Review: Foundation, Season 2 at Strange Horizons

Isaac Asimov's Foundation series is one of my big science fiction lacunae. I've read and enjoyed other Asimov books--his robot stories were my introduction to the genre--but for whatever reason, what's often considered his magnum opus passed me by (and it is, I suspect, a bit late to catch up; my tolerance for wooden prose and cardboard women is a lot lower than it was when I was ten). Which means my perspective on Apple TV+'s adaptation of the books is rather different from that of most of my friends. They've been furiously tracking where the show diverges and converges from the original story (more the former than the latter, by the sound of it) and gnashing their teeth over its failure to convey the books' ideas. I've been more able to take the show on its own terms, which has not always been a good thing--the first season was a tedious slog, full of its own importance but rarely managing to bring it across.

The just-concluded second season of Foundation, however, has been a delightful surprise. As I write in my review in Strange Horizons, it sheds the show's previous self-seriousness in favor of a pulpy, operatic tone that suits it much better, and makes it a joy to watch. And yet it was precisely because I suddenly found myself interested in Foundation that I was able to more seriously examine it, and to ask: isn't it kind of weird to tell, in 2023, a story about how terrible the fall of the Roman Empire was?

Again and again, Foundation reveals that it does not know how to argue for the necessity, or the benevolence, of the Foundation, that it has failed to translate the arguments of a book series from the 1950s into something that an audience in the 2020s will find even remotely convincing. Trying to recruit the telepaths to her and Hari's cause, Gaal argues that the persecution they've experienced is an outcome of the empire's collapse, an indication that the galaxy is entering a crueller, more brutal age. In a show in which we have seen the empire casually depopulate entire planets (and which Day threatens to do again, to planets where the Foundation has gained a foothold, at the end of the season)—in which citizens who have displeased the Cleons are routinely condemned to brutal imprisonment or lifelong torture without any legal recourse, in which no one is safe if they happen to draw empire's attention, much less its wrath—this is, to say the least, an unconvincing claim. At best, it's yet another illustration of how badly Foundation is hampered by its failure to show us anything of life outside its centers of power. At worst, it makes Gaal one of those people who takes the violence of her era's institutions for granted, while being horrified by new and unsanctioned forms of it. It's hard to imagine that such a person is capable of shepherding civilization towards a more enlightened form.
In perfect synchronicity, Strange Horizons co-ordinating editor Gautam Bhatia has also written an essay about the second season of Foundation. Gautam is a fan of the books, and his perspective is of someone trying to discover Asimov's ideas in between the show's space battles and dinosaur attacks. I think I enjoyed the season more, but I can't deny that his criticisms make a lot of sense.


Retlawyen said…
I am very in agreement with the linked review, namely that Foundation's video version seems not merely to have missed the point of the original text, but to actively seek to refute it. Writing Foundation where superheroes use space magic to obey an infallible prophecy feels to me like writing a LOTR text where Gandalf takes the Ring and defeats Sauron.
Dean said…

As I understood the original books, the scientists of the later Empire had become like priests, who relied on automation and viewed their ancestors with almost religious devotion. They no longer understood how the old technology worked and believed it would never fail. This is why the Foundation became so important, as a rebellious intellectual project to preserve knowledge and celebrate scientific invention and discovery. The culture of Empire had become so calcified, bureaucratic and rigid, it was unable to change to meet the times. The show reflects some of this, the way a mining system breaks down because the galaxy's edge is no longer part of the Empire's trade network, but not enough to make it clear why the Empire will fall and why the Foundation succeeds it.

I was disappointed by the Season 2 finale, where the Vault is all powerful and saves the people of Terminus. I was hoping that Demerzel, having been given a Prime Radiant by Hari's Avatar in ep9, would stop Day's attack and save the Foundation, due to agreeing to Hari's logic that the Empire she serves is the future wellbeing of humanity (including that of robots), not the narrow interests of the Cleons or the imperial culture. That type of ending, where reason wins the day (pun intended), instead of a Deus ex Machina ending, is how I see the spirit of the books (i.e. the quote that violence (as opposed to reason) is the last refuge of the incompetent) .

As an aside, I actually think the timing of Apple TV's Foundation is quite prophetic, because of our own faith in technology and the looming dangers of climate change, which our society does not seem to understand the danger it represents. There is a real possibility our own civilization will fall, because as the climate shifts to be more chaotic, widespread crop failures can be expected. Capitalism and consumer society is so entrenched that most cannot fathom a world where the ecosystem becomes exhausted due to its demands.

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