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Two and Three

I waited until yesterday to watch episode 2 of the new Foundation series on Apple TV+, “Preparing to Live,” and until today to watch “The Mathematician’s Ghost,” episode 3. The reason is simple enough.

There were a lot of changes from Asimov’s story-telling when it was adapted for streaming. That’s to be expected. Transitioning between two very different forms of story-telling eighty years apart is going to require that. And the powers that be have chosen to expand the story considerably, which is also fine so long as they do it well.

However, given the constraints on my reviews, I faced a dilemma. My practice has been to give two ratings, one for the Asimov fan and one for the general audience. Granted, that was only for the books, but still I felt honor-bound to at least attempt the same with a series based directly on the books.

Now, reviewing the first episode, “The Emperor’s Peace,” was pretty straightforward because it basically covers the first part of Foundation, “The Psychohistorians.” This is all well and good, because I have something to do a little compare and contrast with. (The fact that I still haven’t written up a review is irrelevant. I’m used to reviewing stuff years or decades after publication, after all. <insert emoji here>)

The next story in Foundation, “The Encyclopedists,” takes place a full fifty years later, whereas it was clear that the next two episodes of the streaming series would largely take place in the gap between the two. They would be harder to judge in terms of the Asimov fan vs the general science fiction fan. I wanted to have someone who hadn’t read the books on hand to better gage the reaction of someone in the latter camp.

As it happens, neither of my daughters has read the books. The eldest tried but got bored because “it’s just two guys sitting in a room talking to each other,” which is not altogether a false assessment for the bulk of the first few sections. The youngest has not even tried. She was therefore my guinea pig, and I had to wait until she was available.

The good news is that I actually liked both episodes on their own merits. The exploration of what it means to be one-third of an emperor continues to be fascinating, and it was nice to get Demerzel, er, fleshed out a bit. There was a good sense of world-building where Terminus is concerned, both on the story level and the story-telling level. Terminus in the books is not nearly as harsh an environment (so far as we’re ever told), so having the colony struggle more is definitely a nice touch. It’s rather too small, of course, but we’ll let that pass.

The ending of the second episode has come under considerable criticism. From the perspective of the Asimov fan, that’s because—well, it is just totally different from the characterization we see in the books. Having Seldon leave Trantor contradicts the books, for example, and the relationship between Raych and Seldon is more strained than one would expect from the books. And, of course, Seldon dies in the “wrong” way.

From the perspective of a person unfamiliar with the books, the ending is definitely muddy and confusing. Why are the characters acting this way? It seems so contrary to the way they’ve been acting hitherto.

Well, if you’re a fan of the books and can survive the non-book-continuity bit, it’s pretty clear what’s going on. Within the series (but not the books), Dornick and Seldon are the only two who understand psychohistory, and the books firmly state that if the population whose future is being predicted know too much about that future, too much about what psychohistory has to say, well then the whole process will fall apart. For the Plan, the real Plan, to succeed, the Foundation needs to be kept in the dark as much as possible. So Gaal and Hari have to be removed as early as can reasonably be managed.

The books’ solution is much neater, of course. Just leave Hari on Trantor both because he’s too old to travel and because someone can reasonably be left behind to tie up loose ends. Since there are more than two people who understand psychohistory, having some of them go to Terminus will be safe (and even desirable) so long as they make sure they don’t teach anybody what they know. And they don’t.

So the ending of the second episode is definitely muddier than one would like, but it lets Goyer (et al.) add a bit of conflict, flesh out the side characters—well, to be more accurate, create them out of whole cloth—and make their universe a bit richer. For example, the fate of the Anacreonians and Thespians is very chilling and very well-done.

The third episode more directly involves the set-up for “The Encylopedists,” and again major liberties are being taken, particularly where Salvor Hardin and the Time Vault are concerned. Some of it will be make clearer in future episodes I am sure. If they continue to hold semi-close to the books, I’ll be fine. If they start to deviate more significantly, I think I’ll start to have problems.

Also, hey, Daneel, Three Laws. Enough said.

