For those who have been following this blog—I haven’t fallen off the edge of the earth.
I’ve fallen in love instead.
To put it succinctly: the adorable Geraldine Buckley and I are planning a wedding for November. The falling and the planning are both time-consuming activities, though in the best possible way. The fact that the marriage will involve moving to another state and combining two households adds even more complications.
So my blogging, writing, and even critiquing are temporarily on hold. I haven’t lost interest; the time pressure is just too great. Once the wedding has taken place in November, I expect to be back at it with renewed enthusiasm. In the meantime, enjoy the late summer and early autumn!
When we start reading a story (or watching one), we usually have some idea what it’s about. Chances are we picked it up based on a back-cover blurb or advertisement, or a review. But the blurbs and ads are often “teasers,” aimed at drawing us in and getting us to start the story. They may not really tell us where the plot is headed.
The genre may also give us a clue. If the tale is presented as a mystery, we expect a crime (generally a murder) which will be solved. If it’s a thriller or action epic, we’re prepared for physical challenges and victories. In a romance, we anticipate a successful love affair. But the details are unknown. And in stories without a strong genre identification, we may be less sure about where the story is going.
Consider the James Bond movies. Typically the film opens with an action sequence that may have little to do with the main plot. We can get quite a few minutes into the film before we know what the real plot is. There’s no danger of deterring us from watching; we all know what a James Bond story is like—that’s why we’re there. The action sequence is merely a genre-appropriate appetizer while we wait to get into the main story.
What I’m interested in here is the reader’s developing sense of what the main action or conflict is: what goings-on will make up the main business of the story. It’s not as intangible as the theme or “meaning” of the tale. It’s more concrete than that: the overall shape of the plot.
Some stories start out with one kind of plot, morph into another, and then take off in a third direction. This can result in a certain amount of reader whiplash, though an adroit author can carry it off. She may even gain points for taking the reader on a ride through unexpected twists and turns.
Diana Wynne Jones’s The Lives of Christopher Chant (1988) is my favorite example. The first segment of this children’s fantasy novel is reminiscent of Dickens: the young Christopher, neglected by his parents, is used by a scheming uncle to bring back forbidden goods from alternate worlds. In the second phase of the book, Christopher is sent to a boarding school, where magic is one of the subjects routinely taught. This section recalls the classic British schoolboy tale, with the addition of magic; it’s a sort of predecessor of (and perhaps inspiration for) Harry Potter, which Jones’s book predates by about twelve years. The third part of the novel develops into a high-fantasy epic conflict. At the end Christopher is selected for the future role of “Chrestomanci,” a Sorcerer Supreme position in the British government.
On first reading, I found it a bit of a swerve to go from the narrative of a difficult childhood to that of a genial school-days story. When this evolved into a magical conflict of epic proportions, I was surprised again. But the story held together through the continuity of the strongly sympathetic character Christopher (and his alternate-universe friend Millie). The shifts in tone seemed natural concomitants of Christopher’s growing up and grappling with more mature problems.
In fact, starting on a small scale and gradually building up to grander events made the grander events more plausible, as in The Lord of the Rings. While the opening section of Christopher Chant wasn’t exactly realistic, the issues were more limited and personal. You had the sense of gradual expansion as the story went along.
C.S. Lewis provides a more pronounced example of this effect in the last novel of his Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength (1945). The novel starts out with extremely mundane matters of domestic ennui and academic politics. This establishes such a sense of realism and naturalness that the later fantastic developments, involving everything from cosmic entities and biological abominations to Merlin and Atlantis, gain plausibility from being built on so familiar a foundation.
Uncertainty About the Narrator
Another kind of story where it may be hard at first to make out the nature of the plot is the tale with an unreliable narrator.
Jo Walton’s Among Others (winner of the Best Novel Hugo Award in 2012) is a fantasy, but it’s set in the present day and much of the action is mundane. The main character, Morgana, is convinced that her mother is a witch. But for most of the book, I wasn’t entirely sure that was true; there was a distinct possibility that Mori was an unreliable narrator who was imagining the whole thing. Nor was it clear how the threat was going to be addressed. I only really grasped what the narrative arc was around p. 291 out of 302 pages—that is, at the very end.
