WHAT would happen if we could predict the future? Not by using some kind of magic or clairvoyance, but by applying the rules of a new branch of science.
In Foundation, the science of prediction has become a reality with the development of a field called psychohistory. This uses the familiar tools of science – maths, equations and data collected on existing conditions – to make predictions about the most likely course of world events.
The science has its limits, of course – it cannot predict the actions of individuals, for example. But with enough starting data, it can forecast the probabilities of events such as war, uprising and famine.
In episode one, we watch as the technology comes to fruition under its genius developer, Hari Seldon, at a particularly awkward point in time for everyone.
The entire Milky Way is united as one Empire, ruled from the planet at its galactic heart, Trantor, which appears to be the height of technological and cultural sophistication. But just as historical empires on real-life Earth may have seemed unstoppable just before their fall, the Galactic Empire already contains the seeds of its own destruction.
The galaxy is ruled by a dissolute Emperor whose megalomania leads him to unwise decisions when dealing with rebellious planets in the Empire’s outer reaches. He won’t relinquish power even to death, having created a series of his own clones to govern sequentially as each body ages and dies.
Using psychohistory, Seldon can see that all this will end in the collapse of civilisation, yet the only people who believe him are the few other mathematicians who understand his language.
Fortunately, his own science lets Seldon manipulate events in order to send settlers to a new colony – the Foundation of the title – on a barren and overlooked planet in the galaxy’s furthest corner. The aim is to create a repository for knowledge and technology that will survive the coming centuries of galactic war and barbarism.
As a committed Asimov fan, I was delighted to learn that the Foundation books had finally been successfully adapted for the screen, after numerous aborted attempts. In the episodes I have seen so far, the story seems to be harnessing the most interesting of his ideas without sticking too closely to the original plot.
That is probably for the best, as even when I read the books as a young teenager in the 1980s, much of his work struck me as sexist. In the first book – created largely from a collection of four short stories written in the 1940s – every major character was a man, and the one time a woman seems like she might have a role to play, she gets distracted by some sparkling high-tech jewellery. The TV series on the other hand, simply rewrites about half the characters as women, such as Seldon’s protege, Gaal Dornick (pictured). Unlike in Asimov’s worlds, they are fully-rounded people, rather than merely decorative sex objects.
The series also explores questions I found myself wondering as I first read the books. Given powerful enough computers, could psychohistory be possible? Would it be a good or bad thing to know the future if the outlook is bleak? And should we insist that our political leaders are scientifically literate?
The screenwriters may originally have wanted viewers to ponder that question in relation to the real-world problem of climate change, but it has taken on a new relevance today, when covid‑19 death rates hinge on our leaders’ willingness to “follow the science”.
While reviewers are currently forbidden by Apple TV+ from revealing anything that happens after the second episode, what I can say is that the imaginative reworking of Asimov’s ideas keeps the suspense levels consistently high, even for those who know the original plot.
I may not be a psychohistorian, but I predict that this series will be enjoyed by Asimov fans and newcomers alike.
Read more at New Scientist