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Isaac Asimov Thinks About the Roman Empire

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2023 has been a very good year for solidly entertaining, not too challenging TV adaptations of science fiction and fantasy book series. Apple TV+’s Silo, adapted from the trilogy by Hugh Howey, takes a shopworn, somewhat dumb concept and makes it meaty and satisfying. Amazon’s The Wheel of Time, based on Robert Jordan’s multi-volume series of doorstoppers, has improved on its already quite fun first season to deliver cool new characters, elaborate new locations, and lots of bondage-adjacent fantasy peril. But the year’s most pleasant surprise has been the second season of Apple TV+’s Foundation, based—somewhat loosely, it seems, though in fairness I haven’t read them—on Isaac Asimov’s canonical book series about predicting the future with math. The first season, which depicted psychohistorian Hari Seldon erecting an institution with which civilization could survive the looming collapse of his era’s dominant empire, was a slog, full of its own importance while never managing to convey it to the viewers. The second, just-concluded season, has been a delightful improvement. It embraces a pulpy, operatic tone that suits the proceedings a lot better, complete with naked fights to the death, executions by impalement on a giant spike, and rampaging dinosaur creatures called Beki.

And yet, as I write in my review of the season in Strange Horizons, “Sometimes a thing needs to get slightly better for you to realize the ways in which it isn’t working.” As much as I enjoyed this season of Foundation, it also made me think a lot more about the show’s handling of empire, and about the challenges of adapting a work written in the 1950s into a show for the 2020s.

It’s precisely because Foundation is now—at last!—engaging, however, that one can more easily consider how frankly weird it is that a major studio entertainment in 2023 starts from the assumption that the collapse of an empire is a calamity. Asimov was, of course, writing an SFnal version of the fall of Rome and the subsequent “dark ages”—an interpretation of events that contemporary historians have questioned, if not outright exploded. As Gautam Bhatia has recently pointed out, however, the fact that a twentieth-century writer (and Asimov was by no means alone in this preoccupation) was so hung up on a collapse that occurred a millennium and a half in his past seems more pathological than anything else. For a television series in 2023 to take this pathology so for granted that it actually takes us a bit of thought even to realize that this is an integral part of its premise feels almost perverse.

To be sure, Foundation is at pains to emphasize that the empire is “bad”—though arguably more in its first season than its second, in which we witness Cleon depopulate two planets whose leaders have displeased him, order the assassinations of religious leaders who have called his right to rule into question, and devise elaborate, byzantine punishments for people who have plotted against him. But at the same time, the show also clearly believes—and again, believes it so strongly that it doesn’t even feel the need to say it, as if it were simply and plainly obvious—that empire is necessary.

It’s undeniable that the collapse or retrenchment of a central authority—and especially one as totalizing as an empire—would have negative, perhaps disastrous outcomes in the short term (where “short term” can mean several lifetimes). Losing supply chains, knowledge bases, technological support, centralized authority, and law-keeping would inevitably lead to a loss of safety and quality of life. But it seems to me that an entertainment written in the 2020s should at the very least acknowledge that the reason for this loss is that one of the first acts of an empire is to hollow out existing local power and knowledge structures and replace them with itself—that, before an empire shows up, people tend to handle these functions quite well for themselves, and that the logic of its necessity is a direct outcome of its dismantling of these systems … which was, of course, the whole point of doing it.

When Brother Constant crows that she can give villagers abandoned by the empire agricultural technology, she is ignoring—or perhaps, the show that she is in is erasing—the local know-how that would inevitably have emerged on this planet, and which the empire may have suppressed in the name of streamlining and efficiency. On the whole, the show is weirdly uninterested in the people the Foundation helps—it spends much more time in the imperial court and among its military. When it does show them to us, they are not locals with an intimate understanding of their world, but unenlightened barbarians (in some cases, extremely racialized ones, which is disappointing in a show that is otherwise so deliberately diverse). As much as it views itself as a force of enlightenment, it’s notable that the Foundation ultimately treats the people it “saves” no differently than the empire did, as subjects to be manipulated, cajoled, and in some cases controlled in order to return them to a specific, predetermined path towards progress.

The Gautam Bhatia link above actually has little to do with Foundation—it’s to an article about the recent flowering of Sri Lankan SFF, which I highly recommend. But, with perfect timing, Gautam—who is a fan of Asimov’s books—has also written his own critique of the second season. It’s much more critical than mine, but I think we make some complimentary points.

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