The uncertainty didn’t impair my enjoyment of the story. Mori is an extremely sympathetic character, especially for those of us who loved F&SF back when those genres were considered odd and fans were regarded as uncool nerds. And the events of the tale are fascinating even when you aren’t quite sure they’re real. But the ambivalence of the plot kept me from forming a clear opinion about the book until the end.
The Nested or Layered Story
Occasionally a story will contain one or more other storylines—not like the explicit play within a play that occurs briefly in Hamlet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but more subtly interwoven. This structure can make it hard to detect where the real plot of the overall story is.
In Patti Callahan’s Once Upon a Wardrobe, an Oxford student’s younger brother, who doesn’t have long to live, asks her to find out where the idea of Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (then just published) came from. The student, Meg Devonshire, tracks down the author, C.S. Lewis, and is drawn into hearing the story of Lewis’s life from Lewis himself. Sequences describing Lewis’s personal history are thus sandwiched with Meg’s reports to her brother. With the informal reportage building up to a kind of epiphany, one almost doesn’t notice that Meg’s own story is building toward a romance with a fellow student. The intertwined narrative arcs make it hard to guess in advance where the book will end up.
Much more complex is Jo Walton’s 2020 book Or What You Will, described in Wikipedia as a “metafictional fantasy novel.” The first-person narrator is a kind of character archetype in the mind of fantasy author Sylvia Harrison, the basis of characters in many of her stories. (The similarity of the imaginary Harrison’s oeuvre to that of the real-life Walton adds a further recursive layer to the story.) Fragments of Harrison’s personal history are intermixed with chapters about the story Harrison is writing, and also with the (fictional?) narrator’s plan to deliver Harrison from a fatal illness that may make this her last writing. Given these very different types of story, coexisting in the same book, it’s hard to know what kind of resolution we might expect. Yet in the end, as with Callahan’s book, the story works.
The Side Quest That Takes Over
We also see cases where what originally seemed to be a minor side trip or interruption turns out to be the main plot of the whole story. This can be irritating if we’re invested in what we thought was the original tale, and are waiting with mounting impatience for the interlude to conclude so as to get on with it. At some point we need to realize that the apparent side trip or side quest is the point.
I had that reaction when first reading Howl’s Moving Castle (Diana Wynne Jones, 1986). Near the beginning, the young heroine, Sophie, is magically transformed into an elderly woman. Somehow I didn’t expect that transformation to last long. But in fact Sophie continues as an old woman for almost the entire novel. It took me a while to stop waiting for the transformation to be reversed and to accept it as a central feature of the plot.
Sometimes this is a matter of mistaking the main preoccupation of the author. David Weber’s Safehold series starts with the premise that alien invaders, attracted by Earth’s burgeoning technology, have wiped out the human race, with the exception of a secret colony planted on a distant Earthlike planet in hopes of growing back to a level capable of dealing with the invaders. The refugee world Safehold is deliberately kept under a rigid theocracy which suppresses technology, originally to avoid detection by the enemy, but later going far beyond that motive to a permanent proscription. One might expect that the main plotline of the series would involve reacquiring high technology and re-engaging the invaders. But so far the series has progressed through ten bulky books devoted almost entirely to detailing the military and political campaigns of a sort of Protestant Revolution to overthrow the dominant theocracy. I’m still waiting for the lengthy storyline to wrap around back to the plotline I want to see developed.
Similarly, John Ringo’s “Council Wars” series starts with an intriguing premise in which a high-tech near-future civilization on Earth collapses into a kind of pseudo-medieval chaos due to a conflict among the ruling council. In the initial high-tech utopia, people have entertained themselves by (among other things) participating in live-action game-playing, which involved biologically engineering dragons, randomly hiding useful minerals in artificial mountains, and so forth. The opening conflict thus sets up a situation in which the main characters need to operate in something rather like a D&D game or fantasy world, dragons and all, which they’d initially created themselves but no longer control. What baffled me as this story developed (four books so far) was that Ringo was more interested in military-SF preoccupations—what would combat be like using aircraft carriers with dragons instead of aircraft?—rather than riffing on the fantasy tropes themselves.
Defying Narrative Conventions
In some cases, writers seem to be determined to depart from traditional narrative conventions in ways that make the storyline obscure. I’m generally skeptical about such attempted departures—they often seem mannered or artificial—but there’s no denying they sometimes produce interesting results. Or What You Will, cited above, is an example of an odd approach that nonetheless presents an engrossing and satisfying tale.
