Sunday, 2 September 2018

The Problems with Adapting Isaac Asimov's FOUNDATION

Apple TV have commissioned a 10-episode series based on Isaac Asimov's Foundation series of SF novels. Although a long-acknowledged classic and part of the science fiction canon, the Foundation saga's position in that canon has always been a little bit questionable (especially when contrasted to the ongoing relevance of Asimov's other primary work in that canon, the Robots series starting with I, Robot), especially as more time passes. My position now is that any adaptation of the Foundation series will run into significant problems which will need to be addressed before it is successful.

What is the Foundation saga?

The Foundation series consists of the following seven books:

  1. Foundation (1951, a fix-up novel made up of short stories dating back to 1942)
  2. Foundation and Empire (1952)
  3. Second Foundation (1953)
  4. Foundation's Edge (1982)
  5. Foundation and Earth (1986)
  6. Prelude to Foundation (1989)
  7. Forward the Foundation (1992)
There have been additional "sequels by other hands", most notably the trilogy consisting of Foundation's Fear (1997, by Gregory Benford); Foundation and Chaos (1998, by Greg Bear) and Foundation's Triumph (1999, by David Brin), and the short story collection Foundation's Friends (1989), with stories by authors such as Orson Scott Card and Harry Turtledove.

In addition, Asimov later declared the entire Foundation saga as taking place in the far future of his Robots and Empire universes, the three series retconned into one huge future history spanning twenty thousand years. It is likely that any TV adaptation of the Foundation saga will neglect or entirely abandon this, especially given the copyright issues involved.

What is Foundation about?

The Foundation saga begins approximately 22,000 years in the future. A vast Galactic Empire (of humans only; there are virtually no intelligent alien races in the Foundation universe) has arisen spanning much of the galaxy, centred on the city-planet of Trantor. Earth has long been forgotten. For 12,000 years, the Empire has ensured a relative level of peace and harmony across the galaxy. However, a scientist and mathematician named Hari Seldon has developed a science called psychohistory. Drawing on millennia of statistics, history and studies of human nature, Seldon believes that psychohistory is a reliable means of predicting the future. The Empire's rulers are sceptical, until some economic and military events come to pass in a broadly similar manner to what was predicted.

The Empire becomes concerned because psychohistory is predicting nothing less than a total collapse. The Empire is too old, corrupt and decadent and is now inwards-looking and no longer the great force for good that it once aspired to me. Planetary governors plot rebellion and civil war is brewing. Seldon's studies suggest that when the Empire collapses, it will plunge the human race into 30,000 years of barbarism. He believes this can be reduced to just a single millennia if preparations are made, a secret repository for the knowledge of the Empire is built and a new organisation of scientists, historians and teachers -a Foundation - is set up to help bridge the gap until the Second Empire arises. The Emperor reluctantly agrees and the Foundation is indeed established on the planet Terminus. Soonafter, the Empire begins to fragment and collapse. Seldon doesn't live to see his dream realised, but he leaves behind holographic messages which will play at key points in future history, when his descendants will need his advice.

The first three Foundation books (made up of short stories published over a ten-year time period) cover the first 377 years of the interregnum. They reveal that Seldon has established a hidden "Second Foundation" which guards the secret of psychohistory and can make course-corrections as time passes. They also depict the changing face of the Foundation itself (from an isolated colony of scientists to a military and regional powerhouse in its own right). The primary obstacle in the original trilogy is the rise of the Mule, a mutant with formidable powers, charisma and intelligence whose coming could not be predicted by psychohistory. The Foundation has to defeat the Mule without Seldon's guidance, and later on the Second Foundation is able to use new psychohistorical calculations made after the Muse's defeat to correct the predictions of the future.

Asimov abandoned the series in 1953 and wrote no further books in the setting. His publisher, impressed by the success of reprints in the series in the late 1970s (particularly after the success of Star Wars led to a hunger for more space opera stories), convinced him to revisit the series. Asimov complied with two new books, Foundation's Edge and Foundation and Earth. In these books, set 120 years after the original trilogy, a member of the First Foundation discovers that the Second Foundation has survived before making contact with a very strange world named Gaia, whose existence has ramifications for the future of the entire Foundation project. Later on he has to embark on a mission to find Earth, the original homeworld of humanity.

After writing Foundation and Earth Asimov found himself stymied on how to move forwards and resolve the story, so did not even try. Instead, he returned to the character of Hari Seldon and the founding of the Foundation in Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation, the last novel he completed before his death in 1992.

