It has inspired innovations in sociology and psychology. It has sparked the imagination of liberals like Paul Krugman and conservatives like Newt Gingrich. It even shares credit (or blame) for some of Elon Musk’s innovations. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series is, arguably, one of the most influential literary creations in history. And now, it’s finally going on screen. Two prior attempts to put the series on the big screen — in 1998 and 2008 respectively — failed. But the new TV series, first grabbed up (and later abandoned) by HBO began development in 2014, and will finally debut via Apple TV+. Apple TV+ doesn’t have a whole lot of content yet, but the Foundation acquisition will help define the service.
Asimov’s iconic series, the winner of a one-time-only Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series,” concerns a mathematician — Hari Seldon — who predicts the fall of the Galactic Empire, its descent into a 30,000 year-long dark age, and the formation of a second empire. Seldon achieves this prediction using statistical analysis of mass occurrences–essentially “big data,” as we would call it now. In response to these predictions, and foreseeing a destructive anti-intellectualism accompanying the fall of his empire, Seldon creates “foundations” of scientists and engineers on opposite ends of the galaxy as seeds for the new empire.
The premise is almost wholly unique in science fiction and literature in general. At the very least, it’s one of the most original and nuanced story premises around. The premise inspired an initial series, then a collection of preludes and sequels, and eventually spinoffs and variations by other authors. It was apparently a challenge to put it on the screen in the right way. Apple is using Troy Studios in Limerick, Ireland, to complete the ten episodes of the series.
One thing this production has going for it is that some of the producers already have strong sci-fi and fantasy credentials, the most notable of whom is David S. Goyer, who previously worked on The Dark Knight. Josh Friedman, who left the project earlier this year but will retain executive producer credit, also headed up the Sarah Connor Chronicles series. Jonah Nolan of Interstellar was first tapped to write the series.
Of course, none of those productions capture the conceptual scope of Foundation. In a strange way, the closest analog to Asimov’s work is Douglas Adams’ satirical Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, and comparison to Asimov there is self-consciously obvious. The key to that comparison lies in each author’s use (Asimov first and Adams in satire) of the Encyclopedia Galactica — an encyclopedia containing all knowledge in the known galaxy. Carl Sagan has a chapter in Cosmos dedicated to the concept, and Adams contrasts it with the more user-friendly Hitchhiker’s Guide.
Back in 2014, when HBO first announced its intent to produce the series, Mark Strauss at Gizmodo described the significance of the project. What is fascinating about Foundation, Strauss wrote, is that it both epitomizes and defies science fiction as a genre. Although it’s a story of the “fall and rise of future galactic empires” the story “contains virtually none of the usual tropes that are associated with science fiction.” There are no aliens even though the characters are found across an entire galaxy. Society is neither utopian nor dystopian. The faster-than-light technology and other technological advances act “as the background, not the driver, of the plot.”
Foundation’s psychohistorical theme is enduring and has influenced writers, musicians, social scientists, politicians, and others. While it’s doubtful that a television adaptation will do justice to the depth of its themes, I’m going to watch with an open mind.