This Is How You Lose the Time War, a Hugo-winning 2019 novella, is a peculiar kind of epistolary story that consists of deliberately obscure messages left for each other by two time-traveling agents of opposing empires. It’s not clear at first where the story is going, and the message-writing format deprives the reader of the background information that might normally help establish what’s going on. But Time War eventually develops into a kind of romance, as well as a meditation on war and politics, that’s definitely worth reading.
There Is No Plot
Finally, there’s a class of stories that don’t actually have an overall plot at all. This isn’t necessarily a fault, but can be a virtue: “a feature, not a bug.” In these kinds of stories, our natural tendency to look for a plot is bound to be frustrated.
A fellow writer on Critique Circle, reading Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, expressed puzzlement about the plot of the book. I responded that it’s like Winnie-the-Pooh: a collection of linked but separate episodes that don’t actually have an overall plot. There is a sort of overall character arc for Christopher Robin, but it’s not really a plot—just as The Wind in the Willows develops a coherent plot only toward the end, within the background created by a set of separate episodes. My fellow writer, who was quite familiar with children’s stories, grasped the point at once from the Pooh analogy.
We also find the occasional short story that’s essentially a mood piece, evoking an emotion without actually depicting a sequence of events. In the science fiction canon, good examples include Arthur C. Clarke’s “History Lesson,” a meditation on the transience of the human species, and Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains,” a moving story depicting the aftermath of a nuclear war. In these short pieces, however, there isn’t enough time to build up much readerly expectation to be frustrated; it quickly becomes clear that the point of the story is to express a mood rather than to tell a tale.
When the plotline of a story doesn’t immediately become clear, or is subverted, the best advice may be simply to roll with it and see what happens. And I give myself that advice occasionally when I’m puzzled with a tale.
This does, however, require us to trust the author. Knowing an author’s work can give me confidence that taking the time to read will be worth it in the end. Hearing that an author or a work is highly regarded by others may, to a lesser degree, give us a similar confidence. If the author is new to us, though, that trust may be harder to come by. Lacking a sense of direction, we may give up on a story prematurely. If a writer isn’t going to meet the reader’s ordinary expectations about where a story is going, they’ll need to find other ways to reassure the reader that the tale is worth the investment of time.
As the Apple Foundation series has gradually diverged from the books, sinking from ‘adapted from Asimov’s series’ to ‘loosely inspired by Asimov’s series’ levels, we’ve seen a dramatically opposite example of a classic SF novel adaptation: the latest movie version of Frank Herbert’s Dune. The two make an instructive comparison.
Apple Strikes Out
I haven’t quite finished viewing this season of the Foundation TV series yet, but the trend is pretty clear. Apple’s version has departed from the storyline of the written works so extensively that I can’t picture how they could possibly get back to it. Unfortunately, what Goyer & co. have replaced it with is just routine space opera, mildly interesting but no more.
The original series, as I said in my last post, is cerebral. It’s more like a political drama than like Star Wars. And it seems to me that, pace the commentators who consider it unfilmable, the original story could have been filmed in the manner of a political drama, with a modicum of action involved (Hober Mallow’s face-off with the Korellians in “The Merchant Princes,” the escape of the Darells and Ebling Mis from the Mule’s minions, et cetera). But that’s not how moviegoing audiences have been taught to think of science fiction, and the Apple writers have struck out in a different direction—back to the safe and familiar, rather than what’s distinctive in the Foundation series.
The judgment of Rob Bricken in Gizmodo (10/22/21)—“Foundation Just Became Star Wars, and It Sucks”—may be a little simplified. But it’s basically sound. The example that triggered Bricken’s article is a useful one. Several of the episodes (6-8) focus on how warriors from Anacreon kidnap several Foundation folks to try and gain control of a massive Imperial warship, the Invictus. The ship is presented as a kind of Death Star, a crucial weapon. The Anacreonians want to use it for revenge, to destroy Trantor, the capital of the Empire—which is presented as a major blow to civilization, something Our Heroes must stop.