What are the problems in adapting Foundation to the screen?

I'd say that the series faces several major issues in being adapted faithfully. These are as follows:

1. Structure.

The Foundation saga consists of several episodes which are separated by many decades or centuries. Characters die between stories and new characters are introduced to replace them. The original Foundation trilogy is therefore very episodic, with no single serialised story or cast of characters to follow. This works well in novels, but probably will not work well on TV (unless Apple are taking a Fargo-style approach, which does not seem likely).

2. The central premise is flawed.

Psychohistory, of course, is a modification of various ideas for predicting market trends and historical impulses over decades. However, these trends can be thrown off by the emergence of unexpected charismatic leaders. Asimov seems to have cottoned onto this with the arrival of the Mule in the second book. However, the big death knell for psychohistory was the popularisation of chaos theory from the 1960s to the 1980s, which basically laid out the complexities of such huge systems as being unquantifiable in anything less than the very short term. Asimov seemed to take this on board in writing the later Foundation novels, which seem to throw out psychohistory altogether in favour of a new way of resolving the story ("Galaxia").

3. It doesn't have an ending.

Asimov introduced a lot of new ideas in Foundation's Edge and Foundation and Earth (which feel very much like the first two books of a trilogy), but didn't have a good idea on how to resolve any of them. His solution was to simply not even bother: he went off and wrote prequels instead. Any TV show tackling the story will have to do better than that.

4. It dovetails too much into Asimov's other work

The later Foundation novels see a convergence with Asimov's other series, particularly the Robots saga. Several key plot moments and revelations in Foundation and Earth, Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation rely on reader knowledge of Asimov's earlier books, particularly The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, The Robots of Dawn and Robots and Empire. Unless these stories are adapted as well, the later Foundation stories will come to rely on a series of increasingly left-field deus ex machina.

5. Technology.

The Foundation universe lacks AI, robots or even sophisticated computers. There is an in-universe reason given for this (although not until the very end of the series) but any modern viewer watching this show set 22,000 years in the future which apparently doesn't even have anything as smart as Siri will be very weird. The fact that psychohistory is also developed without the assistance of AI is implausible, at best.

6. There are few female characters of note.

The original Foundation trilogy is centred almost entirely on male characters. There are some female characters knocking around, but mostly in secondary roles. The only female protagonist of note in the trilogy is Arkady, contrasted to numerous male characters. The later Foundation books, written in the 1980s, were written in a rather more permissive atmosphere so they are chock-full of attractive women our male protagonists can have sex with, but generally don't do much in the story. We can expect some pretty major changes to this side of the story

7. Other, better-known series have borrowed from it.

Many of the key elements of Foundation have since been used by other films and TV series. The idea of a galactic empire and a city so big it covers an entire planet can be both found in the Star Wars movies, for example, whilst space operas from Babylon 5 to Star Trek have employed some of the space travel and battle tropes created by Foundation. Part of the saga also involves a detailed search for the long-lost planet Earth, which sparks comparisons to Battlestar Galactica (which Asimov was, very briefly, involved with as a consultant on its second season before it was cancelled). The idea of a vast stellar empire tens of thousands of years in the future was also better-used by Frank Herbert in his Dune saga of novels.

Foundation may have originated these concepts, of course, but so many other shows have used them that Foundation may be left looking unoriginal when it arrives on screens.

Given the problems with a straight adaptation, I wouldn't be surprised if the Foundation TV series ends up borrowing the name, a few characters names and perhaps a few basic ideas from the books but otherwise goes off and does its own thing.


Wastrel said...

I was excited by this when it was a Jonathan Nolan project; now, I'm more pessimistic. [still, it's more promising that back when it was a Roland Emmerich project...]

The big problem, as you say, is structure. It's actually not just that the structure is unhelpful - it's that it's inconstant. You've got short stories separated by decades. But you've also got short stories with the same characters only a short time apart. And then you've got the fourth and fifth books, which are a continuous story, hundreds of years after the others.

The two best approaches might be an anthology, or a 'The Fountain' approach, with multiple stories taking place 'simultaneously' despite the different time periods, with action cutting from one to another. But either option would be very risky, and outside the norm.

So I suspect the safer way would be to take a period - probably either the rise of Seldon or Travize's quest - and just do that. They could maybe do the search for the second foundation, I guess; at a stretch, the life of Salvor Hardin?

None of these are great ideas, so it probably will just be the name and a couple of scenes.


