‘Foundation’ Has One of the Best Sci-Fi Concepts Ever

The new Apple TV+ series Foundation, based on the classic novel by Isaac Asimov, isn’t slated to be released until next year, but science fiction author Anthony Ha is already anticipating its release—Foundation is one of his all-time favorite books.

Foundation was the series that made me realize I was a science fiction fan,” Ha says in Episode 434 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “It brings me as much pleasure as any book can when I re-read it, so I probably end up re-reading it every few years.”

Foundation tells the story of Hari Seldon and his followers, who use the futuristic science of psychohistory to plot their course through a galactic dark age and preserve scientific knowledge. Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley has always loved the concept. “I think this is one of the best ideas anyone’s ever had for a story in history,” he says.

Foundation is notorious for featuring more talk than action, which may make it a challenge to adapt for TV. But science fiction author John Kessel says that its focus on big ideas is what separates Foundation from a lot of other pulp science fiction of the 1940s that is now largely forgotten.

“When everyone else is doing galactic space battles, maybe it’s a smart move to say, ‘Oh no, the guys doing derring-do with their blasters are a dime a dozen. What about a political story, or an economic story?’” he says. “Because I think Asimov would probably say that in the larger sweep of history, those forces of economics and politics are more significant than any individual battle or war.”

Foundation may be bursting with big ideas, but don’t go in expecting poetic prose or richly drawn characters. Science fiction author Abby Goldsmith enjoys reading Foundation as an adult, but as a teen she found it somewhat dry.

“The descriptions are really, really lacking,” she says. “The first book is really bare-bones. But the dialogue I thought was pretty good. That’s really what holds it up.”

Listen to the complete interview with Anthony Ha, John Kessel, and Abby Goldsmith in Episode 434 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

John Kessel on psychohistory:

“I studied physics as an undergrad, and basically what [Asimov] is doing is taking classical thermodynamics and applying it to human behavior. In thermodynamics, you can’t predict what one atom is going to do, but if you have several billion atoms in a contained box, you can predict—very precisely—if you raise the temperature, exactly what the effect on pressure is going to be, things like that. He’s basically saying if you have enough human beings—you have 100 million worlds, all inhabited by human beings—that psychohistory can predict the mass behavior of human beings, without being able to predict any individual human being’s behavior. That’s a cool idea.”

David Barr Kirtley on the influence of Foundation:

“I actually read a note somewhere where someone said that Frank Herbert had gotten the idea for Dune from Foundation—he read Foundation and thought about telling that story from the point of view of the Mule, and that was kind of the seed of Dune, but I haven’t tracked any more down about that. And then in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series, [there’s] this idea of this more enlightened galactic civilization who bumps up against these less enlightened ones, and sends agents into them to make them collapse from within without fighting, because they don’t like to fight. Having not read Foundation before, I first encountered that in the Culture series, but now reading this, I’m like, ‘Oh OK, he was pretty clearly riffing off Foundation.”

Abby Goldsmith on sociological science fiction:

“I thought this was a really good example of sociological science fiction, and I like that even though he’s not a character writer, the story centers on individuals, on characters. It’s all about the personalities involved. Seldon is predicting these big, sweeping historical events that are going to happen, but he’s basically predicting personalities that will arise, and clashes that will arise. They’re the kinds of clashes that have happened all throughout history, they’re not dependent on the technology. I especially liked how the Mule manipulates emotions—it’s not thoughts, it’s emotions. He’s a master of what emotions can do to people. And I thought it was insightful in that way, which you don’t usually see in hard science fiction.”

Anthony Ha on the Foundation series:

“Towards the end of his life, Asimov—I think in one of his introductions—said, ‘Here’s chronologically how all these books fit together.’ Because part of what he was doing in the ’80s, when he returned to science fiction, was basically taking the Robot series and the Foundation series and turning them into one series, connecting them. … In general I’m a big fan of reading things in order of composition and/or publication rather than internal chronology, and I think that is definitely true here, partly just because I think the core ideas, and what is so strong about the series, are in the original trilogy, not in the sequels and prequels he wrote later.”

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