That’ll Be The Day

I was never much of a science fiction fan when I was a kid. I think the first science fiction I actually read was Dune (the original trilogy) when I was in high school; the first book was on my English class reading list. I loved Dune; still think of it fondly to this day, although it’s a bit dense and whenever I return to it kind of think the writing is a bit stiff…but it remains a treasured read of mine. Even Star Wars (I will die on the hill of refusing to call Episode IV A New Hope; when I saw it, it was called Star Wars and they didn’t add this abomination of a title until Return of the Jedi was released years later–I still remember my confusion when viewing The Empire Strikes Back and EPISODE V scrawled across the screen…”What the fuck do they mean, EPISODE V?”) didn’t really turn me into much of a science fiction fan; but as more Dune books were released, I would buy them and read them voraciously. I also read the novelizations of the Star Wars movies, but refused to read anything new and not in the films–the bitterness of being burned by Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (in which Luke and Leia were romantic interests….ewwwwww) still stings to this day; and of course when the sequel trilogy started being released all those books stopped being canon, so it was a wise decision on my part.

But Return of the Jedi did inspire me to try to write science fiction. I wrote a short story in which I created an entire universe–the science undoubtedly didn’t make sense–but it was fun to write, and I realized I needed to be better versed in science fiction if I wanted to write it.

So, I went to the bookstore, asked the clerk “if I wanted to start reading science fiction, where would I start?” She smiled, and retrieved Foundation for me from the science fiction shelves. When she handed it to me, she said, “This book is aptly titled, because it’s basically the foundation for everything published in science fiction ever since.”

And she wasn’t wrong.

His name was Gaal Dornick and he was just a country who had never seen Trantor before. That is, not in real life. He had seen it many times on the hyper-video, and occasionally in tremendous three-dimensional newscasts covering an Imperial Coronation or the opening of a Galactic Council. Even though he had lived all his life on the world of Synnax, which circles a star at the edges of the Blue Drift, he was not cut off from civilization, you see. At that time, no place in the Galaxy was.

There were nearly twenty-five million inhabited planets in the Galaxy then, and not one but owed allegiance to the Empire whose seat was on Trantor. It was the last half-century in which that could be said.

To Gaal, this trip was the undoubted climax of his young, scholarly life. He had been in space before so that the trip, as a voyage and nothing more, meant little to him. To be sure, he had traveled previously only as far as Synnax’s only satellite in order to get the data on the mechanics of meteor driftage which he needed for his dissertation, but space-travel was all one whether one travelled half a million miles, or as many light years.

Having read almost all of the Foundation novels (I didn’t read the prequels that came later; ending with Foundation and Earth), I was very excited to see the Apple TV adaptation–while knowing it would be dramatically different (no doubt) from the books. But it was so different I thought it would be wise to go back and reread (or listen) to the original novel again. (It’s also been a very hot minute since I read them all, and I don’t remember everything I’ve read the way I used to…)

(Side note: I had actually read an Azimov novel in the 1970’s–Murder at the ABA–and still have my original paperback copy, purchased at the News Depot on Commercial Street in Emporia, Kansas. I’ve always wanted to revisit it–because it was very insider-y about the American Booksellers Association annual event–now Book Expo America and in decline–as well as about publishing itself, and I wanted to see how spot-on Azimov was with the book. I remember it fondly, and am also curious as to whether or not it still holds up as a mystery novel.)

There are differences; there are characters in the show that don’t exist in the book, there was no Thespin in the book (Anacreon does, however, play an important part in the book), there’s no Genetic Dynasty running the Empire (in fact, little to nothing in the book about the Empire once the Encyclopedists take off for Terminus), and of course, Azimov wrote about white men–the show is much more diverse as well as gender flips both Gaal and Salvor Hardin. If you’re an Azimov purist, you’ll probably dislike the show, I think; I enjoyed it even as I noticed the significant differences. But listening to the audiobook, I also realized that some of those changes were necessary–what worked in the book and was exceptionally clever probably wouldn’t translate well into a visual medium, but listening and getting refreshed in my memory of what the original work actually was made me appreciate the book all the more. I’d remembered it was incredibly smart and clever, particularly in how everything worked out to solve what came to be called “Seldon crises”–a situation where the Foundation was endangered, both from within and without, but the forces working against it eventually led to a point where only one possible action could be taken, and it was inevitably the right one; which meant they had to have an almost religious-like belief in Seldon and his mathematics (and how much did I love that math was the savior of the galaxy?) and trust that taking no action was the proper course of action. I also loved how the Foundation changed and adapted from its original mission (its true purpose was hidden from them to begin with, because foreknowledge would change things and alter outcomes), and how it even developed a religion around its technology to control inhabitants on other planets.

And, as that bookstore clerk all those years ago at the bookstore in Manchester Center Mall told me, the book–and Azimov, really–influenced every science fiction writer and novel that came in his wake. It truly was a foundational text for science fiction. And it’s also not difficult to see where his own influences came from–his Galactic Empire was very similar to the Roman Empire in decline, and the parallels to the decline of the American empire are almost impossible to miss.

I did enjoy the show–the production values are amazing, and it’s a great story as well, if it does get off to a bit of a slow start (but it picks up)–but I am even more glad that the show drove me to revisit the original novel again. It truly is a superb work.

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