Foundation Leveling


Spoiler Free, btw. 

 Over the last few years I’ve been digging into the works of many classic sci fi authors. It started when I found an old Isaac Asimov short story collection that belonged to my father-in-law. I’ve always enjoyed science fiction in other media but I feel that was my first real experience reading full on sci-fi literature. I was intrigued by the notions of far off planets, space stations, all-knowing supercomputers, and of course, robots. After that I dug into a few of the classics of Arthur C. Clark, Robert Heinlein, and Phillip K. Dick, and lesser known but also important authors like Andre Norton. When looking through bibliographies and figuring out what to read next I always came across Asimov’s Foundation. But looking at the expanse of volumes it covers I found it a bit too intimidating to just jump in. I looked elsewhere and read other books. 

And then I found out Apple TV is making a Foundation TV series. I was coming up on the end of my latest read and I decided it’s time to dig in, so I hopped on ebay and ordered book 1. I picked it up and I found it pretty engaging enough. I never read too much about the book series beforehand. I just knew it was about a man by the name of Hari Seldon who comes up with a plan to save the galactic empire, which is falling to ruin. Asimov’s keen writing kept me glued to the book, and because I had the small, pocket paperback editions it was easy enough to pick up and read when I had even just a few minutes to spare. 


Trilogy cover art by Michael Whelan

One of the first things I noticed (especially in the first trilogy of books) is that you’re not weighed down with overly descriptive paragraphs of vague future technology or the way things work in the distant future. As these first 3 were written early in his career, Asimov kept the depictions of technology to a minimum. Instead, the early stories focused more on the character’s motives and missions, showing how they maneuvered politically to get things done and move the plot (and The Seldon Plan) forward. That first trilogy is very political, indeed. 

The biggest thing that stuck with me, though, is the scope of the entire series. The plot of the story moves along the course of 1000 years. In the beginning a desolate planet called Terminus is settled by a cluster of scientists and historians, and through the course of the entire story that planet and its population are somewhat a focal point. Reading about that got me thinking about the unspoken microcosms within the world of Foundation. While the main characters are out and about making their moves, sealing their deals, I imagine worlds on these planets are being built and torn down. A lot can happen in 1000 years. Just look at America and all the bullshit we’ve been going through. All these (still ongoing) fights for rights and equality, the old ways versus the new ideas, and we’re just 245 years old. 

The idea of social revolutions taking place on Terminus as the story moved along bubbled in the back of mind. The universe is not a utopian one, in fact, that’s why the Foundation was created, to save humanity from an extended period of chaos, so of course the people on any planet would be going through stuff. With communities growing and being built you have to imagine that there are city planners working out the detailed layout of these futuristic, far-off cities. In fact, it makes you wonder that in 20,000 years if mankind has civilized the galaxy, maybe they’ve learned a thing or two about infrastructure planning, so settling new cities doesn’t lead to all the problems we deal with here and now. 

Thinking about the wide scope of the story also got me thinking about how technological advancement happens within a civilization and how it affects people and cultures. For example, humans have had this invention of the automobile now for over 120 years. That’s it, just 120 or so years, and in that time it’s amazing how much this invention has shaped the landscape of how we built our society, and how it’s shaped the subcultures within. Not only is the actual industry of the automobile an economic force to be reckoned with, but it is also cemented within smaller communities such as hot rod and lowrider enthusiasts, among others. The term ‘Car Culture’ exists for a reason. Our society wouldn’t look the same today without this colossal invention. And so, what sort of inventions are shaping culture in the universe of the Foundation series? 

While it’s somewhat a given that humankind is, technologically, always moving forward, Asimov doesn’t really mention it until book 4. In the original trilogy, instead, he presents civilization as having achieved a certain level of advancement, however some of that advanced technology is only available on certain planets. High technology exists, it’s just not at everyone’s disposal. And what this technology is, other than described as nuclear-powered, is all up to your imagination. Within the editions of the books I read contained a four page blurb detailing the scenario of how the Foundation series came to be. Among the many insights discussed in that blurb was the fact that the original trilogy came out in the 1950s, and by the time Asimov returned to writing the remaining books in the 1980s science had made so many more discoveries and advancements. He mentions an example such as the discovery of black holes within that time. Indeed, I’m glad he left out any overly detailed technological descriptions of the future in the original trilogy, it would have made the series far less timeless than it is now. 

However, when he returns to form in Foundation’s Edge, book 4, descriptions of new technology are perfectly apt and fit right in with the story. His idea for a computer interface within the protagonist’s ship, the Far Star, is fresh and even by today’s standards pretty impressive. In fact, the whole of this ship is fascinating. He imagined an interstellar spaceship that was so advanced, even for this society, that it is propelled by gravitic forces instead of rocket propulsion. And considering a few short years ago we just discovered gravity waves, that’s a mighty impressive speculation. 

The last two books are rife with all kinds of astronomical terminology and ruminations. You can tell Asimov followed all these discoveries closely and was excited to use these ideas. The last two books are very thick when compared to the original trilogy, and that’s because he explores these ideas fully and descriptively. 

