Foundation – some spectacle – but generally bland and contrary to the books

Exploring cerebral themes of economics and culture, Foundation was always going to struggle as a series. Decades ago, as a teenager, I really loved the books. The TV show is well produced and has some spectacular scenes and moments, such as the space elevator collapsing, the adult ‘Empire’ known as Day walking the Salt Spiral, and a few scenes. But it has 3 main problems.

1. The characters

The characters do not feel real. I sort of liked Gaal, the young mathematician from a backwards waterworld planet. But she gets less and less screen time as the series progresses. The present-day hero Salvor Hardin has her boyfriend, but it’s dry and perfunctory – surviving various crisis for the sake of plot. They hardly have any real chemistry – I just didn’t believe them. I don’t know why – they survived life and death stuff together. But something’s missing. The characters are dry cardboard cutouts – lurching from here to there – surviving this crisis only to end up in another – yet without a rich emotional life. Compare this to the complex characters we meet in The Expanse – with rich emotional lives and all sorts of backstory and baggage motivating them – and you’ll see the difference.

The problem is the writers aimed to treat us as adults (usually a good thing) and keep some things back for a surprise at the ending. As the writing cliche says, “Show, don’t tell”. Yet with Foundation they seem to keep the wrong things back. Or else they keep them back so long, we don’t get to experience the emotional importance of a thing as it transpires before us. If you don’t give us the setup, there’s no payoff. The story should have enough backstory to explain why an event should move us. Without this, it just becomes a one random character and event after another – a bit too much like real life.

LET’S LOOK AT AN EXAMPLE FROM THE LAST EPISODE IN SEASON 1

SPOILERS BELOW

SPOILERS BELOW

YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED

For example, in Episode 10 the hero Salvor Hardin finally understands her visions, and that they come not from the Vault, but a telepathic link to her biological mother Gaal. She has a vision of Gaal diving into water. Then she kisses her boyfriend, gets up early, and goes to board ship and find her mother. But the boyfriend stops her just before she leaves. There’s this huge, teary farewell with overblown music. But she said she has a telepathic link to her mother and knows where her mother is? It’s an FTL ship – can’t she just jump there and get her mother? There were tiny hints as to where Salvor’s mother was going to be – but it wasn’t clear enough that I knew she was leaving Terminus for good. I guessed that – by the drawn out farewell and the music – but I couldn’t understand why she was leaving permanently. None of it made any sense. Even worse – the music seemed to be telling me how to feel. But – FTL out and get Gaal and come home? What… is… happening? It’s hard to feel when you don’t comprehend.

2. Contradicts the books

They tried to make an action series where the quick thinking and special skills of the hero save the day. But Psychohistory is about the broad sweep of the actions of hundreds of trillions of people in an Empire that is destined to collapse, and how thousands of the ‘right sort’ of experts and scientists all clustered together in a lonely corner of the galaxy might create a new culture that fights the malaise and restores galactic civilisation within 1000 years. The more excitement you write into the precariousness of an individual character using their agency in the story, the more you diminish the ability of Psychohistory to predict it. And the TV series is FULL of extremely conditional, contingent moments. What if she hadn’t ducked certain shots, or had the power to withstand the Vault? What if she had been faster than the Mayor when on the Invictus in their race to the navigation couch – and it had been her piloting the Invictus home to Terminus – killing her in the process? The more the individual shines, the less Psychohistory has to do. It is eclipsed by the brilliance of the individual – which is antithetical to Psychohistory.

3. Vague collapse

It was a fun story when I read it decades ago as a teenager. But in the meantime I have spent quite some time reading about the collapse of civilisation in both real world and Sci-Fi settings. Foundation’s original plot around Psychohistory leaves me wondering.

What happened to all the smart people on all those OTHER worlds? They have FTL. If just one of those other worlds escaped the collapse – then they could spread knowledge and rebuild trust and governance across the nearby worlds.

Part of the problem with visualising this is the exact mechanisms of collapse were never spelled out – even in the books. It seems to be some kind of broad malaise in education and culture and politics and even scientific process. But while we have seen remarkable backwards steps in recent history – there is nothing that compares. Where one sector might be regressing, others appear to be advancing. While NAZI Germany was an example of a sudden and surprising backwards political move – the war itself propelled amazing advances in technology. While some regions experience environmental challenges like the Middle-East’s water shortages, Israel has made fantastic progress in water efficiency and now exports water to other countries. As the world moves closer to peak oil, we have seen the rise of Tesla. If we were to experience a sudden oil shortage due to embargoes, war, or even the Export Land Model (4.a here) – there are many adaptation strategies and even positive side effects of being forced to wean off oil.