First Pass at the First One

Well, Apple TV+ actually made the first two episodes of Foundation available a day early (or else there was some spectacular timey-wimey shenanigans going on), so I was able to watch the first episode Thursday night. I haven’t had time to watch the second yet.

I’ll post a longer review on the main site, but my overall impression is somewhere towards the positive end of the spectrum. On the whole, it looks gorgeous and the acting is excellent. It stays reasonably close to the written material. Most of what is added works well. There are definitely some head-scratchers even within the show’s own continuity, and some gratuitous changes from the source material. And it felt too long. One of my rules of thumb is that if I start to wonder how much of something is left, then it’s too long.

Still, major kudos for how they started out. Three spaceships-and-suns for the non-Asimov fan, and two for the true believer.

Also, hello, Daneel. You’re looking good.

Great-ish Expectations

So the first two episodes of Foundation will drop tomorrow on Apple+ (seriously, guys, can’t you name a streaming service without a plus sign?), and not long ago, I was asked by my beautiful, brown-eyed, brunette daughter what I expect. The answer is easy enough:

I expect that it will be very good; and

I expect that it will be very different from the books.

And that’s okay. There’s always the issue of adapting from one medium to another, and a video series from the early 2020s has an entirely different audience from a pulp-sf-magazine reading audience in the 1940s with an entirely different background and entirely different expectations. I don’t object to the adaptors adding their own creativity to the series, so long as they keep the core intact.

(If you want a faithful adaptation, by the way, the BBC audio plays from the 1960s are readily available and, except for some scenery chewing towards the end, very good.)

At the same time, there is one big problem. I don’t care for the Foundation books outside of the first three very much, and the reason is simple enough: I read the first three when I was twelve.

Asimov believed that the 1940s was a “golden age” of science fiction because of John Campbell’s incredible skill at editing Astounding and grooming a large cadre of talented writers. At the same time, he believed that the real “golden age” of science fiction is twelve. Books, movies, and TV shows you first encounter around that age acquire a special magic that nothing else can ever capture. In particular, your emotional response to what comes later never has the patina of nostalgia and wonder that the earlier material has.

Oh, you can come to love material you encounter later, but it’s never with the same passion as what you meet at age twelve. I love Star Trek more than Star Wars, because I saw the former when I was around twelve and the latter when I was seventeen. And I love Second Foundation more than Foundation’s Edge for similar reasons. Indeed, because the Foundation books from Foundation’s Edge onwards involve some implicit retconning of earlier material, material from my own “golden age”, I tend to get very impatient with them. Again, that has nothing to do with their inherent quality; it’s a purely subjective response.

So the Foundation series may prove too frustrating for me to really enjoy. If that happens, it will likely be a shame, because it will be purely because of my own nostalgia; and that is an entirely illogical response.

On to the Second Century

The time has come once more to celebrate Asimov’s birthday by reading one of his books. I’m going to try something different this year, however. In the past, I’ve included in the list of candidates only the books whose book number is a multiple of Asimov’s age: books 99, 198, 297, 396, and 495 for his 99th birthday, for example. This is rather unfair to a lot of books, because they get past over as a result; so this year, I’m going to include those books which would otherwise be skipped; to wit—

Book 101: ABC’s of Space

Book 201: In Memory Yet Green [1]
Book 202: Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 1, 1939

Book 301: Science Fictional Olympics
Book 302: Fantastic Reading: Stories and Activities for Grades 5-8
Book 303: Banquets of the Black Widowers

Book 401: Ancient Astronomy
Book 402: Unidentified Flying Objects
Book 403: The Space Spotter’s Guide
Book 404: Norby Down to Earth

Book 501: The Ugly Little Boy
Book 502: Forward the Foundation
Book 503: The Positronic Man
Book 504: The Mammoth Book of Modern Science Fiction
Book 505: Frontiers II: More Recent Discoveries About Life, Earth, Space, and the Universe

(As always, the book numbers are based on my own listing, which is one of the possible extensions of Asimov’s official one.)

The advantages of the new system are instantly obvious. If I just selected among those books whose numbers are multiples of 101, I would have as my best option Banquets of the Black Widowers, with Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 1, 1939 a solid second. By including otherwise “skipped” books, we have a number of better choices.

