been created with full knowledge of the events of the Foundation stories, and advantage Asimov did not have when he wrote them.

Consider: in the books, Hari Seldon never goes to Terminus. He has other business to attend to. In the adaptation, he goes with the team to Termius in the slow-ship, so that the journey takes over 5 years to get there. But, as we discover toward the end of the second episode, Seldon apparently dies–is killed, it would seem, and Raych, puts Gaal Dornick in an escape pod and launches her into space. It seems that with Seldon seemingly dead and Gaal gone, we are back on track.

I believe this is the writers attempt to setup the bigger reveal: Seldon, along with Gaal and likely with the help of Demerzel, return to Trantor to establish the second Foundation. The second Foundation is the secret Foundation. It is the one that must work in secret for it is the one that can manipulate history through subtle mental abilities that can influence people’s behavior. I suspect that Gaal’s waking up during the Jump, and her knowing there was something wrong with the star bridge before anything happened were clues that she was someone with this mental ability. At one point she says, “I could feel the Empire’s fear.” At another point, in the library after meeting with Gaal, Raych asks Hari for his impressions: “She solved Abraxis, of that I’m sure,” Seldon said, “As for the other thing…”

This mental ability is “the other thing” to which Seldon is referring.

5. Exciting possibilities

All of this makes for exciting possibilities. I can see the future episodes being split between the establishment of the first Foundation on Terminus, and the struggles they go through as they grow, develop, and begin to handle each of the “Seldon Crises” that arise in order to help minimize the duration of the Dark Ages. At the same time, with Seldon and Dornick back on Trantor, we have not only a view of the establishment of the Second Foundation, their secret role, but also a direct view into he fall of the Empire. This makes the most sense to me and it makes for dramatic episodic televisions as well.

6. Sense of wonder

After I watched the first two episodes of Foundation, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I kept thinking about it. It was a visual marvel. And what occurred to me is that I was seeing much of what I imagined when I first read the books. Gaal’s reaction to Trantor was my own. I never questioned it, and it felt like what I was seeing was the Trantor I had always imagined. The feeling lingered, and just before I decided to watch the two episodes a second time, I realized what that feeling was: it was the sense of wonder that attracted me to science fiction in the first place. It has been a long time since I’d felt that sense of wonder. The fact that Apple TV’s adaptation of Foundation could generate that sense of wonder within me probably explains, to a large extent, why I loved the first two episodes so much.

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Foundation Day

Today, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation makes its television debut on Apple TV+. I haven’t watched it yet, but I plan to watch the first two episodes, which were released last night, before the end of the day. It has been a long journey from original concept to the silver screen. H.B.O. attempted to do it and failed. Isaac Asimov first got the idea for Foundation on August 1, 1941. It was 8 months before the first story, “Foundation” appeared in the May 1942 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. The story was written before the United States had entered the Second World War and was published after we’d entered the war. Today’s debut of the series marks just over 80 years from first concept of the story to appearance on television.

The original 1942 “Foundation” story is not the story that appears at the beginning of the first Foundation novel. That novel, and the two that followed, were fixups–collections of the original stories woven together in a more seamless narrative. The first part of the Foundation novel, “The Encyclopedists” was actually written in 1950. The original 1942 “Foundation” story makes up the second part of the Foundation novel. In the original story, Hari Seldon made only brief appearance during his life at the very beginning of the story. It was only with the addition of “The Encyclopedists” that Seldon was introduced more fully during his life.

The original “Foundation” story in my copy of the May 1942 issue of Astounding Science Fiction.

I’ve written a fair amount about Foundation here on the blog. My post popular Foundation post is one I wrote back in 2009. It’s a post aimed to recommend the best order in which to read the original Foundation books called “If you are planning on reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation…” That post has received more than 50,000 views in recent years, which isn’t bad, considering it is something I wrote in 12 years ago. In recent weeks, I’ve seen a big uptick in interest in that post. More recently, I wrote some thoughts on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and the Apple TV+ adaptation. During my Vacation in the Golden Age, when I went through the first 40+ issue of Astounding Science Fiction beginning with the July 1939 issue, I wrote more about Foundation in Episode 35.

Although Foundation is probably Isaac Asimov’s most popular science fiction novel, it is not my favorite Asimov fiction. That title belongs to his story, “The Bicentennial Man” which makes my very short list of “perfect” stories. (Also on that list: Ray Bradbury’s “The Rocket Man” and Harlan Ellison’s “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore.”) Foundation is a novel of ideas, not so much emotion. There is much more of the latter in Asimov’s later fiction (Forward the Foundation is my favorite of the series) and “The Bicentennial Man” is the height of this. There was a mediocre movie made of “The Bicentennial Man” starring Robin Williams. It wasn’t bad, it just doesn’t capture the beauty of the original story. This is part of the reason for the trepidation I have this morning as I get ready to watch Foundation. Will the Apple TV adaptation do the story justice?

