Why Care That “Foundation” Is Bad?

The new TV miniseries “Foundation” is full of meaningless CGI, ponderous religious imagery, thudding messages about terrorism, imperialism and climate change, and dialogue so clunky that even a serious actor like Jared Harris can’t deliver it. So what? There are lots of bad TV shows. If you want better TV science fiction, go watch “The Expanse” or “For All Mankind”.

The reason to care, at least for me, is because this version shows distressing changes in the US since Isaac Asimov wrote the pieces of the original novel in the 1940s. In the novel the characters are rationalists trying to reason their way out of the chaos of a collapsing empire. After long study and close observation, they come up with a theory, psycho-history, that gives them a path forward. They face crisis after crisis in their exile on Terminus, and out-smart their opponents. Is a powerful neighboring kingdom about to conquer them? Play them off against other nearby powers. Do they then stage a counter-revolution? Use your leverage over advanced tech to undo them. Is your faux religion falling apart after local resistance? Establish commercial ties instead. Each problem is solved with wit instead of brutality. Violence is the refuge of the incompetent imperialists and feudalists.

When Asimov was writing, the old imperial and aristocratic world was destroying itself in a cataclysmic war, WW II. The US thought of itself as an upstart commercial and technological power, not an imperial one. It was a lot more like Foundation than it was the Galactic Empire.

That’s not what America is like in the 21st century. Hari Seldon is no longer a scholar; he’s a prophet. No one is said to understand his work. Then how does he know it’s right? No actual mathematician is like this. His only equal is a a girl with no background or education at all. She just intuits it somehow. People just have faith in him, not reason.

Faith is everywhere in this series, and nowhere in the novel. Asimov thought religion was bunk, and actually uses it as a con. This has a religion, Illuminism, that foretells of prophets. Even the robot believes it, and worries about whether she has a soul. What? You’d think that immortal sentient machines would have figured this out, since college sophomores do.

Out on Terminus, the leader of Foundation is no longer the wily mayor Salvor Hardin, who gets there by being elected. Instead Hardin is a lone outcast. With a gun. And superpowers. She’s a woman of color, but otherwise little different than the lone gunslinger Shane. She no longer outwits the neighboring powers – she kills them with her sniper rifle. Given that they are prone to attacking armed positions by running across flat open ground, something that infantry hasn’t done in a hundred years, they shouldn’t be that hard to fool.

At every turn the characters here look to their feelings, not their reason. Seldon actually appears at the end to tell them that the Foundation was not about curating knowledge, but curating people. What does that even mean? Strong institutions? Legal systems? Education? None of that is in evidence, because all that the TV writers think is important is emotion.

This show is the anti-Foundation. The thing that impressed so many readers over the last 70 years, including me as a kid, was how people could think their way through even the greatest catastrophes. They didn’t shoot their way out it, which is the standard trope of pulp and TV.

This wouldn’t matter, except that shooting your way out is now the standard operating procedure of the US. It used to be that it responded to aggression with some finesse. When the Soviets blocked off Berlin in 1948, the US just airlifted millions of tons of supplies into the city. They didn’t roll tanks across East Germany because that would be stupid. Yet when a maniac used passenger airliners to crash into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the US promptly attacked and tortured all the people in Afghanistan who could have given up Osama bin Laden, and then attacked an unrelated country for good measure. Apparently George W was upset that Saddam Hussein had tried to assassinate his father. That’s an emotional, TV reason to do something. Decades of imbibing TV attitudes has turned the country into idiots, and this inversion of the themes of Foundation is a pure example.

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