Of course there were other elements at play within the whole of the story, a big one is the notion of mentalics; humans with the ability to read and/or manipulate the minds and emotions of others. It sounded kind of campy at first, but as this dynamic got woven into the story it leveled the playing field between the humans with political power and technology and those without. It’s an interesting idea, albeit a more fantastical one, but who knows where human biology will be in 20,000 years. In books 4 and 5 we’re introduced to a few variations of the human species, one of which is a planet with the entirety of its inhabitants and objects sharing a single consciousness, and the other is an intersex (the term hermaphrodite is used in the novel) society that has biologically-developed cranial lobes behind their ears capable of transducing energy. Some interesting concepts, indeed. 

The big difference in the last two books as compared to the original trilogy, is that the politicking and the passage of time through the ages has become non-existent in favor of a few central characters and their quest through space. Well, our main character does a few political maneuvers from time to time, but gone are the tales of noble citizens ascending the ranks to make moves to insure Hari Seldon’s plan. I would have liked to hear about Seldon’s hologram appearing one more time, it would have tied the series together a bit more. But I think by this time Asimov was more interested in a singular adventure narrative as opposed to the descriptions of space fleets and conquests of planets. While the original trilogy covered all sorts of characters and politicians through the span of 400 or so years, the last two books followed the same handful of characters through nearly 1000 additional pages. It’s quite telling of the author’s headspace then and now. 

Another thing the scenario blurb mentioned was how when he started the series Asimov was really into the fall of the Roman empire, and was fresh off the heels of reading up on it’s play by play history. I find it extremely fascinating how he could be so moved by something very real and very grand historically speaking, and he took that inspiration and crafted something amazing from it. The original trilogy presents something that mirrors that history, deconstructs it even, and uses it as a way to imagine an illustrious yet troubled future for humankind. It goes to show that even as humankind advances we are never far off from a slip up, and that that advancement can come tumbling down. Plus, I know the feeling of drawing inspiration from something that’s right under your nose and it’s exhilarating.

 Overall, I enjoyed the series very much. However, while I was digesting what I had read I couldn't help but feel sad and disappointed. And it’s not from the book themselves but going back to the scope, the perspective that came with imagining humankind in 300, 1000, and 20,000 years from now. With everything going on today, especially this looming kaiju we call climate change, I've been hit with a reality check that we still have a very long way to go as a civilization. I used to think, I think we all did (or still do), that we would see some futuristic-type things in our lifetime, the classic go-to being flying cars. Peace in the middle east, the end of starvation, virtual reality with a practical use, any one of these also fell into that category. And perhaps that’s just the positive framework that my generation was raised with, that we, us, would go forth and change the world for the better. Naive sure, but at the time when we were finishing high school and stepping out into the world everything seemed to be on the up and up (Pre 9/11). 

"You son of a bitch, you did it..."

Thinking about the scope of human civilization from reading these books has smacked me back to reality that we are indeed, as individuals, not all that special. Sure, we’re special in the sense that what we do here on earth has an immediate effect on those who are involved in our lives, but most of us will never be famous or renowned for anything we do in our lifetimes. We like to think we’re so important now and what we do has to have some kind of deep meaning, and then we die and civilization keeps moving on. I even realized that those people we do hold in high regard; famous artists, researchers that have contributed scientific breakthroughs, leaders of countries, etc, aren’t necessarily special or different from us common folk, and they too will eventually be brushed aside by the passage of time. Essentially we are just another generation raising up another generation, who’ll ideally grow up and raise another generation. So on and so forth. Except now we’re facing something that has the potential to end the continued proliferation of the human race. 

My sadness and disappointment stem from the notion that while we have a civilization full of famous people, philanthropists, charismatic leaders, and generally everybody wants to do and be good, nobody really wants to be great. Being great meaning somebody willing to lay down their power and wealth and use it to fundamentally change the world for the better. Not just donating to charities or food banks (which we do need, don't get me wrong), but people with the power to halt the current zeitgeist in its tracks and help mankind get on the right course to build a future that will eventually allow humans to take to the stars and civilize galaxies. And you know who I’m talking about; billionaires with so much money they couldn’t possibly spend it all in 1000 lifetimes; religious leaders who can mutter a sentence and have their followers bend the knee the world over, and so on. These people could use their power, wealth and influence to change the world today if they wanted. It’s the type of power that can tear down economies and break down borders, because that’s the kind of power we will need if we’re going to get past this hump, this supposed Great Filter we may be facing. 

Needless to say this book series got me feeling a certain way. And like great sci-fi, great literature at that, it has stretched my mind with new ideas and a fresh new perspective. So, how will the new TV show fare with bringing these old ideas to a fresh audience? The narratives in the book can be followed easily, it’s just fleshing out the actions and motions that are carried out in between the paragraphs. Basically it’s gonna take some decent writing to punch up the political drama to keep the viewers interested. With so much covered within the books I read (and including the 2 prequels I didn’t) there’s plenty of source material, backstory, and call-back surprises to make up an epic series. We’ll get to see battling star fleets, grand palaces and far off worlds of a future civilization, and I can’t wait. 

Honestly, though, the series has it’s fans who can’t wait to see how this will come to life, and, even if the adaptation isn’t keen, will probably still tune in. I’m just not sure how the general public will receive a story like this. Potentially, this show has the backing (story and production) to become a great one, but if the audience at large finds the story too grand or the scope too big they might just drop off or not pick it up to begin with, which means it’s a wrap for an expensive series like this one. But I’ll be rooting for it when I tune in this late September. See you on Trantor! 

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