And if we were to push the proverbial big red button and nuke ourselves back to the stone age? There are political and technological strategies to shoot for that would bring back technological civilisation within a generation or so. What is it about the Foundation’s FTL galactic civilisation that makes the wars endless? We could rescue the story and tell ourselves we just don’t know because we’re not in an FTL civilisation. We’re not Harry Seldon – and have not understood Psychohistory. We’ll just have to put the collapse down to a McGuffin or something. But watch this Isaac Arthur video about how fast we could rebuild if we had a nuclear apocalypse here on earth, with our limited technology.

And we haven’t even invented FTL drives yet! Imagine some future planet collapsing into war but they have FTL to go fetch help after the clouds clear. It would open up all the vast resources of space minerals and energy and expertise from other worlds – in such abundance we would find it hard to imagine today. If a galaxy wide empire with FTL heard of a terrible collapse on one world, and the empire had some kind of compassionate governance, imagine a whole galaxy donating to that world? If you understand the sheer unimaginable power of a Dyson Swarm around just one star, and then apply that to the whole galaxy, then you get it. See the youtube below. But in short, a Dyson Swarm is something like a Quadrillion (1000 trillion) human beings clustered around our star in countless space habitats. It’s an empire about a million times the size of anything from Star Trek or Star Wars. And that’s just one Dyson Swarm around one star. Now apply that to our whole galaxy of 400 billion stars to get 400 billion Dyson Swarms! Suffice to say that if a planet went into some kind of collapse, their own Dyson Swarm could restore it to a trillion people with just one thousandth of their local economy. But if every Dyson Swarm in the galaxy chipped in just one ship, they would have 400 BILLION huge Starships turn up on their doorstep to help. And that one FTL starship would be an insignificant fraction of their GDP compared to a Dyson Swarm of a 1000 trillion people!

In other words, what galactic collapse – especially in a galaxy with FTL? There’s just too much redundancy and backup. For now, let’s just say I’m more optimistic than Isaac Asimov was when he wrote Foundation in the 1950’s.

Posted in Doomers and Collapse, Movies and TV, Sci-Fi | Leave a comment

The Mig-25 – a story of BLUFF and unintended consequences

This is my pick for this month’s Weird History prize!

Posted in History, Military technology, War | Leave a comment

Dear Prime Minister

Dear Prime Minister – sure – cancelling a $90 billion dollar deal was never going to be popular. BUT:-

FIRST – Macron wasn’t calling my Aussie friends or myself a liar – that was for you alone pal. Don’t try and drum up cheap nationalistic sympathies from me because you want to imply *I* am somehow being ‘sledged’. Your moral outrage was just bad pantomime – and I ought to know – I used to do puppetry for kids.

SECOND – IF the French actually already shared significant sovereign technology with us as we negotiated this submarine deal (as the ABC claims below) – then just outright cancelling on them IS a big deal. THEY HAD A NUCLEAR OPTION – and had already invested in us by sharing their technical specs. That’s a real breach of trust.

THIRD – as Kevin Rudd suggests, you could have at the very LEAST included our friends the French in a new tender process. We’re already in hot water with China – how many larger nations do you want to alienate in that situation?

FOURTH – learn how to do diplomacy and not offend every second country you meet on the world stage. As well as offending the French, your JOKE of a promise to reach net zero by 2050 without any real roadmap has not gone unnoticed. We’re the last developed nation to sign on to 2050 when most have significant goals for 2030! The nations gathered at Glasgow see you as a climate denying coal-kisser! They have not been fooled.

ABC claims the French shared sovereign technology

ABC on our PM failing basic diplomacy

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on the diplomacy

Posted in Australian Politics, CLIMATE & CONSERVATION, POLITICS AND GEOPOLITICS | Leave a comment

I’m a bit skeptical about the Metaverse

Some rambling thoughts – but I think “The Metaverse” is currently overhyped and will go the way of 3d Television. There’s some things that are cool in Sci-Fi shows – but leave you a little dizzy and disorientated in the real world. Unless they could get a lot more savvy about dealing with weird parallax and eye strain and nausea issues – I’m not convinced the Metaverse will take off in a big way – and I grew up reading William Gibson and Neal Stephenson.

Also, it seems a bit niche? Won’t there be competition? Just as there are dozens of in game universes to explore, and Second Life and VRChat have their own thing, won’t there be a microsoft teams version and Facebook version and Google version just as there already is Zoom and Teams and Facebook rooms? He got lucky getting Facebook out there first. That worked, Google+ Circles didn’t. Social media platforms are hard to launch – there has to be something really different about it. But I’m sceptical this will be as successful as Facebook. Next time you’re doing the dishes, listen to this episode of ABC’s Future Tense.

