Foundation

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Review of AppleTV+’s Television Series Based on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy.

Some prefer to read the book first; others are drawn to the sounds and visuals of a television or movie adaptation. There will be discrepancies in the telling of the story with the transition from one medium to another and fans will champion their favorite version. But, avid disciples will take pleasure in any opportunity to immerse themselves in their favorite fictional world. If rooted in exploring the human condition, built around archetypal motifs, a tale’s emotional appeal will be timeless.

If a story is a bit older, less well-known to the current generation, reintroducing it visually can be more successful. I’ve heard of the science fiction trilogy, Foundation, but never known enough to entice me to read it. Big mistake on my part, I suspect!  At least that’s how I’m feeling now having seen the first part of a brand-new television adaption of the story. Just as the trailer for Star Wars captured my attention back in 1977, it was the trailer that lured me in.

Eagerly anticipating last Friday’s premier, I allocated a portion of my Saturday toward sitting too close to the screen, volume high to watch the first episode. AppleTV+’s Foundation trailer had haunted my imagination for weeks with glimpses of beautiful imagery of otherworldly skies, dominated by multiple moons, differently colored suns or planetary rings. I was not disappointed. The style of the costuming and set design felt authentic; organic. The intro sequence conveyed a sense of grandeur and modernity reflective of the art from the early twentieth century art deco movement.

Isaac Asimov, along with Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein, is consider a member of sci-fi’s “Big Three”. These authors popularized science fiction, while setting the standards for the genre. This was my first exposure to Isaac Asimov’s, Foundation Trilogy. I instantly fell in love. Despite reading one of his first novels and enjoying it, I never read any of his other writing. I was simply overwhelmed by his prodigious collection of work. I wondered to myself, should I read his books as they were published or according to the fictional chronology of the galactic empire he invented. The former path felt choppy; the latter was honestly difficult to map out. Just browsing through Asimov’s bibliography can be daunting.

As a budding author myself, I am beginning to understand a writer’s ideas, plots and characters often take control, dictating what is to be written next. Asimov appears to have explored his universe from a myriad of angles, using various unconnected plots and a multitude of characters. I propose fictional writers act as pseudo-archeologists sifting the sands of the mind, hoping to uncover clues revealing unknown worlds. This first ever adaptation of Foundation for television helped me discover how desperately I want to read more of Asimov’s novels.

The first episode commenced with introducing Gaal Dornick, a young mathematician, living on a planet governed by a theocratic society outlawing the pursuit of science. Gaal is punished, excommunicated and sentenced to death for solving an enigmatic mathematical problem. Offer of aid comes from a famous, off-world scientist on Trantor, the imperial capital planet. The Galactic Empire has reigned for 12,000 years, developing an advanced futuristic society. The immensity of the empire is possible due to its ability to warp space and time, allowing people to jump the vast distances between star systems. Gaal travels to meet her scientific idol, psychohistorian, Hari Seldon. Believing she has found a safe environment to further her mathematical studies, she quickly learns she has come too late. Imperial authorities may support, fund and celebrate scientific discovery, but not when the facts predict a future unpalatable to those in power. Seldon’s recent work warns of a looming, catastrophic collapse of civilization across the entire galaxy. Empire, the supreme ruler, who in reality is a trio of clones, refuses to accept the science behind Hari Seldon and Gaal Dornick’s work. Arrests are made, court and legal proceedings are held and both are charged with treason.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

If you have followed my blog from the beginning, you know I view storytelling, as a means to exploring life, because fiction is always reflective of the real world. From the onset, this story felt incredibly relevant to our world’s current situation. Amazingly, Isaac Asimov started work on Foundation during the middle of the last century! But, it still seemingly anticipates today’s clash between governments and the scientific community. On one side, scientists are sounding the alarm, warning action needs to be taken to avert devastating, changes to our planet. An opposing group of multinational corporations and politicians, fearing loss of profits and control of society, challenge the legitimacy of scientific reports. The battle over what is fact and what is fake is relentlessly. The end result is a confused and conflicted populace longing for a clear, unbiased insight to inform their own decisions and actions. I haven’t read or seen the entire Foundation Trilogy yet, so I don’t know how it ends. Of course, none of us knows how the current conflict over global climate change will play out either.

Isaac Asimov’s work also harkens back to elements found in human history. The name of the story Foundation comes from a line spoken by the character Hari Seldon. When asked if the crisis can be averted, he explains the looming catastrophe is inevitable. But, he offers a glimmer of hope. Seldon explains steps could be taken to build a repository of all the most treasured aspects of civilization. This cache of essential information would act as a foundation on which survivors of the empire’s collapse could build on. The goal being to shorten the times of darkness. In essence this was a role played by religious monasteries throughout Europe during the Dark Ages preceding the fall of the Roman Empire. Even the famous library at Alexandria is alluded to in Foundation. Hari Seldon recognizes that when the collapse comes the Imperial Library on Trantor will burn, just as the real life Alexandrian library did. 

