The Apple TV+ series Foundation tells the story of a group of scientists trying to shepherd the galaxy through a centuries-long dark age. Science fiction author Anthony Ha says the series strays a bit too far from its highly intellectual source material, a series of classic novels by Isaac Asimov.
“In the stories, fundamentally individual action doesn’t matter that much, it’s all about these clashing sociohistorical forces. And in the show it’s really all about individual action, and psychohistory becomes this kind of magic that can predict individual action,” Ha says in Episode 503 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I understand why they made that change. If you make a show where the hero doesn’t matter, individuals don’t matter, that is both a bleak and maybe not particularly interesting show, but it did feel like there was a real loss in that adaptation choice.”
Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley agrees that Foundation often substitutes Hollywood formula for Asimov’s more cerebral approach. “Asimov’s whole appeal is that you see smart people being rational,” he says. “If I wanted to see hot people expressing strong emotions and doing cool athletic stuff, I could watch anything on TV. I go to Asimovian science fiction because I want to see nerds saving the universe with math. And I feel like that kind of got lost in this.”
The TV version of Foundation takes place in a universe seemingly full of supernatural events, superhuman abilities, and special destinies. Science fiction author Abby Goldsmith felt that a more grounded approach probably would have served the story better. “It felt very anti-Asimov,” she says. “It was interesting, but I felt like it made the world-building a little more shaky. To me, I’m a little bit less interested in where it’s going because if it’s mysticism, it’s sort of ‘anything goes.’ It leeches the tension out of a story.”
Science fiction author John Kessel had mixed feelings about the show but recognizes that it’s a big step up from earlier Asimov adaptations like I, Robot and Nightfall. “If I had seen this when I was young, my jaw would have been on the floor,” he says. “It’s intelligently made by people who want to do a good job. It’s well acted—really good people in the roles—so you have to keep that in mind.”
Listen to the complete interview with Anthony Ha, Abby Goldsmith, and John Kessel in Episode 503 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
David Barr Kirtley on cloning:
I feel like one of the things that science fiction does is that it presents different ways that society could operate and makes us think about them. I always dislike it—particularly with something like clones—where there’s just this reflexive, “Oh they’re bad. That’s not natural. The way things are is better. Let’s not change anything.” And I felt like this show fell into that a little bit. I would have liked to see at least a little bit of exploration of the idea that, “Is it good to clone yourself? Are there upsides? Would people who are this tripartite clone family have social support and feel at peace with themselves in a way that might make ‘normal’ people—non-clones—seem lonely and adrift?” So I felt like the anti-clone thing was very reflexive, and I would have liked to see it be a little more nuanced.
Anthony Ha on the Mule:
In the books, when the Mule is introduced the whole idea is that he could not be predicted by psychohistory because he is a mutant, and an individual, and the existence of just one mutant with this power is able to almost entirely collapse the Seldon plan, and they basically have to spend an entire book and a half trying to put it back into place. And so the idea that you could have a whole bunch of different super-powered mutants running around the galaxy and the Seldon plan and psychohistory still make any sense—again, we haven’t really seen how they’re going to execute on the Mule, but already psychohistory is starting to seem very shaky and mystical.
John Kessel on action:
There’s an interesting thing that’s taken from the Asimov books that is in the show, but it’s changed. And that’s that Salvor Hardin in one of the stories says—when they’re dealing with the other nearby planets that are violent, and they’re threatening the Foundation—he says that “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” And that sounds very much like Asimov. But then in the show what happens is it’s Salvor Hardin’s father who says exactly that—”violence is the last refuge of the incompetent”—and she replies that “that’s just an old man’s way of thinking.” I thought that was really sort of telling because we’re going to have some violence in the show.
Abby Goldsmith on adaptation:
The production values were really outstanding—the artwork, the musical score, all of it. So much time and effort and craft went into this, it’s hard to watch it wasted on kind of weak storytelling. I agree that intellectually it wasn’t that stimulating, and it’s hard to see that sometimes if you’re somebody that cares about story … I really think they did try their best. If somebody asked me to adapt the first Foundation book, that’s a hard thing to ask—to make it palatable to the masses—because it has so little action. It’s all talking heads, and that doesn’t play well to a mass audience. So you needed to add some action, it’s just that you need characters to root for if you’re going to do that.
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