What we owe to 'Foundation': why the new Apple TV + series based on Asimov's books is more relevant than ever
It may have been a bit of a background with all the revelations about iOS, ARMS, and other tech issues regarding Apple's operating systems, but for science fiction fans, the cherry on top of WWDC 2020 was the trailer for the new Apple TV + series based on Isaac Asimov's 'Foundation' book series. This historical saga has been trying to adapt for decades, but it has finally been Apple TV + who seems to have brought it to fruition, with a production that will premiere sometime in 2021.
The trailer promises the visual ambition typical of Apple TV + productions, and which has already been demonstrated in series such as 'See' or 'For all humanity'. And you will also have to put it into practice in the narrative, since the complete 'Foundation' saga expands its history over several millennia of humanity's evolution. His ambition is only comparable to his status as the undisputed classic of the genre. But ... having been originally published in 1951 (although the short novels that compose it date back to the early 1940s), does it retain its full force today?
A saga ... foundational
For almost thirty years (and possibly will be what inspires the Apple series), 'Foundation' was a trilogy, consisting of the books 'Foundation' (1951), 'Foundation and Empire' (1952) and 'Second Foundation' (1953 ). In fact, it was this trilogy that won the Hugo award for "Best series of all time" in 1966, when its author was already an indisputable myth of the genre. In the eighties, Asimov himself added the installments 'The limits of the Foundation' (1982), 'Foundation and Earth' (1986), the prequel 'Prelude to the Foundation' (1988) and, finally, 'Towards the Foundation' (1993), another prequel published posthumously. In this second batch of books it was hinted that Asimov's other most popular saga, that of robots (and, with it, his mythical Laws of Robotics) were part of the same universe as the Foundation.
The original saga tells how during the twilight of the Galactic Empire, the mathematician Hari Sheldon developed the mathematical theory of psychohistory, which by statistical means is capable of predicting the future on a large scale: it is such an integral element in the plot that, from fact, it's almost the only specific detail the trailer mentions. Seldon sees the fall of the Empire, as well as an age of darkness that will last thirty thousand years. Seldon's plan, unable to prevent the debacle, is to reduce that crisis to a few thousand years and speed recovery. To do this, it will form two groups of scientists and technicians that it will send to opposite ends of the land that the Foundation covers.
At just twenty-three years old, the young Asimov thus wrote an influential work, very typical of his style of approaching science fiction, already in the middle of the Golden Age of Science Fiction (that is, at the time of the genre's emergence, between 1939 and 1946). That is, not especially cerebral or abstract, but also distancing itself from the style pulp of intergalactic adventures from a decade before, where action and strong emotions prevailed. In fact, there is only one space battle in the entire trilogy, and the trailer seems to indicate that the series has inherited that chattering sci-fi tone from the books.
Asimov had a conception of space opera partly classical with its space empires and its travels from one end of the cosmos to the other, but it plotted everything between long dialogues and risky abstract concepts of science, economics and sociology. A rhythm that, for a few decades, when the noisy echo of 'Star Wars' was still noticeable in any movie or series of the genre, was inconceivable (that is, when New Line tried to put it on its feet as a trilogy of movies, before focus on 'The Lord of the Rings'). But times have changed and now you can find a space on television.
What can 'Foundation' contribute to us today?
'Fundación' has aged so well, primarily, because it was not born excessively attached to fashions or styles of a specific time. And that in those days it was easy to fall into temptation, with the political situation so unique that the world lived and with which science fiction would soon soak up. However 'Foundation', although it develops in the distant future (and yes, we have ships, empires and other planets) it is timeless. His political and social dramas could belong to any era. The concerns of its protagonists are universal, they have nothing to do with the specific technology that Asimov could imagine then (and that today would have been inevitably out of date).
In other words, clear elements (and not only in the name) of the Roman Empire can be found in the Empire, an inspiration that Asimov openly confessed. The Empire's capital Trantor is reminiscent of several modern cities in Asimov, slightly modernized. Everything falls within the author's theory, without a doubt the one that resonates the most today, that social movements can be predicted with mathematics and statistics. In other words, it makes sense for the Foundation's evolution to be coupled to different social models that humanity has lived through throughout its history.
This idea of different models of society, different challenges that the Foundation faces and that are solved thanks to the predictions of psychohistory, is actually very modern. Each short novel (or chapters of the books) presents the Foundation at different times, and we are told how psychohistorical plans are always going well (until the middle of the trilogy and the appearance of the Mule, approximately). At the end of each novel, a projection into Sheldon's future corroborates how well his system works. That is, an almost "television" way of telling things (and we do not know if Apple will have respected it, possibly not).
There are a couple of ideas that may not coincide with the way of viewing the futuristic fictions of today's public, and it will be interesting to see how they are "modernized" by Apple. On the one hand, the idea that everything obeys a mysterious plan -almost magical, although it is endorsed by science-, and that no matter how mathematical it is, you have to believe in it. Derived from it, the moral that the human being is the center of the cosmos, and his intelligence, ingenuity and emotions will take us to new eras of prosperity.
That is, something quite far from the most cynical and dystopian style of the genre that is styled today. But Asimov was like this in all his work, even in the darkest ones like 'The End of Eternity' (possibly his masterpiece): a staunch defender of the human condition, speaking of people or robots. Because what are the Laws of Robotics if not the confirmation that a human creation can be driven by perfect and immutable laws.
Today, movies like 'Star Wars' and series like 'Star Trek', to say two very evident milestones, would not exist without 'Foundation', despite the fact that in both cases the adventure has prevailed over the chatter and the futuristic sociological theorizing. But the idea that science and knowledge can shape the future of humanity above brainless epic and brute force is still necessary in these times. Will this message get through this time?