Come back in a few days and I’m sure I’ll have some answers to this question. In the meantime, if you watch Foundation on Apple TV, I hope you enjoy it, and I hope even more that it encourages you to check out the Foundation novels, and go beyond and find more of Asimov’s fiction and nonfiction that you’ll enjoy as well.

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Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and the Apple TV+ Adaptation

On March 29, 1997, I finished reading Forward the Foundation, the final entry in Isaac Asimov’s FOUNDATION series that he wrote himself, not long before he died in 1992. It was, I believe, the third time I’d read the complete series. The series is composed of 7 books, the first three of which were published in the 1950s, and the last four in the 1980s and early 1990s. Despite being published in the 1950, the first three books, the original FOUNDATION trilogy, were actually “fixups,” collections of stories that were original published in Astounding Science Fiction in the 1940s. I absolutely loved the series, and ultimately ended up reading the entire series at least 5 times.

That day in 1997, I wrote the following in my diary:

I’ll start on the new Foundation series–Foundation’s Fear. I must admit, I’m nervous about it. FOUNDATION is perfect as it is, as far as I can see–which is the way Asimov conceived it. I have only 2 reasons for reading Foundation’s Fear: (1) Janet Asimov approved it–it was originally her idea, which gives it some credibility; and (2) I am genuinely curious as to what happens next. So much, it seems was left with loose ends. I only hope that I don’t regret reading it. It’s strange, but once I read it, I can’t take that away, ignore it–but it’s a risk, I suppose, I’m willing to take.

The “new” Foundation series I referred to was the Second Foundation Trilogy, three books authored by big name science fiction writers. The first, Foundation’s Fear was written by Gregory Benford. The second, Foundation and Chaos was written by Greg Bear. And the third and final installment, Foundation’s Triumph was written by David Brin. Over the next three years, I did end up reading all three. Some were better than others, but I did not regret reading them. They were clearly fans of the original books, and they knew what Asimov was getting at and built upon it. Indeed, as it turned out, the last few pages of Brin’s Foundation’s Triumph, contained a brilliant exchange between two of the long time characters that harked back to the very first words of the original Foundation novel, and tied everything together. It was worth reading all three just for that. I was lucky enough to talk to David Brin in the SFWA suite at Chicon 7, tell him how much I loved that scene, and asked him about how he came up with it.

the 7 books asimov write in the foundation series
My collection of FOUNDATION paperbacks.

In October, Apple TV+ will release the first season of the long-awaited FOUNDATION television series. I’ve seen all three previews, and watching them stirs up a mixture of feelings. On the one hand, I feel that same sense of trepidation I felt back in March 1997 when deciding whether or not I’d read the new trilogy. On the other hand, I’m curious to know if the story can really be pulled off in this medium. I’m skeptical because I thought the film adaptation of Asimov’s I. Robot was terrible. It made no sense to make that particular film in that way, especially when Harlan Ellison had written an amazing screenplay of the same collection of stories that would have been perfect for production.

Watching the trailers, I was alarmed by the number of explosions I saw. For all of their galactic-spanning intrigue, the FOUNDATION novels were not about big battles but ideas. Indeed, people often complained the most of what happens in the books is (especially the first three) is a lot of talking. But sitting around talking doesn’t hook viewers, and television isn’t always about big ideas; instead, entertainment and special effects take center stage. I understand this, and I’m okay with it so long as the core structure of the story still holds.

His name was Gaal Dornick and he was just a country boy who had never seen Trantor before.

Those are the first words of the first Foundation novel. Clearly, some of the characters have been reinterpreted for television. Gaal Dornick, “just a country boy,” in the original Foundation novel, is a woman in the Apple TV+ series. I think this is good, too. A big critique of Asimov’s stories, especially the early ones, is that they were completely devoid of women. His excuse was that he was in his late teens and early twenties when writing these stories (he was 22 years old when the first Foundation story appeared in the May 1942 issue of Astounding), and he had no experience with women. To me, however, adaptations like this one–making Gaal a woman instead of a man–make the overall vision of a galactic empire much more realistic.

It turns out, looking at the casting of the series, that another significant character also appears as a woman: Eto Demerzel. First of all, I have to say that I was delighted to see that Demerzel appears in the Apple TV+ series. Readers of the entire series know all about Demerzel, and I won’t give away any spoilers. But I will say that it makes sense that Demerzel appears a woman in this adaptation. It would even have made sense in the books. To know why, you’ll either have to read the books, or ultimately, watch the Apple TV series (assuming they stay true to Demerzel’s character).

