The Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire

Who cares if a brutal autocracy is destroyed? Why would anyone want to make another one?

A scene of Jared Harris as Hari Seldon from the show 'Foundation'
Patrick Redmond / Apple TV+

This article contains spoilers through the first season of Foundation.

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series is perhaps the definitive expression of mid-century American liberalism. Certainly nothing from the academy can approach its popular influence. When David S. Goyer—the mastermind behind Apple’s extravagant TV adaptation, which wraps up its first season today—declared Foundation “the greatest science-fiction work ever written,” he was not indulging in prerelease hyperbole so much as reciting the official record. The Hugo Awards voted Foundation as the field’s Best All-Time Series in 1966, and no Worldcon has dared to revisit the verdict since. Liberal economists adore it, weirdo tech billionaires are entranced by it, and legions of 13-year-old nerds succumb to its ultra-rationalist siren every year.

But these beloved stories took roughly 80 years to receive the big-budget visual treatment they deserve for a reason. Foundation is a grand sci-fi adventure, sure, but it’s better understood as a work of political theory—a young American’s dialogue with the Enlightenment historian Edward Gibbon about the promise and peril of empire. To its credit, Apple’s new series embraces the philosophical ambition of Asimov’s masterpiece. But in updating Foundation for the 21st century, Goyer has produced a near-comprehensive repudiation of his source material. This is a show not about space or science, but rather the limits of liberal politics.

A brief plot summary: Hari Seldon, the hero of the books and the Apple show, is not a swashbuckling pulp adventurer, but the ultimate economist—a man who can scientifically predict the behavior of large human populations across centuries using his own field of advanced mathematics, called “psychohistory.” To everyone’s dismay, Seldon calculates doom for the Galactic Empire he calls home. The collapse of the empire, he concludes, will destroy all intellectual life: art, science, history, and everything else smart people enjoy. And so he establishes the Foundation, a planet-university where generations of devoted acolytes assemble to preserve humanity’s knowledge and deploy it across the centuries, guiding humanity through a series of acute crises until civilization can return to full flower under a new empire.

Epic, thrilling, and completely ridiculous, Foundation remains a deceptively difficult feast of big ideas because Asimov based it—with a few spectacular adjustments—on Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Just as Gibbon used the story of Rome to explore anxieties surrounding British imperialism, so Asimov revisited Gibbon to probe the implications of America’s emergence as a global superpower. It’s quite a legacy for a television show to assume, however grand the budget.

Gibbon was writing from a moment of disillusion with the British project. The first volume of his magnum opus was published in 1776, and the American Revolution had made clear to Gibbon that his nation was just as capable of decadent violence as ancient Rome had been. Throughout his four-volume masterpiece, Gibbon interrogates the roles of what we would now call structural forces in Roman society—religion, class, trade, technology, military and administrative capacity, ideology—each of which Asimov gives its own treatment as the dominant theme of a separate Foundation story. But Asimov was not writing amid an embarrassing American military defeat. He was writing instead as a Jewish immigrant enthusiastic about America’s belated entrance into the fight against fascism. Asimov’s Foundation stories are battles between good and evil, but the Galactic Empire is largely absent from them. Once Seldon has predicted its demise, the empire is of little use in Asimov’s narrative. Instead, he moves on to explore state formation, economic expansion, and outworlder alliances, in which the Foundation supplies the good guys and the bad guys want to destroy the Foundation. Asimov’s heroes are witty, clever, and forward-thinking; his villains are angry, violent, and beholden to tradition. Everything is a contest between reason and ignorance. Only the smartest people at the best university in the galaxy can get humanity out of its mess, using the best technology and the most sophisticated mathematics, which of course will eventually come to fruition as a new, benevolent, galaxy-spanning empire of reason.

This break with Gibbon’s history—which was fundamentally an examination of the follies of empire—turned out to be a stroke of commercial genius. Asimov’s themes were perfectly attuned to the technocratic American exceptionalism of the postwar years, when Americans enjoyed the fruits of a new empire while denying that their government’s political hegemony could be considered an empire at all. Asimov’s heroes looked and acted more like sci-fi’s readership than the square-jawed space cowboys of Thrilling Wonder Stories did. Asimov’s heroes were nerds, and reading his stories would eventually become a rite of passage for generations of freaks and geeks.

A scene from 'Foundation' where a uniformed person looks up at a streak of light.
Apple TV+

Although Asimov presented an accommodating attitude toward empire, he was neither naive nor jingoistic. In the first Foundation story, the emperor’s servants include spies and censors; bombastic generals appear later. And his heroes are more complex than literary critics typically acknowledge. Despite their brilliance and charm, many of Foundation’s protagonists pursue morally dubious careers. Salvor Hardin, the hero of the second and third stories, wins our hearts with his pacifist maxim “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” He is also an enemy of democracy. After outsmarting everyone, he takes over the Foundation in a conveniently bloodless coup and oversees decades of prosperity as its savvy monarch.

Hardin’s proverb is the essential ingredient of Asimov’s dramatic intrigue. Military might is never the key to any of Foundation’s political narratives; there is always some neat trick that the Foundation’s heroes can deploy that will allow them to win without a big, dumb space-gun shoot-out. This made the stories much more interesting, and allowed Asimov to meditate on Gibbon’s themes—one time, free trade saves the Foundation; another time, the development of a new religion to control the rubes does. (Gibbon was a ferocious critic of Christianity.)

