happy birthday, Dr. A!

Asimov would have been 102 today, so there are some books one might want to read in celebration.

The book numbers for anything published in 1992 or later are to be taken with a shaker or two of salt, of course, meaning none of the 500s are 100% certain. Still, there can be no doubt that among the fifteen books listed here, the two one might want to read are I. Asimov and Yours, Isaac Asimov; the former would be my choice. Extraterrestrial Civilizations is a solid third.

The remainder are, for the most part, either anthologies or non-fiction for pre-teens.

One (I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay) is not, strictly speaking, and I only include it in my list on a technicality, and even then only because I like it so much.

Another, The Future in Space is likely not to have any input from Asimov at all and only gets listed because I’ve been too lazy to follow through on that.

Finally, Gold deserves an honorable mention at least, but as is true with most of Asimov’s later anthologies, it includes stories both good and not-so-good; as a result, I tend not to think very highly of it.


Joke 312 in Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor—which I highly recommend—is about one Moskowitz who is an expert in Yiddish but doesn’t know the Yiddish for a particular English word. He goes to an old woman who speaks no English to try to get her to say the Yiddish word, which he does by spinning elaborate scenarios to which he hopes she will respond with the word in question. He fails several times—it’s a long joke—but finally comes up with a story to which her response is what he wants. Sort of. She gives him the word he’s after, true enough, but in English—not Yiddish.

The word is “disappointed.”

Asimov helpfully provides the Yiddish word in his discussion of the joke, but he spells it in Latin letters so I can’t write it properly, and he apparently disagrees with what Google Translate says on the subject anyway. He says it’s entoisht. Google Translate says it’s disapoynid. I like Asimov’s version better.

So why am I entoisht after ten hours of television that covers one hundred or so pages of book? Let’s answer with some spoilers.

Am I unhappy that the show departs so heavily from the books? Not in principal. I expected that, and you’re going to have to do a lot of expanding to turn so few pages into so much television. Indeed, much of what they did was good on its own terms. The genetic dynasty, in particular, was an inspired decision. The world-building had significant virtues, since it handled nicely the idea of the Empire being a multicultural one.

Some of the changes were gratuitous, I thought. I’m not sure what they gained by making Jump technology an Imperial monopoly, for example, especially since they thereby implied that other interstellar travel was not FTL. (There is a throwaway line that suggests otherwise, but it was not very prominent.) The idea that slower-than-light is practical for interstellar travel would be sloppy writing indeed in a hard science fiction series.

Some of the changes were flatly wrong, however, and show that the creators either didn’t understand their source material or lacked faith in it. And I don’t just mean their genuinely bad treatment of psychohistory. Rather, the original Foundation “trilogy” is built around the idea that solutions to problems are found by thinking through them. This is characteristic of Asimov’s fiction.

Thus, Salvor Hardin in the books is a shrewd politician who knows how to exploit and manipulate people, not a tough-as-nails warden who has a mystical connection with her birth parents.

Terminus is ideal for the First Foundation not because it’s a harsh environment that will make tough people who can survive tough circumstances. Terminus is ideal because it’s resource-poor and will require clever people who can, of necessity, move science and technology forward just to survive, making more from less.

The Empire isn’t bad because it’s harsh and oppressive. The Empire is, on the whole, good, and the main “badness” comes because it’s stagnant, and its people are no longer original thinkers.

In the book Foundation, the first Seldon crisis has a simple solution—hold four knives at four throats. Here we have two changes, one gratuitous and one not. The non-gratuitous change is to reduce the number of rival kingdoms from four to two. That makes sense because it simplifies the storyline. The gratuitous change is to alter the name of one of the kingdoms to “Thespis”. What’s wrong with “Smyrno”? “Loris” is also given as the name of one of the Four Kingdoms. That would work, too. (Asimov does not give an unambiguous indication of the fourth kingdom’s name.)