On your other points:

2: I disagree entirely. Trebly, actually. First, because it's hardly written in stone that chaos theory prohibits psychohistory. Indeed, quite the contrary seems likely: chaos theory predicts 'self-organisation', the emergence of ordered and predictable patterns from sequences of chaotic events - when many individual bodies act randomly, but with probability spectrums shaped by the context created by other bodies acting in a similar way, the result is a self-organising system of behaviour in which each actor regulate the others, with no single source of control. Many biological, sociological and economic phenomena are increasingly understood to be self-organising in this sense. [for example, Paul Krugman, a nobel laureate, has studied the role of self-organisation in creating the business cycle]. This has become a huge area of study that seems to be making considerable progress. The relative balance of chaotic and self-organising processes in long-term human society seems impossible to know at this stage, so it's entirely scientifically possible Seldon was right.

Second, because it doesn't matter. If science fiction didn't work on TV just because some of its concepts were implausible, there'd be no science fiction on TV. Look at something like 'Altered Carbon' - mental uploading is way more improbable than psychohistory, but people still watched it. Look at Star Wars and FTL - FTL travel is not only implausible, but is actually 100% guaranteed to be impossible unless all our physics is wrong, but FTL films and shows are everywhere. Going back to Nolan - one reason Foundation seemed like a natural next step for him is that his POI is basically all about small-scale psychohistory - it's much less plausible than large-scale social psychohistory, but it had millions of viewers and critical acclaim.

Wastrel said...


3. I disagree! Foundation and Earth has a brilliant ending (though the duology as a whole is far from great). Yes, it leaves some dangling ominous threats, but that's intentional - not every story wraps with a bow, some are intentionally left with stings. The story as a whole, however, from Caves of Steel through to Foundation and Earth, all ties together very nicely.

4. I do agree with this, to some extent. Foundation is only the final chapter of the story, and the ending relies on the Robot stories. However, I'm not sure this is fatal - foreshadowings could be introduced along the way to diminish the DEM effect.

5. Yes and no. Yes, everything feels dated. But I'm not sure this is a big problem. Adding better computers wouldn't fundamentally change anything, I don't think. [I'm also not convinced there aren't some fairly sophisticated computers - the Prime Radiant seems to have some computing power behind it!]. The absence of strong AIs (until the end) isn't necessarily a belief-breaker either - the idea of strong AI is itself unproven, after all.

6. It's not as bad as you make out. There's Arkady, and there's also Bayta and Bliss and the Mayor (the ruler of the galaxy is a woman!). If they go for the prequels, there's Seldon's girlfriend/repeated-rescuer/manipulator. Most characters in most of the stories are in any case effectively gender-neutral ciphers in an alien culture - changing the pronouns wouldn't change anything about the stories. So it would be very easy to up the female representation without any but the most obsessive fanboy even noticing.

7. Yes, that's something of a problem. Though I think there's still enough unique material to make the show distinctive. And this is a problem that besets all SF shows. It's not as though The Expanse has much in it that's genuinely novel in SF - it's just that it's executed very well.

However, all these defences are admittedly rather irrelevant, because the structural problems will be enough to sink the project (again) in any case. And the crew involved don't inspire faith either.

Tony Laplume said...

Merely adapting the Mule saga would provide drama enough. There's a ton of material in the first three books at least that seeped into the Star Wars films. If the TV material reflected even a fraction of it, more people would be enticed to look into that.

Jens said...

I'm wondering what's the rationale behind adaptation plans such as these. I mean, why do studios pay high amounts for rights of franchises that can't properly be adapted and/or for which entirely be new storylines need to be developed.

Are execs ignorant of what they're paying for? Unlikely.

Is it the name? In this case, "Asimov" is probably much better known than "Foundation". But is "Asimov" really going to have enough of an appeal outside of genre fans?

Why not making an entirely original movie if you don't use the source material anyway?

Omer said...

I have to disagree: 1. There is no "Foundation series" there is the Foundation trilogy; There are vile, vile rumors that there have been additional prequels and sequels, of course :-). 2. This also solves the problem of the ending, as The trilogy neatly resolves its major mysteries. 3. In terms of strong female characters you forgot bayta darrel, and anyway it is not a problem to change the sex of one or two others. It may very well be Harriet Saldon's plan, after all 4. Jumping/replacing the cast has rarely been done before, but there have been few TV shows with Dragons until Game of Thrones; Isn't the idea that when done in a compelling way, a TV audience can appreciate stuff booklovers enjoy? 5. Psychohistory may or may not be strictly speaking scientifically possible, but that never stopped a hundred other SF conceits...