Review: Foundation Episode 7

Spoilers below! Also Jurrasic Park and Karl Marx guest-star in this review.

In many ways, this is a key episode for the series as the show is now only very lightly tethered to the books. As Cora points out in her review of the episode, the departure from the plot has led one of Foundation’s most notable fans, economist Paul Krugman, to stop watching. I think he’s missing out on a fun show but without knowing the plot connections from the previous episodes, the only obvious connections with the books in this episode are the character names.

All four plots of the show get an airing and each of the characters central to those plots are each heading towards a crisis:

  • Brother Day is grappling with the politics of religion
  • Brother Dawn is grappling with both love and terrible case of impostor syndrome with added genetic drift
  • Salvor Hardin is in space and has discovered that the Anacreon plan involves a super weapon
  • Gaal Dornick is also in space trapped on a ship with the digital ghost of Hari Seldon

Seldon is very much a manipulative piece of shit and that feels 100% consistent with the books while very much not how Asimov is trying to portray him. One of the challenges for adapting Foundation are issues like this. Particularly in book 1, the characters are at best brief sketches and the stories have the air of short dramatisations to describe a historical event. That’s part of what makes the first one and a half books interesting as a style of fiction, Asimov isn’t writing a conventional story but a future history and fiction really actually genuinely doesn’t have to have personal conflict or three-dimensional characters to be interesting.

DRAMA though, well dramas really do need much more than what you’ll find in Asimov’s first Foundation stories, which the books eventually conceded by shifting style halfway through. Maybe the showrunners could have still followed the Cleon plot to keep the dramatic aspect going while burning through book 1 of Foundation but instead, they took a different tack. Having Seldon be an ongoing character means he needs to interact with somebody who can engage with him at his level and hence the elevation of Gaal from being little more than a name into a central character. And as a character to she has to be a counter-voice to Seldon, somebody who has a close relationship with but who has points of conflict with him. Further, as there’s just no way that a guy whose whole reason for being in this story is to attempt to connive a whole planet into gaslighting the galaxy can be anything other than the universe’s biggest manipulative piece of shit.

Of course, the other flaw in Asimov’s first Foundation book is the whole plan is absurd. Chaos theory would not reach mass culture as a pervasive idea until the 1970s/80s and was still novel when Jeff Goldblum’s character explains the idea to Laura Dern on the way to Jurrasic Park in the early ’90s. Yet you don’t need those ideas encapsulated in a pop-sci format to see that maybe a century-spanning deterministic plan might wander off course vary quickly. The moral from chaos theory is that it is the very determinism that is the undoing of attempts to predict the future, perversely randomness helps things avoid wandering too far off track. History should be easier to forecast if people are more like random quantum particles than Newtonian billiard balls, something that the classic gravitational Three-Body Problem had already hinted at.

Asimov’s solution to the dramatic dead-end and the unworkability of psychohistory was the Mule, the Second Foundation and psychic powers. Seldon’s plan works because it is really a very sinister conspiracy by what is essentially a cabal of space wizards and Seldon’s plan stops working because of a rogue space wizard. Which is also part of the huge amount of fun that Foundation as a trilogy is. It starts as a monument to technocratic rationalism and ends with a plot that repudiates the premise of the story.

With the TV show, we’ve already had plenty-big hints that this is a universe of mind powers (and robots but not yet robots with mind powers) but this episode starts to lay this out clearly. Gaal can anticipate the future and that pretty much makes the purely mechanical idea of psychohistory unworkable — which is where Foundation the book trilogy ends up but which is wholly at odds with Foundation the first and seminal book in the series.

Now Paul Krugman doesn’t really believe in psychohistory as portrayed initially in Asimov’s books but he has described it as part of his inspiration for his interest in economics. Using maths to model the broad sweep of human activity is a compelling idea and the idea of psychology and sociology as physics-like mathematical disciplines is one of those ideas that I personally find enticingly delicious. In fiction, Foundation is the go-to story for an attempt to grapple with that idea in fiction but it is also an idea that Asimov (sensibly) dumps in favour of space wizards. As views of history go, it’s like starting with Marx and ending with Qanon.

Imagine the reading room of the British Library sometime in the 19th century. Karl Marx is busy working out that the inherent contradiction in capitalism will inevitably lead to the working-class revolution and after an intermediary period of socialism, industrial societies will eventually evolve into state-less commune-like societies. “Nice plan,” says robot Ian Malcolm (who looks just like Jeff Goldblum in this story) but after dripping water on Marx’s hand they both conclude that Marx has not factored in the triple forces of militarism, nationalism and authoritarianism which will bot suppress and subvert from within any putative communist societies in the coming century. Despondent Marx asks robot Malcolm for a solution and luckily he already has one: “wizards!”. So along with setting up the Communist Party, Marx also sets up a secret wizard communist party that secretly manipulate the rest of 20th-century history so it all comes out a lot better…

I mean, OK, I’d have liked the twentieth century to have been a lot nicer than it was but in our Marx-as-Seldon story, the equivalent to Second Foundation really does start sounding less like a fun twist and sounding far more like how every wannabe Alex Jones imagines history really does work: secret cabals of leftists secretly manipulating people’s minds to bring about communism. I think the showrunners may be trying to dodge a bullet here. Having a psychic Second Foundation being a reveal as these-guys-were-behind-the-scenes-all-along doesn’t come over as a variation on the anti-Semitic universal conspiracy of the far-right in Asimov’s books but played out within the pop-culture framework of a modern TV show, there’s an obvious danger that the Apple+ version won’t be so lucky.