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Graham Handcock, a modern day scholar theorizes a similar, tragic erasing of a civilization happened on Earth. He argues an unknown ancient society existed far earlier than mainstream historians and archeologists allow. His books, Fingerprints of the Gods and Magicians of the Gods, lay out his proposed evidence of a forgotten, advanced, global civilization destroyed by a cataclysmic event. Scrutinizing clues found in myths, ancient texts and architecture, he believes survivors from this forgotten civilization, safeguarded their knowledge, hoping to pass it on to the less advanced remnants of humanity. He argues the theme of a helper race of gods or angels is present in all of the world’s mythology. Approaching this idea esoterically, Edgar Cacye, a clairvoyant in the early twentieth century, famously claimed to have remotely viewed a secret chamber beneath the Sphinx in Giza, Egypt. The existence of a subterranean room beneath the Sphinx has been confirmed with modern, remote-sensing equipment. Interestingly, no requests to explore it have been approved by Egyptian authorities. Cacye declared the chamber held lost knowledge leading humanity to the Atlantean Hall of Records. This mystical repository of knowledge is rumored to provide access to technology more advanced than what we current possess today. Yes, strange as it may sound, there are intelligent, serious people ] searching for a real “Foundation” created by a destroyed, advanced, prehistoric human civilization.

I have no idea if there is any truth to tales of Atlantis, but the story itself is rich, full of hope and a jumping off point for the imagination. Presumably, Isaac Asimov knew of this well known myth told to us by Greek philosopher, Plato. Perhaps, he had even heard of Edgar Cayce’s clairvoyant work. However, I do know Asimov was a scientific thinker and serious scholar gifted with an imaginative mind. This scientific background coupled with a vibrant imagination makes Isaac Asimov’s work authentic, informative, and enjoyable. I suspect, he would agree that pretending, thinking outside the box and wondering about impossibilities leads to amazing real discovers. Fiction does truly empower creativity. I entreat you to read it, watch it, write it and dare you to challenge the limits of what is possible. 

Magical Economies (Part Three)

Photo by Erik Mclean on Pexels.com

Here is the last of three installments of my musings about magic. In the first episode I dealt with fictional stories portraying magic as an arcane study. Following this, I reviewed the sinister side of magic with ill-made pacts and potent items luring characters to their doom. In this last part, let’s consider the act of self-sacrifice made in hopes of ridding the world of some great evil.

Below are links to the other two posts referenced above. Please check them out if you haven’t already.

In all of these different applications of magic or supernatural power, I argue there is always a price to pay. Nothing is really free.

Dying for Others

The most basic instinct of any species is survival. Humans contain the capacity to conceptualize the future and are uniquely positioned to consider their own death. This burden of awareness of one’s own mortality haunts all of us at some point in life. Yet, it presents humanity with a unique opportunity when confronting death. We, alone of the animal kingdom, are capable of influencing when, how and why our death occurs. Throughout the ages, countless people have made the ultimate sacrifice of dying in order to save others. Soldiers, public safety personnel and everyday, ordinary, good samaritans are honored and celebrated for their willingness to put their lives in danger, so that others may live. 

Self-sacrifice is enshrined within the mythos of many spiritual traditions. These faiths believe eternal life, unobtainable to mortals, is secured with an incomprehensible divine gift. The narrative of a god becoming human, suffering and dying to vanquish death, is the ultimate illustration of the adage, “You can’t get something for nothing.” This prodigious concept has had a perennial effect, rippling through generation after generation of humanity’s collective consciousness. It is a notion consistently revisited and explored in the stories we create. Literature classes, worldwide, discuss and dissect pieces of writing, attempting to make sense of what has become know as a “christ-figure”. This literary term denotes a character, who willingly sets aside their own life to accomplish some greater good. Fans of The Lord of the Rings recognize Tolkien’s works are replete with examples of a willingness to die for the greater good. Gandalf’s sacrifice battling the balrogin the Mines of Moria, Boromir’s attempt to save Pippin and Merry from capture, and Sam and Frodo’s taking of the Ring to Mount Doom are merely the more recognizable instances of putting the life of others first. 