In any event, Hardin’s clever solution is to make it clear that any one of the Four Kingdoms which has exclusive control over the Foundation’s superior technology would find the other three easy prey, meaning they’d strike pre-emptively in a three-on-one pileup. As a result, an awkward balance of power is maintained because nobody trusts anybody else.

As an aside, we also have the alteration of a fatuous (but clever) courtier into a stern but rather stupid military commander. In the books, Lord Dorwin appears to make Imperial assurances to the Foundation but phrases things carefully so that he actually does nothing of the kind. On the show, Kray Dorwin is a commander who manages to get his ship destroyed with a single shot. Again we have a change of a clever man into a man of action.

And as an aside within the aside: If the Empire builds stuff so well, why is it so easy to destroy things? The Sky Bridge also came down without much effort.

Back to our main thread. If the solution to the first Seldon crisis is political, the solution to the second is sociological (per Asimov). Hardin is able to win through by cleverly exploiting the cargo cult that has grown up around the Foundation’s technology. He retains ultimate control of the Imperial derelict because he’s smart enough to have built the proper relays into the refit.

So it’s disappointing that the ultimate solution to the first Seldon crisis in the show is to share control of the planet-killing Invictus. Worse, they’re building more like it. The implication is that the Foundation, Anacreon, and Thespis are going to create a military empire that rules by force.

This brings me to the real disappointment: the ending. There are two grudges dominating the final political configuration at the Terminus end of things. The Thespins and Anacreons have been fighting one another and been rather nasty about it for hundreds of years. The Seldon AI tells them that all that warfare was based on a lie. Why should they believe him? Even if they do, that doesn’t settle four hundred years of grievances.

Even worse, Anacreon has just slaughtered a significant percentage of the Foundation’s population, mostly unarmed, none with military training, and children among them. Suddenly, however, after Seldon’s speech, the Anacreons and Terminusianites are sitting down around the campfire, drinking tranya and singing “Kumbaya.” The primary storyline ends in a horribly, horribly contrived fashion.

That leaves the bizarre end to the Imperial storyline. The degree of planning—and the degree of coincidence—needed for the rebels’ plot to proceed as far as it did is unbelievable. The Empire’s inability to discover the plot earlier is also unbelievable. (Seriously, do they not do genetic scans of the clones to make sure there are no random mutations?) Brother Day’s emotional collapse is the most plausible part of the whole thing, but I’m not sure I can suspend my disbelief sufficiently far as to encompass it. (Lee Pace’s acting—which is always impressive—helps.)

Having a storyline where coincidence is needed to resolve the plot isn’t necessarily bad storytelling. Dickens does it all the time. Shakespeare does it. Asimov himself does it. It’s different, though, when the characters rely on coincidence. Having my hero sit on an airplane next to an old girlfriend during a brief time when both are available is standard Lifetime movie fare. For him to get on a flight and wait impatiently for her to take the seat next to his becomes bad storytelling when she actually shows up. Either he’s been an incredibly good stalker, or he’s incredibly lucky that his planned coincidence actually occurs. (Or, apparently, he’s Salvor Hardin.)

Oh, and a final aside: Demerzel is definitely not Three Laws compliant. My daughter, who watched the series with me as an aid to seeing it from the perspective of someone who had not read the books, instantly called that one out. “If people know anything about Asimov,” she said, “they know about the Three Laws of Robotics.” I could go on and on about how Demerzel’s murder of Brother Dawn might be possible in theory in Asimov’s future history, but not possible in practice.

Visually, the series is stunning. Effects-wise, the series is top-notch. So far as world-building goes, it is marvelous—but where story is concerned, it stumbles badly at the most crucial point. Up until the last episode, this would have rated three-out-of-three spaceships-and-suns for the general audience; but it failed to stick the landing, and that knocks it down a notch. (It was already at two-out-of-three for the Asimov fan.)

I was very frustrated in watching “Foundation,” not because it departed from the books, but because it kept some of the trappings yet entirely jettisoned the core. I was disappointed because, in the end, it could not maintain the momentum it had built up. It could and should have done better on both counts.