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
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.