In the Star Wars, we all remember watching Obi Wanallow himself to be struck down by Darth Vader. This is a rich plot element not easily pinned down. His sacrifice allows the others to escape the Death Starwith the battle station’s design plans. On the face of things, this noble act gives the rebels a chance at destroying the super weapon. The jedi’s death saves millions of lives. Yet, Obi Wan has other motives. He is playing the long game, hoping to irrevocably turn the younger, impressionable Skywalker away from his father, Darth Vader. Ensuring Luke became a jedi was central to Obi Wan’s mission of restoring balance to the Force. The original 1977 movie was incapable of conveying the vastness of Lucas’s story concept. But, years later with the making of The Clone Wars series, fans finally learned the larger, cosmic backstory. With the rise of Emperor Palpatine, the very Force itself manifests to Yoda. He is given rare training providing a new understanding of the Force. Not unlike, Isaac Asimov’s, Foundation, a story about the creation of an enduring repository of knowledge for rebuilding civilization after utter destruction, the remaining jedi, armed with new insight, lay plans to safeguard the fading embers of their order. Under Yoda’s guidance, Obi Wan learns individuality can survive physical death, transitioning to a new, powerful state of existence. While remaining true to his oath to honor and protect life, Obi Wan’s new perspective empowers him to sacrifice his life for others. There is no evidence of fear. Viewers are treated to a figure tranquilly confident. He recognizes the loss of his physical body pales in comparison to what he’ll become. We all love Obi Wan’s line before he is slain, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” An older, weaker man during the time of the creation of the Death Star, Obi Wanhad much to gain by passing into the Force. The price of his physicality seems inconsequential.

The New Jedi Order book series, set years later during the time of the New Republic, tells the story of a novel threat from beyond the confines of the galaxy. An enemy wielding sophisticated, biologically-based weaponry is bent on total domination. Artificial intelligence and technology, the norm in the galaxy, is abhorrent to the invaders. They seek to eliminate all traces of it and reorder every world to align with their organic-based civilization. Similar to the Na’vi of Pandora from the movie Avatar, their way of life is entirely constructed around merging with other lifeforms in symbiotic relationships. However, unlike the inhabitants of Pandora, the Yuuzhan Vong dominate and genetically alter life to suit their needs, rather than working in harmony with it. This extragalactic society is ruled by a theocracy of warrior priests worshipping a cruel pantheon of gods. Their culture celebrates acts of self-mutilation, pain, treachery, egomania and war. Complicating matters, the Jedi can not sense Yuuzhan Vong within the Force, negating advantages Jedi typically have when fighting other species. The original characters of Star Wars remain actively involved in the story, along side a younger generation of Jedi. In the spirit of redemption, Han and Leia have named their youngest son, Anakin. He is a powerful jedi. In a desperate mission behind enemy lines, he desperately draws ever more of the Force within himself to save his friends, siblings and the mission. Readers discover the physical body has limits though in terms of how it can interact with this mystical energy. As Anakin pulls ever more of the Forcein, beyond safe limits, performing impossible feats, he burns the very life out of himself and dies. The episode is an exemplification of the magical economy at work. Possession of great might always takes a devastating toil on the wielder. Anakin saves the day, like Tony Stark does in Marvel’s, Avengers: Endgame, but interacting with such forces kills both. 

Finally, let’s consider the Thomas Covenant series. The main character, a true anti-hero, is hopelessly flawed and overtly resistant to helping anyone, but himself. We are confronted with his heinous crime, early in the series, and most readers are bewildered, as other characters resign themselves to helping Thomas Covenant. Sacrificing their own ethics and sense of morality, his victim and her family lay aside justice to save their world from its ancient enemy, Lord Foul. The Land, the name of the world in which Thomas Covenant finds himself transported, is inhabited by an archaic people, who consider white gold as an element of ultimate power. Thomas Covenant wears a white gold wedding band. To the people of the Land, he is the reborn embodiment of an ancient hero. He spends much of the series refusing to believe he is experiencing anything other than a dream. Continually playing an unsympathetic figure, he is confronted repeatedly with others sacrificing their lives in the belief he is the Land’s savior. Eventually, he comes to accepts his role, but finds himself ineffective and bereft of any sense of how to save the Land. He is in unable to reliably access the power of the white gold. This is a story full of great loss and tragic defeats. But, the ultimate battle isn’t meant to be won in the traditional sense. To defeat Lord Foul,the Despiser, brutish power will avail Thomas Covenant nothing. Salvation arrives only with the surrender of the white gold and sacrifice of himself. Through his own destruction, he enables the white gold power to use his essence to protect the Arch of Time from Lord Foul’s attempts to destroy it. Ultimately, the evil Despiser, Lord Foul is defeated not through any potent strike against him, but by his own use of the power surrendered to him.

Humanity is easily tempted. Many would be willing to pay a high price in order to achieve great wealth, power, fame or love. Even without magic, there are real world examples of men and women sacrificing morality for gain. Greed, pride, jealousy, zealotry and hunger for power are age old human conditions. These elements of humanity perpetually sow conflict throughout our world. Perhaps, storytelling is a form of catharsis for the entire species, allowing us to focus on acts of generosity, love and altruism. Historically, there is ample evidence of the ability of power to corrupt those with it. Yet, even the meekest have been know to display acts of sacrifice, tipping the scales to save many. Science fiction and fantasy offer the opportunity to explore  exaggerated situations, helping even the dullest of us contemplate the struggle between good and evil. Power always comes with a price and great responsibility.