2021年6月29日 星期二

Can Isaac Asimov’s legacy be saved?

Taking a break to worry about movie adaptations.
1984's "Dune."Allstar Picture Library Ltd./Alamy
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By Paul Krugman

Opinion Columnist

These are terrifying times. Today's column is about how an increasingly authoritarian Republican Party has decided that its interests are best served by making Americans as ignorant as possible. One of the things the G.O.P. wants us to be ignorant about, climate change, is looking deadly real, with the Pacific Northwest — the Pacific Northwest! — experiencing the kind of temperatures we normally associate with Saudi Arabia. And I promise that I'll be getting back to important stuff later this week. But I need a break. So today's newsletter is going to be about … my hopes and fears for two forthcoming film adaptations of classic science fiction novels.

These days science fiction and its not entirely distinct cousin fantasy are all over the culture. But it was not always thus. When I was growing up, serious culturati sniffed at genre fiction, considering it a refuge for nerdy teenage boys — which wasn't entirely wrong at the time.

I was, however, one of those nerdy kids. I read a lot of science fiction, and still do. There were two novels that had special meaning for me — and both have film adaptations coming out this fall.

One of them was Frank Herbert's "Dune," a sweeping epic set on a desert planet, with knife fights, mystical powers and, oh yes, giant worms. It's an amazing piece of world-building; Herbert was clearly possessed by a vision and worked obsessively to get it right. The closest recent equivalent I can think of, in which an author manages to engross readers in a strange world conveyed with almost hallucinatory clarity, is N.K. Jemisin's "Broken Earth" trilogy.

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"Dune" is also an extremely cinematic novel, which has in fact been the subject of two adaptations. Unfortunately, both were terrible. In each case the directors lost all of the novel's subtlety and depth. I don't know whether that was because they didn't get it, or had too much contempt for their audience to believe that viewers would get it.

Anyway, there's a new version — much delayed by the pandemic — coming out soon, and what we've seen in trailers looks true to Herbert's vision. I'm optimistic about this one.

The other great science-fiction novel of my nerdy youth was Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" trilogy — I even wrote an introduction to the Folio Society edition. The conceit of the "Foundation" novels is that galactic civilization is collapsing, but nobody knows it except a handful of mathematical social scientists — the psychohistorians, led by a guy named Hari Seldon — who devise a plan to limit the damage. Civilization, their math tells them, can't be saved, but they can limit the duration of the dark age that will follow. The "Foundation" novels trace the progress of their plan across the centuries.

"Foundation" had a huge impact on me personally — you see, I wanted to be one of those psychohistorians, a mathematical social scientist saving humanity. Economics was, unfortunately, as close as I could get.

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The thing about "Foundation," however, is that aside from not being very good literature — Asimov's ideas were amazing, but his characters were as two-dimensional as they get — it's the opposite of cinematic. It's a gripping tale in its way, but there's hardly any action — the handful of space battles that even get mentioned take place essentially offscreen, and you eventually learn that they didn't matter anyway, because the Seldon Plan doesn't depend on heroic derring-do. Mostly the novels involve people talking to each other.

So how could you even try to film the "Foundation" novels? Well, yesterday the second trailer for the forthcoming Apple TV movie dropped, with far more information than the first trailer. And what's clear is that in an attempt to give the story sufficiently striking visuals, the filmmakers have chosen to make some big changes from the original novels. A clone dynasty? Massive CGI space battles? None of that is in the books.

Which might be perfectly OK. Great showrunners can do incredible things with seemingly unpromising material. I saw the original movie version of "Westworld," which was so cheesy it gave Velveeta a bad name (although Yul Brynner was born to be a homicidal robot cowboy); somehow it became a mind-bogglingly good, even profound TV series.

So I'm anxiously waiting to see how this turns out. Will Apple pull off a video miracle, or will it tarnish the memories of my nerdy youth?

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And with that, I'm going back to the many threats menacing our actually existing, merely terrestrial civilization.

Quick Hits

Some people have tried to follow the psychohistorian career track more closely than I did.

Asimov was clearly thinking of the fall of the Roman Empire. But the Romans weren't much like us.

Although their economy appears to have been surprisingly sophisticated.

It pains me to learn that Newt Gingrich was also an Asimov fan.

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Facing the Movies

CGI, Robot?YouTube

Well, this doesn't look like the book. But we can hope.

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