So we’ve got a very weird story thread and character choices instead. Gaal and Demerzel both have weird plot lines but canonically it is easy to see how they both connect to the second and third layers of Asimov’s future history (i.e. Second Foundation were behind everything, oops no Daneel Olivaw was behind everything). It is still heading into a conspiracy theory of history as opposed to a broad (and predictable) socioeconomic forces view of history but there’s the essence of adapting Foundation. If you want the first view of history, you can only adapt one and a half books AND the parts that really don’t work very well as drama (even though I think they work well as fiction).

22 thoughts on “Review: Foundation Episode 7

  1. I have wondered how much of the original story Asimov ‘knew’ up front (i.e. excluding the robots bit!) Did he actually start with the idea of The Mule and then work backwards to figure out how much set-up one would need for The Mule to work? Because it seems pretty convincing when you get there that the story was always about the Second Foundation, but they only make sense if you’ve built the original, ahem, foundations for them to be meaningful. Which means that the first part of the story cannot be much more than the sort of vignettes that Asimov uses in order to get the story progressed far enough that the ‘actual’ plot can begin. (Bearing in mind that he didn’t particularly write doorstoppers until much later in his career.)
    And yes, that creates all sorts of problems for an adaptation, quite apart from the deadly serious one that you describe here.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Mapping out future histories was a thing among the writers of Astounding (Heinlein and Simak did it, too), though according to Asimov’s own statements, he knew the first two stories “Foundation/The Encyclopedists” and “Bridle and Saddle/The Mayors” and ended “Foundation/The Encyclopedists” on a cliffhanger (Salvor saying, “Oh, I know the solution and it’s obvious”) to force Campbell to buy the second one.

      Plus stories 3 and 4, “The Wedge” and “The Big and the Little” did not appear until 1944, two years after the first two. “The Mule” and “The Dead Hand” came out in 1945, “Now You See it…” and “Now You Don’t.” in 1948/49, i.e. there were big gaps between the original Foundation stories and then Asimov lost interest for almost forty years. Daneel/Demerzel, meanwhile, didn’t even exist until 1953 and Asimov didn’t decide to tie the robot stories, the Galactic Empire stories, Foundation and The End of Eternity together until the 1980s.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, when the last books of tying it all together came out, everyone bought and read them but did think “Isaac is really retconning madly here to make them all related, isn’t he?”

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks for that. It does suggest that the likely explanation is somewhere between the two (that Asimov knew what the end was and that he didn’t); that he hadn’t really figured out where to take things after that first block of stories, and then has the idea for the Second Foundation and/or The Mule (I think they most obviously come as a pair) and has to work out how to get there. And then he suffers a block on how to resolve that story satisfactorily as well. (I think he just about pulls it off, but it feels touch-and-go at times!)

        The big retconning period near the end of his career does need to be treated differently I think; whilst those books are clearly part of the series, they feel far much more like those later era Heinleins which do the same sort of thing with his universes.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. The original trilogy does pull the threads together well IMO. The prequels are obviously retcons, but I enjoyed them at the time. Foundation’s Edge is okay, until Gaia/Galaxia, a concept I hate with a flaming passion, shows up. Foundation and Earth is crap. Thirty years after I first read the novels, I’m still furious at James Lovelock (who’s not only still alive at 101, but now wants to suspend democracy for thirty years or so to fight climate change – not that he’s going to notice) for coming up with the Gaia idea and ruining Foundation.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. “Nice plan,” says robot Ian Malcolm (who looks just like Jeff Goldblum in this story) but after dripping water on Marx’s hand they both conclude that Marx has not factored in the triple forces of militarism, nationalism and authoritarianism which will bot suppress and subvert from within any putative communist societies in the coming century.

    A perspective that carefully elides the militarism, nationalism, and authoritarianism that are part and parcel of every communist nation that has ever existed. They were/are far worse in communist nations than in any western society.

    Instead, the problem is/was that Marx’s labor theory of economics is heavily flawed and that command economies increase inefficiencies to the point of causing mass poverty.

    But other than that….”nice plan”.

    Regards,
    Dann
    “If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquillity of servitude than the animating contest of freedom, – go from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains sit lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen!” – Samuel Adams

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    1. Hmmm. I might buy that argument if we confine ‘history’ to, say, the last century or so. I’m not entirely convinced that “the militarism, nationalism, and authoritarianism” you cite haven’t been part and parcel of the vast majority of social structures for several millennia or so. Indeed, one might argue that it was the invention of these things that actually helped solidify civilisation rather than, say, agriculture or cities.
      Going further, one might even suggest that we delude ourselves if we think we don’t have those things in ‘western’ society – the difference being that the in-group that is not bound* is somewhat larger than it is in, say, communist structures so it is less noticeable (combine that with the success of bread-and-circuses and it’s harder to observe too.)