And with each successive story, the unbridled optimism of Asimov’s early entries is complicated by darker developments. The Foundation becomes a police state, and at times embodies the worst elements of what it once battled against. This political nuance, unfortunately, is accompanied by a marked deterioration in literary quality. Asimov padded his longer narratives with pointless plot detours and tedious ruminations. His plotting is generally irrelevant to character development, and without character development, the stories are not very interesting for very long. When Asimov hung up the series in 1950, he was clearly out of ideas.

That seemed to be the end of the story. But in 1961, a major publisher finally put Foundation in hardcover, prompting a sales renaissance that culminated in Asimov’s special 1966 Hugo Award. After the international smash of Star Wars, Doubleday persuaded Asimov to return to Foundation by offering him an advance 10 times the size of his typical book contract. The result, Foundation’s Edge, spent nearly six months on the New York Times best-seller list in 1982. In his 60s, Asimov had gone from a purveyor of newsprint filler for disposable schlock magazines to one of the most famous writers in the world. He spent the final decade of his life churning out hit after hit about robots and space empires.

Foundation kept selling in part because the themes of the series were as relevant as ever. Whatever nuance and moral ambiguity he injected into later entries on the problems of imperialism, Foundation remained a fable of rational progress under a young, expanding empire. Of course Americans loved it.

When I first read Foundation, in 1993, the magic was still there. I became a card-carrying sci-fi dork, and in many respects the books functioned as the beginning of my intellectual life. I’m not sure I would have studied political theory in college or pursued a career writing about economics if I hadn’t encountered Asimov so early. But I don’t know if that magic survived the Iraq War. In recent interviews, Goyer has been explicit about trying to update Foundation for the “post-9/11 world,” but he didn’t really have to explain his intent. The first episode includes a very obvious 9/11 in space, in which terrorists destroy a planetary-transport elevator, killing 150 million people. The empire responds by wiping out 70 percent of an entire planet’s population in an act of what even the emperor himself sees as irrational revenge.

The Galactic Empire that crumbles and disappears in Asimov’s first story is an ever-present menace throughout Goyer’s first season—bad guys hanging around to do bad things and demonstrate how bad imperialism is. Goyer’s story is thus more thematically relevant to empire in the 21st century than Asimov’s, but it also isn’t as good. Almost every major political event in Goyer’s universe is either an act of violence or an act compelled by the threat of violence. His characters are motivated not by bursts of rational insight, but raw ethnic and identitarian resentment. This gets tedious after a few hours.

The most egregious revision is to the character of Salvor Hardin. Once a complex avatar of pacifism, Hardin is now the Foundation’s “warden,” roving across the planet, blaster in hand, constantly badgering the Foundation’s dull academics to wake up and fight. This is not a minor change. Hardin’s pacificism is what allows Asimov to explore various liberal antidotes to imperial conquest, particularly the idea that economic arrangements might be established that can temper humanity’s thirst for glory and domination. Goyer’s transformation leaves him with nothing to examine but cruelty, and at times the condemnation veers into voyeurism. And although Goyer clearly put a great deal of effort into making Asimov’s characters more three-dimensional, it just doesn’t work. Rather than careful character development, he relies on titillating events—They’re having sex! Oh no, a murder!—to maintain the audience’s attention. Goyer has taken Asimov’s engagement with the complexity of empire and rewritten it as a good-guys-with-laser-guns tale, the very (semi-) literary tradition that Asimov rejected.

The show’s most inspired change is in its casting. Race does not exist in Asimov’s far future, and Goyer attempts to stay true to that vision by casting Black and brown actors, including many women, in roles that Asimov wrote as un-raced men. This works very well in dialogue about, well, anything other than race, but it breaks down when actual character comes into play. It is not easy to present a raceless far future to a race-conscious contemporary audience, and Goyer frequently stumbles. Casting a young Foundation student, Gaal Dornick, as a Black woman works so long as she’s studying math, but when the camera moves to Dornick’s all-Black homeworld, the power of representation leaks into crude stereotyping—the planet is repressive and anti-intellectual, a world constructed of rope and bamboo in a universe of technological wonder. Most of these problems would be mitigated substantially if Goyer would pick up the pace. The 10 hour-long episodes of the first season cover only the first two Asimov short stories from 1942, amounting to fewer than 100 pages of the 1991 paperback edition.

Goyer’s otherwise commendable anti-imperialism, however, has left him with a fundamentally incoherent story line. Asimov’s Galactic Empire, despite its flaws, is the greatest incubator of art and knowledge the universe has ever known. Goyer’s is just a brutal autocracy. Who cares if it is destroyed? Why would anyone want to make another one?

And yet there is no small pleasure in watching a serious mind wrestle with Edward Gibbon in the 21st century an hour at a time, particularly when that mind is armed with a massive budget and extraordinary special effects. For all the show’s missteps, Asimov’s Foundation needed an intellectual overhaul. The dramatic key for subsequent seasons is to ditch the first’s plodding focus on the Galactic Emperor Bad Guy and emphasize the internal contradictions of the Foundation itself. As the Foundation’s influence grows across Asimov’s opus, it loses its underdog status and becomes a more politically complex entity, with interests and responsibilities well outside its original mission. Goyer has plenty of material to deploy in his ruminations on the moral rot in American empire. But for Foundation, the show, to succeed, Goyer needs to get beyond good guys and bad guys and show why imperial projects remain so seductive after so many years of failure. It is the tension between glory and decay that makes for good political drama. Foundation should be a narrative epic, not a cheap manifesto.