Among those new choices, there are two that really stand out: In Memory Yet Green (the first volume of Asimov’s autobiography) and Forward the Foundation (the last Foundation book). Indeed, it is not easy to choose between the two. If one is more interested in Asimov as a person, then the former wins. If one is more interested in Asimov’s fiction, then the second comes in first (as it were).

Or, of course, if one is truly ambitious, one could attempt to read all fifteen in one day.

[1] In Memory Yet Green is actually a special case. As noted last year, there is a two-way tie for 200th place in Asimov’s listing. Asimov’s two major publishers both expected to publish his 200th book, you see, and so he compromised by proclaiming a tie. He wasn’t always consistent about the tie, however, so Opus 200 is sometimes listed as book 200 and In Memory Yet Green as book 201. Of course, even if one read In Memory Yet Green last year, there’s no harm in reading it again.

At Last!

An adaptation for visual media of Asimov’s Foundation Series has been in the works for decades with occasional announcements that something was finally happening. The most recent announcement came last year when Apple launched its Apple TV+ streaming service. (Full disclosure: I work for Apple as a software engineer.) There was no release date or trailer included, not even a teaser, so one had to take the announcement with a grain of salt.

There was another announcement today, however, which does have a release date and a trailer.

I have to say it looks good. They are obviously departing from the overall plot of the books, but that’s really something that can’t be helped. The issue more is do they do a good job of it? Time will tell.

(Plus, it’s nice to see that they’re departing from Asimov’s default assumption—inevitable in the 1940s when the stories were first written—that everybody is a white male unless otherwise noted.)

Only a Hundred?

Happy birthday, Dr. A! In particular, happy centenary!

When I mentioned to my wife this morning that it was the 100th anniversary of Asimov’s birth, she said, “Oh, so you should read 100 of his books to celebrate.” Reading 100 Asimov books over the course of the year would indeed be fitting.

Meanwhile, we’ve got today’s reading to look into.

Books 100, 200, and 300 are, of course, the very aptly named Opus 100, Opus 200, and Opus 300 respectively. Houghton-Mifflin declined to do an Opus 400. According to Asimov, this is because they were getting to be too close together. Opus 100 came out in 1969, Opus 200 in 1979, and Opus 300 in 1984. Book 400 was published in 1988, so one can appreciate their position.

Book 400 is Earth: Our Home Base, which is probably among the 100 shortest books. It’s a science juvenile and over thirty years out of date, so I can’t recommend it.

Book 500 is probably The Mammoth Book of Fantastic Science Fiction. We don’t know for sure, because Asimov stopped keeping his official list with book 469, and everything after is unclear. Indeed, one could argue that we don’t even know if there was a Book 500, but I’m quite confident there is. (My own list ends with book 513.)

Of those five books, the best to go with is clearly Opus 100. All the Opus books are among Asimov’s best, but this is the best of the three. It has a sort of giddy quality, as if the Good Doctor could not quite believe he actually made it to one hundred. It also has some entertaining anecdotes, including one that ends with the immortal line, “When Isaac Asimov says it’s so, he sometimes makes an egregious ass of himself.” Plus it has “The Holmes-Ginsbook Device,” which Asimov never anthologized outside of Opus 100. (It has appeared elsewhere, just not in any of Asimov’s anthologies.) The story is very funny, although it hasn’t aged well due to its exuberant sexism. That kind of blatant objectification of women was hardly uncommon in the late 60s, even among liberals, so one may yet be able to look past that and enjoy the story.

There is, however, a fly in the ointment. There are actually two Book 200s. In the late 1970s, Doubleday, one of Asimov’s main publishers, had managed to convince Asimov to write an autobiography, the first volume of which was scheduled to come out at a point where it might be Book 200. Houghton-Mifflin, Asimov’s other main publisher, wanted the honor of doing Book 200 since they’d done Book 100. Doubleday, for its part, figured that since Houghton-Mifflin got to do Book 100, they should get to do Book 200. The ensuing compromise was this tie for 200th place.