Posted in Computers, Futurism / Singularity, GEEK LIFE | Leave a comment

More Independents for Australia might see some change

In my local Federal seat, the sitting Member of Parliament is John Alexander, a Liberal. He met with the leaders of our climate activist group and claimed he wasn’t a climate denier, but nor was he overly ‘alarmist’ about it either. He claimed he was just an MP with little or no power.

But how much power does he have compared to us climate activists? Do we get to vote on energy legislation? Do we get to cross the floor when Scott Morrison proposes a disastrous ‘Gas led recovery‘? John Alexander is a Liberal yes-man who has not once crossed the floor and voted against the government on anything, let alone the most important issue of our day.

And I mean the most important issue of our day. Other issues appear louder – more urgent. Coronavirus, return to work policies, anti-vaxxers, maintaining the hospitals and healthcare during the pandemic, and reopening the country all seem more immediate and urgent.

The problem is – climate change also deserves to be in the the Red Box below as Important and Urgent. But it doesn’t seem urgent – until it literally blazes to life in Australian super-fires. We have short memories. Unless it is literally exploding in our faces, climate change appears to be in the “Do later” category below – important, but something we’ll get to later. The zeitgeist right now from the Liberal government appears to be that we can’t be worried about some trace gases in the atmosphere when coming out of a once-a-century pandemic!

It sounds like the Liberal government needs to speak to the Pentagon. They’re the ones that describe global warming as a “Threat Multiplier”. Water-stress, geopolitical tensions, domestic economic concerns, refugees and economic migrants, harmony in society vs racial tensions, even abstract concepts like our superannuation funds – any of the social justice or political concerns you may have will be wounded beyond recognition in the decade/s to come if we do not act now.

Why is it so urgent? I’m going to ask you to take 3 minutes out of your day to re-watch this classic Bill McKibben piece (probably not new to many of you.)

Now look at this graph. What do you notice?

That’s right. Look how much time has passed since it came out. Also, this carbon allowance was based on 2 degrees. The IPCC are now stating that we cannot really go passed 1.5 degrees or the negative consequences become quite unbearable. Not the end of the world – but the end of many nations. Smaller island states through to certain agricultural zones and industries all get wiped out as the climate consequences of just 1.5 degrees takes hold.

So what is the latest? According to Carbon Brief August 2021:-

AR6 uses a combination of historical observations, climate models and an updated estimate of climate sensitivity to provide a best-estimate that the world will pass – or temporarily “reach” – 1.5C somewhere between 2030 and 2035, depending on the future emissions scenario. 

Even in the most stringent mitigation scenario examined in the report –SSP1-1.9 – the world exceeds 1.5C in most models during the middle of the 21st century, before falling back down below 1.5C by 2100 due to the large-scale deployment of negative emissions technologies (for more details on the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs) used in the AR6, read Carbon Brief’s explainer). 

That is – even if we assume every nation on earth works their hardest to break their addiction to fossil fuels – we’re still going to crash through 1.5 degrees sometime this century. We’ll only get back to 1.5 degrees at around 2100 if we work really hard at deploying negative emissions technologies like ocean carbon sequestration, biochar, and other tech that draws carbon out of the air.

This is why our local climate group in Bennelong has decided to push for an Independent. The Murdoch media have made the Greens too toxic politically – and sometimes party politics comes with its own baggage. Labor has a hard enough time getting voted into a relatively safe seat like Bennelong – let alone the Greens. But an Independent? They have broken through in many seats that were previously considered safe.

As Pearls and Irritations says October 2021:-

In the 1972 election the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Coalition received 91 per cent of first preference votes. Major parties now receive only 75 per cent of first preference votes.

This trend is likely to continue as we  become increasingly disillusioned by the Liberal, National and Labor parties. The Coalition has power but no purpose. The ALP has no power and shows little purpose. It is so determined to be a small target that it is hard to know what it stands for any more.

The Greens, Centre Alliance and Independents hold five seats in the House of Representatives. They have become an almost permanent fixture.

There is now a surge of interest and money to support more independent candidates in electorates such as North Sydney, Pearce, Cowper, Berowra and Wentworth.

And if you’re worried about a ‘hung parliament’, the rest of the article explains that they’re not that big a deal. Important legislation still passed. Who knows? Maybe a few more Independents might break the Party-voting gridlock of the many John Alexanders in parliament, and actually recognise the scale of the climate emergency and Australia’s commitment to it.

PS: If you live in Bennelong and agree with me that John Alexander has failed to lead on climate, the Voices of Bennelong group have members willing to come and sit with you and listen to your concerns. If you can get a group of say 10 people together, Voices have said they will have a leader come and meet with you to document your concerns. We don’t have a candidate yet, but are trying to formulate our policies. We are just starting, and things are fluid. Think of the influence you could have by meeting with them.

Posted in Activism, Australian Politics, POLITICS AND GEOPOLITICS | Leave a comment