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Reviving Asimov’s Foundation series

I regularly search for promising new science fiction to read. It’s shocking how little I find — based, at least, on reviews and on-line lists. When I can’t find new science fiction, I return to the classics. At present, I’m rereading Isaac Asimov’s 1951 classic Foundation.

Now is probably a good time to read (or reread) the Foundation series, because Apple is reported to be developing a series based on the Foundation books for the new Apple streaming service that is to start up next year. It was reported in 2014 that Jonah Nolan was working on a Foundation project for HBO. But, as far as I can tell, that never happened.

Just intuitively, I suspect that Apple’s focus on the high-end market is more likely to get Foundation right than would HBO (or, heaven forfend, Netflix). HBO would try to make an action spectacle of the story, and Netflix would dumb it down. Though there certainly are opportunities for visual spectacle in Foundation (it was Asimov who first thought of a vast galactic empire with an imperial capital planet that was one huge city), what’s remarkable about Asimov’s novels is that there is very little action. Mostly, the story consists of very smart and very powerful people sitting in offices or conference rooms and having highly intelligent conversations. That’s not exactly HBO or Netflix material.

Foundation is as timeless as any science fiction I’ve ever read. One of the few things that make the story feel dated is that Asimov seemed to assume that nuclear power would be the future’s answer to its energy needs. Asimov got that one wrong. Otherwise, Asimov’s imagination has held up brilliantly for 67 years. I believe it was Neil Goble, in the 1972 book Asimov Analyzed, who says that Asimov came up with the idea of the galactic empire after reading Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the first volume of which was published in 1776. (Newer histories of Rome, I suspect, would have led Asimov in somewhat different directions.) It was certainly from Asimov that “Star Wars” got the idea of galactic empire. It’s an idea that has dominated fictional views of the galaxy ever since then (though often there are backwaters in the fringes of the galaxy where galactic power is weak and where outlaws and rebels can hide).

And let it not be said that I am the only science fiction writer who stomps on religion (a good way to get vindictive 1-star reviews on Amazon). In Asimov, religion is useful for manipulating the ignorati into doing what elites want them to do (ahem), but otherwise Asimov uses a wide range of insulting words to describe religion. Asimov is often quoted as having said, “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.” On the other hand, “Star Wars” took the galactic empire in a very different direction, with an elite mystical cult based on “the Force.” Asimov is 100 percent free of such magic. I’ll even venture a prediction here. The day will come when “Star Wars” will begin losing its mythical power, as the idea of “the Force” becomes increasingly dated and hokey.

As we learn more about the galaxy, and as we try to understand our failure to detect intelligent life on even one other planet (let alone a vast galactic civilization), I suspect that the idea of a vast, high-tech, militarized galactic empire is another idea that science fiction writers ought to be re-imagining. As we try to understand, even on our single planet, the dangerous consequences of globalization, specialization, unsustainable exploitation, and long supply chains for the necessities of life, the more it seems likely that a galactic empire, if there is one, might be too wise for all that.

Asimov understood the dangers of dependency on long supply chains. In Foundation, he writes: “All the land surface of Trantor, 75,000,000 square miles in extent, was a single city. The population, at its height, was well in excess of forty billions. This enormous population was devoted almost entirely to the administrative necessities of Empire, and found themselves all too few for the complications of the task…. Daily, fleets of ships in the tens of thousands brought the produce of twenty agricultural worlds to the dinner tables of Trantor…. Its dependence upon the outer worlds for food and, indeed, for all necessities of life, made Trantor increasingly vulnerable to conquest by siege. In the last millenium of the Empire, the monotonously numerous revolts made Emperor after Emperor conscious of this, and Imperial policy became little more than the protection of Trantor’s delicate jugular vein.”

What might a sustainable galactic empire — and its laws and regulations and technologies — look like?


  1. James M wrote:

    Love your blog which resonates with a Southern guy who grew up and still lives in the briar patch. Not into sci-fi but I don’t mind stomping on religion. Saw a local earlier this week with a t shirt listing Bible verses which support the flat earth theory. As one of my friends was wont to remark: “Some folks who don’t get carried away ought to be.” Cheers.

    Wednesday, August 1, 2018 at 9:28 pm | Permalink
  2. daltoni wrote:

    Ha. Thanks, James. Briar patch indeed. I can’t get as far as the chicken house this summer without being raked by briars.

    Wednesday, August 1, 2018 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

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