Apple TV+ Foundation: Not Asimov or His Robots (Podcast E22)
The streaming series is pretty and pretty good, but not Asimov, his robots-- or the Three (or Four) Laws of Robotics. Read below for a review and pointers to the Three Laws of Robotics,
Apple TV has finally brought Asimov’s Foundation series to the screen. It is a big budget, visually lush series- pretty good as long as you don’t think of it as Asimov’s Foundation and definitely not Asimov’s robot stories.
The original Foundation series started as a trilogy written 1942–50 , which Asimov retconned a series of stories into three books: Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation. The trilogy became an ageless classic sort of like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon- it has really stood the test of time. Then, in 1981, Asimov began merging in his I, Robot universe with the Foundation universe and started adding prequels and sequels- possibly to make his universe more attractive to Hollywood. Star Wars had hit big in the 1970s, and Hollywood saw a big market for franchisable epics. Money motivations.
You know how The Expanse does a great job of story arcs and maintaining consistency? Like the authors knew where they are going with the main plot lines and the anything that didn’t fit into the main story arc was put in a separate tie-in novella? That’s not the Foundation. The Foundation books are a patchwork quilt- like Star Wars, an outstanding, enjoyable patchwork quilt, but a patch work quilt nonetheless.
Anyway, the franchise deal never came through and Hollywood has been struggling with Foundation since the 1990s and, now, finally Apple got it to the screen.
So what is Foundation about?
In the books, Foundation is about trying to mitigate the end of the galactic empire so that the resulting dark ages will be only about 1,000 years, not 30,000 years too long.
On TV, Foundation is about is special effects. And the director is determined to make you see and appreciate those special effects. Sweeping views of planets. Beautiful skies with rings and moons. Complex spaceships. Water worlds where lovely young women swim about athletically. And shots held waaaay too long.
The Foundation is also about Lee Pace’s magnificent cheekbones and pecs and I certainly enjoyed them, especially when he has to hike about in a loin cloth. When he first appears as Emperor Cleon, it like he is Ronan from Guardians of the Galaxy, including the short sleeve dress of a ceremonial costume, just without the black streak makeup. (There’s a lot of things in Foundation that seem to constantly trigger a “didn’t I see that in that other movie?” reaction.) Fortunately the screen play gives him a bit more of a speaking role and it turns out that Pace can actually act (no I didn’t watch Halt and Catch Fire).
But enough about Lee Pace, what about robots?
There’s only one robot in the series, Demerzel, and she is one of the main characters with a significant role (yay!). There’s only one robot because, like in Dune, robots and sentient AI have been forbidden by society. Emperor Clean sneakily gets to keep Dermerzel who everyone thinks is his flesh and blood majordomo.
In the books, Demerzel is an important plot device to tie Asimov’s two very different fictional series: the Empire series (set in the far future) with his Robot stories (set in a nearer future) to make the huge, potentially more franchisable universe. To do this Asimov applied the retconn tool once more with feeling, and incorporated the Robot universe by introducing the Zeroth Law of Robotics.
To recap, the original Three Laws of Robotics are:
First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
(A lot of non-roboticist discuss implementing the Three Laws in real world robots, but roboticists know that won’t work. The Laws were intentionally designed to sound reasonable but lead to contradictions— which Asimov used as a generator for 37 short stories and six novels.)
The Zeroth Law is: A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
It comes about when the smart robots realized that the to execute the Three Laws correctly, there was really an implied Zeroth Law and, now that they identified it, they should go after it.
R. Daneel Olivaw (R. is the prefix for Robot) goes into hiding to implement the Zeroth Law from behind the scenes and reappears in the future as Demerzel. (OK, there’s should be a spoiler alert in there somewhere but the Apple series blows it up anyway so sorry.) In the Apple series, she is being set up to be a character with continuity over the hundreds of years of the TV series’ plot, very clever.
Except that Daneel/Demerzel was male. It is fine to shift to female- but it introduces a sexbot vibe- does Cleon sleep with Demerzel on the down low?- rather than the is-he-or-isn’t-he secretly a backstabbing Machiavellian advisor vibe that kept readers on their toes in the books.
And more importantly, Demerzel also violates the First Law of Robotics- She kills someone.
Asimov fans were like “uh, is this a Zeroth Law, where injuring one human is small potatoes compared to saving humanity?”
But Asimov was always clever in his writing. Even when someone gets harmed or killed by a robot, it turns out that the victim wasn’t human or the robot doing the injury wasn’t really a robot. Or something. Asimov was totally optimistic about robots being a force for good.
The Apple series portrayal of Dermezel comes off as either throwing out Asimov’s Laws or just being lazy.
Should you watch Apple’s Foundation?
Probably, it is gorgeous and there are interesting characters and situations. It’s not silly like Lost in Space and more coherent than Raised by Wolves (Mother gestating a baby? Really?!). Just don’t expect Asimov.
Should you read the Foundation books? Definitely read the original trilogy— it just works.
Learn AI and Human-Robot Interaction Through Asimov's I, Robot Stories goes through the real robotics science behind the imagined robots in I, Robot, making the science easy to understand and relate to.
2021 was Asimov's 100th birthday- checkout the blog post and links here.
The Caves of Steel was the book that introduced R. Daneel Olivaw/Demerzel- check out the blog post and links here.
If you are interested in the Three Laws, vN by Madeline Ashby takes them to a logical, but disturbing, extreme, while the robots in Rudy Rucker's Ware Tetralogy series are angry that their welfare is placed 3rd on the list.