The other Book 200 is therefore In Memory Yet Green, the first volume of Asimov’s most complete autobiography. It is also the most important, since it covers his early years up to the point where he was teaching at Boston University and breaking from John W. Campbell’s tutelage.

So which of the two should one read? I would argue for Opus 100, because it’s a lot more fun. It also has a special place in my heart. The first piece of fan mail I wrote to Asimov was in early 1974. I asked him all kinds of questions about his life, and his response was, “Tell you what. I have written two autobiographical books OPUS 100 and THE EARLY ASIMOV. In three months a third one is coming out BEFORE THE GOLDEN AGE. You read those books (after all, you’re the president of a fan club) and then if you have any questions left over, you can ask them. (But I may not answer.)”

I’m sure that was his standard response to obnoxious twerps like me. If I’d asked him the same question five years later, he would have pointed me to In Memory Yet Green. Still, the fact that Asimov with his own fingers working away on his own typewriter recommended Opus 100 gives it a special place in my heart that is firmly a part of my own “golden age.”

One more note: Steven Cooper has recently finished an exhaustive—and I mean exhaustive—Asimov bibliography. It’s to be found at http://stevenac.net/asimov/Bibliography.htm. It is an incredible piece of work, beautifully and clearly laid out. I’ll add a link to the main review site, but meanwhile, please, do yourself a favor on Asimov’s centenary and give it a look. (And he agrees with me that given Asimov’s generous algorithm for counting books, he ended up over 500.)

Happy 100th birthday, Dr. A., and thank you ever so much for decades of entertainment and enlightenment.

A Good Foundation for High School English

Today I was reading an article on Lifehacker listing books that should be dropped from reading lists for high schoolers and some that should take their place. I definitely disagree about Dante’s Divine Comedy being dropped—I first read it when I was in junior high, myself. At the same time, I was surprised to see Foundation on the list (or at least the first two sections).

After I finished jumping up and down, I stopped to think. That’s really a rather odd choice. It’s not the best of the original Foundation  “novels,” although it makes sense not to read the other two until you’ve read it. (Personally, I read Foundation and Empire first and am none the worse for the experience.) Still, not my first choice.

When I was in high school, one of my English teachers decided to have a student-taught module on science fiction. I was among the students who got to run the show. We had a reading list, and the one Asimov piece we put on it was “Reason.” On the whole, I still think it’s a reasonable choice, although now I’d more likely be lazy and put “The Last Question” in its place.

What would my choice be for a book by Asimov to put on a reading list for modern high schoolers? One of the chief things to keep in mind is that you need something that a modern high schooler could reasonably get a copy of, which leaves out Nine Tomorrows or Chemistry and Human Health.

On the whole, I’d have to go with one of three: I, Robot, The Caves of Steel, or The End of Eternity. All three are still in print. I, Robot is probably the most influential of the three and is probably the best choice to pique a high schooler’s interest. The other two, on the other hand, are (I believe) Asimov’s best novels.

Any other suggestions?

And the Nominees Are…

In celebration of what would have been the Good Doctor’s ninety-fifth birthday, I’d like to recommend the following:

There is really no contest here. Despite my fondness for Larry and his almost Encyclopedia Brown-like powers of deduction, The Key Word is pretty slight, and What is an Eclipse? even more so. Of the two anthologies, I’d go for Encounters over Wizards; but I’m loathe to recommend an anthology at all. Photosynthesis, on the other hand, is a solid and not particularly outdated science popularization written at Asimov’s peak as a science writer; and for those of us plagued with cold and snow, it’s a good reminder of what will be in just a few months’ time.

The award, then, clearly goes to Photosynthesis.

Good Advice from the Good Doctor

io9 added an article yesterday of advice entitled “Twelve quotes from authors to remember when starting your first book.” Quote number 11 (“It is the writer who might catch the imagination of young people, and plant a seed that will flower and come to fruition.”) is from Asimov, but the article makes up for this low position on the list by illustrating the article with a very nice painting from the 1980’s of Asimov at his Selectric typewriter working his magic. Share and enjoy.