The first five books of the FOUNDATION series take place in chronological order. The final two books of the original series (and the three books of the Second Foundation trilogy) are prequels: they take place before the original FOUNDATION book. (Side note: one of the more popular evergreen posts I have here on the blog outside of my Going Paperless posts is a post I wrote on the best order in which to read the Foundation series.) Demerzel doesn’t show up until the sixth book in Asimov’s original series of seven. That means, though the first stories were written in 1941, Demerzel doesn’t show up in Foundation stories until the late 1980s. That Demerzel appears in the cast of the Apple TV+ series tells me the series is telling the story strictly chronologically, at least at first.

I’ve read some crazy theories over the years about how Asimov came up with the idea for Foundation and for psychohistory, the “science” that plays a central role within the story. Much of these theories ignore the available evidence: Asimov described exactly when and how he got the idea in the first volume of this autobiography:

On August 1, 1941, I took the subway to [John W.] Campbell’s office after class was over. On the way down I racked my brain for a story idea. Falling, I tried a device I sometimes used. I opened a book at random and then tried free association, beginning with whatever I first saw. The book I had with me was a collection of Gilbert and Sullivan plays. I opened it to Iolanthe–to the picture of the Fairy Queen throwing herself at the feet of Private Willis, the sentry. Thinking of sentries, I thought of soldiers, of military empires, of the Roman Empire–of the Galactic Empire–aha!

In Memory Yet Green, p.311

People also make the mistake of thinking the entire series had been planned out ahead of time, much like Robert Heinlein’s Future History series. In truth, Asimov said that Campbell loved the idea, but that it was too small for a short story, it needed to be an open-ended series of stories involving the fall of the First Galactic Empire and the rise of the Second Galactic Empire. He wanted Asimov to go home and write an outline for the entire series. About this, Asimov wrote,

I went home, dutifully, and began preparing an outline that got longer and longer and stupider and stupider until I finally tore it up. It was quite plain that I could work with an outline… I started the story I had originally intended to write… and the heck with possible future stories. I’d worry about them when the time came–and if the time came.

In Memory Yet Green, p.312

Over the decades, the lack of planning led to criticism that there were inconsistencies throughout the Foundation series. I always thought these inconsistencies were serendipitous. Consider: the entire Foundation saga is framed as being told from a time safely within the Second Galactic Empire. This is clear from the excerpts from the Encylopedia Galactica that are quoted throughout the books, the dates of which indicate being in the Foundation Era 1020, past the thousand years of dark ages. That is, whoever is telling the story is telling it long after the fall of the First Galactic Empire and after the thousand years of dark ages before the rise of the Second Galactic Empire. Of course there would be inconsistencies. A dark age separates the two empires, a time of chaos and disruption and war and strife. If would be incredible unlikely for the stories to be consistent given that context

Psychohistory, the science at the center of the Foundation novels, is simple in concept but complex in its implications: the man of history can be predicted through statistical analysis. In much the same way that Boyle’s Laws can predict the overall behavior of a volume of gas, but not the behavior of any one gas molecule, psychohistory can predict the overall behavior of all of humanity, but not the behavior of a single individual. At the time, this really seemed like science fiction. However, with AI algorithms that can predict what books you might be interested in (however poorly they may do so) or predict your morning route on a map based on patterns of your behavior, maybe it is not as farfetched as it seemed in 1942.

All of this is to say that there is a lot that has to fit into an adaptation of the books, and leaving seeming small things out can ultimately dictate the success or failure of the adaptation in the eyes of Asimov fans.

If I had to guess, I’d say that the first season will be centered around Seldon’s establishment of the Foundation, climaxing in the final episode with the revelation of the true purpose of the Foundation (and who its real enemy may be). Each subsequent season (assuming there is more than one) will focus on a new “psychohistorical crisis”. The logical choice for season 2 would be the introduction of the Mule–an idea that John Campbell pushed on Asimov and that Asimov took only reluctantly.

Over the course of my life, I’ve probably read more of Asimov’s writing than any other writer. Fiction was a small part of his overall output, which means I’ve read a lot more of his nonfiction, including thousands of his essays where he expressed his opinion on everything conceivable. While I may not be a scholarly expert on Asimov, I feel as if I am qualified, based on this exhaustive reading, to make the following claim: if Asimov were alive today, he would love the idea of this Apple TV+ series. I thought of this the other day when my friend Michael A. Burstein posted a video of Asimov being interviewed by David Letterman in 1980. In that interview, he talked about how he enjoyed movies like Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. He joked that it was unfair because with 9 films planned, the last ones would likely come out after he was dead (they did). If Asimov had a blog today (he wouldn’t be on Twitter, but he’d definitely be a blogger) he’d be posting about the forthcoming series, reminding people that the series was coming out in October. He would be thrilled to see characters he created beginning in 1941 come to life on the screen with such spectacular effects, 80 years after he invented them.

Somehow, knowing in my heart that Asimov would have loved this series on Apple TV makes it not matter much to me whether I do or not. I hope I do, but as is the case with all adaptations, they can never really spoil the original. Those original books are right there on my shelf, and I can pick them up any time I want to.

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