Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Foundation, a review, sort of

 The first actual science fiction story I read was an Arthur C. Clarke story set on the moon. It was in a grade 3 reader with a yellow cover. It also had a story about a submarine driven by atomic power, which I later learned was real, not a story. There was a time travel story about a car somehow going back in time to Baghdad during the Ottoman Empire and changed the course of a battle. The only other thing I remember from this is reading the word 'island', but knowing it was pronounced 'eyeland' and that the current kid reading the story out loud would get it wrong.

As a digression, I found that story in my library. It's called "If I forget Thee, Oh Earth..." and it's in a collection called The Nine Billion Names of God. I'm actually a little amazed that I found it. That section of the library is sadly disorganized after many moves within the house. It used to be not only in alpha order by author, but also by title within author. I can't imagine why I did so.

Somewhere along the line I discovered Isaac Asimov and his many, many books. I still have a bunch of them in the library in the basement. One of them is this one. Look at the price. This was an expensive one for the times. Many were 75 cents. 

Foundation a series of short stories written in the 40's. For the longest time there was just 3 books containing the collection, but then the publishers pushed him into writing more to expand the story. I haven't read any of those. Why, you ask? 

I think a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. There are many ways to tell a story, but padding it out is not one of the good ways. And yet, it's like when the gatekeepers say they want something fresh and new, what they mean is more of what has already sold well. Which is why we get so many dreadful sequels and rewrites and reboots and remakes.

I read lots of science fiction in high school and for some time after, then drifted away. For my taste, there were too many rainbows and too much unicorn poop showing up in what was supposed to be science fiction. And the abomination of unknown writers collaborating with the established writers to publish new works really turned me off. There I was, reading the second of Clarke's Rama novels, revolted by the first sentence. Then it got worse. Only then I realized it hadn't actually been written by Clarke. I can't even remember if I finished it or not, and certainly didn't even try any of the further padding sequels.

Science fiction has been showing up on movie and TV screens just about from the start, much of it poor by the standards of the day, and dreadful by the standards of today. (Though I love me a good bad movie, and many of these are fun to watch.) Lately the technology has been better and better, which gets us back to Clarke again, this time with 2001. It was released in 1968, using technology that seems primitive now, and yet it still looks great. It's widely considered a masterpiece of moviemaking, though some patience is required for modern viewers. A lot of patience.

There's been many book to movie adaptations, and they all come with their own limitations. Just trying to put the story on screen is one of them, since books and TV/movies are very different mediums. At least the visual element has taken huge steps forward with computer advancements. Film makers can put anything they imagine on screen now, and that's the problem. Their imaginations are limited, and the money limits them to what has been done before because we know it works.

Then Apple came along with Foundation on their Apple+ network. If any company can throw a ton of money at a movie or TV show, its Apple. And boy did they ever. The show looks gorgeous! Some of the scenes could be used as art.

I had such high hopes for this, while realizing that this is a difficult transition. Even more difficult than Lord of the Rings was. The setting is so big (the downfall of a galaxy wide empire), and the glimpses we get are so small (the mayor of what is essentially a small town, or a few people on a spaceship containing what Asimov says is 100,000 people) that it's hard to bridge the gap. For all they talk about trillions of people and a galaxy wide government, they still fall prey to the village syndrome. A world represented as a village.

When you think about our current world, there are about 7.5 billion people spread out over about 200 countries. Two countries have huge populations, China and India. Several countries have a huge area for the population they contain, Australia, Canada, and Russia. Some are well governed, New Zealand and the Nordic countries plus a few others. Some are failed states, North Korea, Yemen, United States of America.

That's just one world, and we can't get a planetary government going, even in the face of a near-existential threat in climate change. Will future people be so much smarter? Or are their worlds a monoculture that makes it easy to form a planetary government?

Supposedly there is a triumvirate of emperors for this galaxy wide empire, a child learning to take the throne, the active leader, and an advisor who used to be the active leader, all of whom are clones of the first emperor. Asimov barely mentions the other trappings of government, such as a senate and a legal system, but the show entirely passes over them. Maybe next season.

You'd think they'd be busy with the affairs of government, or at least dealing with the schemes of other people to cut themselves in on some of the power. Yet these 3 people have a life of leisure. Maybe that's why the empire is falling.

The idea is that this empire is going to fall and bring about 30,000 years of chaos, but there is a way to reduce this period to 1,000 years. As if anyone would know at the time that today marked the end of the empire, and in a future time, that another today marked the end of the interregnum. If this is reminding you of Rome, you go to the head of the class. 

The main disappointment with the series is that it's not the books. That's probably just as well, to be honest. The books are pretty dry going in places, built for a tighty whitey reading audience. But the padding they filled the show with is pretty dry too, and the going back and forth in time is tough to keep track of. I suppose that's the risk of a galactic empire and the lag of events, to say nothing of the speed of light. As a reminder, the galaxy we live in is between 100,000 and 200,000 light years across, depending on how you measure, and could have up to 400 billion stars. 

(Goes off to do some calculations about the population of the empire and density, and speed of travel, and communication systems, but eventually decided not to bore the readers. Those interested are perfectly capable of doing so themselves.)

They end up telling several stories simultaneously, and I think all of them suffer from the same problem. We don't know enough about that story to make it compelling, and yet we know too much about it to be a 'meanwhile back at the ranch' adjunct. There is no real central thread to tie everything together, unless a very vague reference to free will vs determinism turns you on.

In the books just about all the characters are men. There's been some gender swapping, and lots of characters have brown skin. All that is good; it's not like seeing a female character is going to ruin my childhood, and it's not like Asimov gave us any descriptions of the characters in the book. But essentially all of what's on screen is new even to people who have read (and remembered or reread) the books. 10 episodes of about an hour each, and we're barely at the end of the first short story. Some of it is interesting, like the bits and pieces of technology we see. Some of it is roll your eyes and wait it out.

Apple+ is $6/month Canadian. I got a year as a free trial because I bought an Apple device, and was delighted to be able to get the entire season of Foundation in the trial period. I have until mid-December to see if there's anything else there I want to watch, and the looking I've done so far hasn't found anything compelling. Linda is watching Invasion, and we don't know if all the episodes will air before the trial period ends.

What about season 2? It's being filmed. I think my plan is to time the next Mac purchase around when the entire season is available. Then even if the free trial is only 7 days we can binge it and cancel again. Then we'll see. They say there is an 8 season story arc here. This is tasting a lot like the 3 movie infection called The Hobbit.

My verdict? If you're an Asimov fan and love the books the way they are, you're likely to be disappointed by the show. You're also likely to be disappointed by every other book to movie/TV adaptation, so I'd say the problem isn't the production process. If you like shows with a medium complicated story line and great production values then you're likely to like this. That it reminds you of a story series you read a long time ago might be a bonus. If you can say to yourself, 'this is what Asimov would have written had anyone been willing to buy it back then', you'll love it. 

Of the Day

Peony. I decided to give you 4 photos, since they were of the same peony shot within a few minutes of each other, and only slightly different compositions. I didn't want you thinking I was giving you a repeat. You can tell me which is your favourite.






Dragonfly. This is the last live dragonfly shot of the season, hope you enjoyed the feature!

Eagle. This is the long term resident eagle. She is 38 years old.



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