      That’s not to say that I don’t agree with you that Marx’s labour theory was badly flawed – but I would also contend that he was as much warning about the consequences as promoting them. (Adam Smith was doing exactly the same thing but from the other direction!)

      *The Wilhoit Principle: Conservatism consists of one proposition: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. @Scurra

        I think I agree. Militarism, nationalism, and authoritarianism exist to some degree in every culture going all the way back to roaming tribes of ur-humans.

        The question then becomes how much of those elements exist in a society and to what purpose are they used.

        IMO, communist nations have/had far more of those elements and the result is/was greater death/poverty/etc. You might take a look at the democide data collected by professor RJ Rummel that is maintained by the University of Hawaii. By all measures, communist nations were far more deadly places to survive. To paraphrase Sara Hoyt, a hundred million broken eggs, still no omelet.

        The quote from Frank Wilhoit (the composer, not the political scientist) is in keeping with the tradition of progressive anti-conservatism. It attributes all malice to “conservatism” without defining the alternative. Conservatism gets measured against its record while progressivism gets measured against intents and desires.

        I’d also challenge his definition of conservatism. Modern American conservatism seeks to conserve the liberal democracy established by the Founders from an illiberal progressive/socialist movement.

        To take his quote seriously for a moment, then the question becomes what approach delivers the largest in-group and the smallest out-group. The western democratic tradition delivers the best result based on that metric.

        Mr. Wilhoit offered an alternative dynamic; The law cannot protect anyone unless it binds everyone; and it cannot bind anyone unless it protects everyone. A reasonable (if unattainable) objective, IMHO. At least, it isn’t something that most conservatives that I know would find objectionable. That dynamic describes one of the many basic complaints against modern progressive government in practice.

        @Cam

        Is ignoring a Jeff Goldblum character ever a good idea? He must hate being right all the time!

        Regards,
        Dann
        To have peace with this peculiar life; to accept what we do not understand; to wait calmly for what awaits us, you have to be wiser than I am – M.C. Escher

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        1. Militarism, nationalism and authoritarianism exist in every society regardless of political and economic system to a certain degree. And while communist countries score badly on the militarism and authoritarianism scale – as do rightwing dcitatorships – nationalism was much less of an issue in politics – officially, the communist countries were all friends – though it was one on the population level. Former communist states have a lot more nationalists and outright xenophobes than western states.

          Liked by 1 person

    2. //A perspective that carefully elides the militarism, nationalism, and authoritarianism that are part and parcel of every communist nation that has ever existed.//

      Robot Jeff Goldblum overtly states that is what will happen “subvert from within any putative communist societies in the coming century”. You see, you aren’t listening to robot Jeff Glodblum’s warnings Dann. Classic error!

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          1. There very often seems to be an inverse relationship between how loudly someone proclaims the good word and how much they actually follow it.

            (And that’s hardly just a Jesus thing.)

            Liked by 2 people

      1. @Sophie Jane

        communism without authoritarianism

        That is a unicorn. There are only two options at the moment someone decides that they are going to keep their bag of potatoes from the collective. One is that communism simply falls apart and natural market forces will be restored. The other involves guns and blood in the street.

        @camestros

        Also that Jesus guy I’ve heard people talk about.

        Oddly enough, the guy never once advocated getting Ceasar or the local Centurions involved. All of his admonitions were for individual believers to commit themselves to a life of direct charity and service to those around them.

        @Cora Buhlert

        officially, the communist countries were all friends

        Everyone is “friendly” when they are held at gunpoint. There really isn’t much of another option.

        Given how quickly the eastern bloc nations killed their communist quisling overlords and ran to NATO, I don’t think the “friendship” was mutual or deep.

        Regards,
        Dann
        Reality simply consists of different points of view. – Margaret Atwood

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        1. //Oddly enough, the guy never once advocated getting Ceasar or the local Centurions involved. All of his admonitions were for individual believers to commit themselves to a life of direct charity and service to those around them.//

          What does that remind me of? “The society which organizes production anew on the basis of free and equal association of the producers will put the whole state machinery where it will then belong—into the museum of antiquities, next to the spinning wheel and the bronze ax.”

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Actually, only one Eastern bloc country killed its communist dictator, namely Romania. At the time, it was widely disliked for that, because all the other communist countries had gotten rid of their regimes with a minimum of bloodshed.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. @Cora Buhlert

            You are correct about there only being one dictator that was killed.

            I am correct about the eastern bloc nations running away from the USSR/Russia and towards NATO as fast as possible. There was nothing “friendly” about their relationship with the USSR/Russia.

            @camestros

            I don’t see any rhetorical connective tissue between what I said and your quote from Engels.

            Regards,
            Dann
            War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. John Stuart Mill

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