But this is all backwards. In “The Mayors,” third part of the first Foundation book, Anacreon does get the Foundation to help them refurbish an old Imperial warship that they found derelict in space. The Anacreonians think of this as a major victory, though their concern is expanding their rule in the Periphery, not attacking Trantor. But the whole point of the incident is that possession of this Big Damn Weapon makes no difference in the course of history. The canny Salvor Hardin neutralizes the significance of this warship through entirely nonviolent means—a matter of social and psychological leverage rather than military force. (I’m avoiding the details so as not to spoil the story for those who may want to go back fruitfully to the written works.)
Nor, for that matter, is the fate of the Imperial capital especially important in the long run. The Seldon Plan predicts its fall in the early years of the Plan, and the collapse of the Empire is necessary to create the environment in which the rise of the Foundation can occur.
Meanwhile, in the TV series, the uploaded simulacrum of Hari Seldon appears to be trying to establish the Second Foundation on his homeworld of Helicon, a planet of no significance in the original series. Aficionados of the books will recognize that this change (unless it’s all an elaborate deception) would undo most of the action and tension of the latter half of the series. Again, I’m being deliberately vague (read the books!).
And Apple continues to follow the Emperors through a peculiar religious ordeal that may or may not have any long-term significance. There is a religion-politics connection in the original series; it’s possible that Apple intends to bend this arc back to meet the original plotline in some way. But, again, it’s so far off track already that the result is likely to have little resemblance to Asimov’s story.
Apple’s version of Salvor Hardin (who at this point shares nothing but the name with Asimov’s character) continues to be presented as a Chosen One. So is Gaal Dornick, on whom the writers have bestowed an ability to predict the future by some sort of mathematical or mystical intuition (a notion that almost seems to have been borrowed from Dune, oddly enough). In Episode 6, “Death and the Maiden,” at 34:30, Hari Seldon goes to far as to talk about “an entire galaxy pivoting around the actions of an individual.” But that’s exactly what the premise of the Seldon Plan denies, as Asimov tells us over and over again. Emphasizing the crucial importance of individuals may be a good narrative practice in itself (and is arguably true in fact). It is, however, simply inconsistent with Asimov’s premise—at least until the appearance of the Mule, the ‘exception that proves the rule.’
So far, at least, Apple’s Foundation TV series exemplifies one way an adaptation can go wrong. By ignoring what’s interesting and engaging in the original books, and substituting entirely different content that simply happens to be what’s in fashion at present, the adaptation can lose what’s valuable in the original without the benefit of anything new and equally interesting.
Villeneuve Scores a Victory
Frank Herbert’s iconic SF novel Dune (1965) has been transmuted to video twice before. A 1984 film by David Lynch has received mixed reviews; it has its quirks, but the major problem is that, since a 507-page book is compressed into 2:17 of film, it’s unlikely anyone not already familiar with the book could follow the complex plot. In 2000, the Syfy Channel released a TV mini-series version; I’ve never seen it, but, again, reports have been mixed.
Denis Villeneuve’s version hit American theatres on October 21, 2021. The new film is impressive. Note that this show is only the first half of the story; Dune: Part Two, is currently (12/2021) scheduled for release October 20, 2023. That makes sense. No two-hour movie could possibly do justice to the book. (I’m only speaking here about the first book; describing the innumerable sequels, prequels, and associated volumes that have come out since would take an entire post by itself—but IMHO, the later add-ons decline in quality exponentially, so we can safely ignore them here.)
What’s striking about the new movie is the care it takes in translating Herbert’s work to the screen. The novel’s remarkable worldbuilding is reflected in stunning visuals that fit together smoothly to support the plot. Watching it, I had the same kind of reaction I did watching The Fellowship of the Ring twenty years ago: wow, there it is, just as I imagined it: ornithopters, stillsuits, Duke Leto, Chani. The casting is excellent; almost all the actors embody the characters vividly. (One of the reasons I’ve never gone back to watch the TV mini-series, which I taped at the time, is that I just can’t envision William Hurt as the Duke.)
Moreover, the plot holds together. Villeneuve follows the storyline of the book very closely. He does it intelligently, though, rather than slavishly. For example, there was a banquet scene in the book that doesn’t appear in the movie. But the banquet isn’t really essential to the plot, and it would have been particularly hard to render it on film in any case—almost all the interest of the scene consists in the characters’ internal thoughts about what’s happening. So, although I’d been looking forward to seeing that scene, I must agree that it made sense to skip it to save time and finesse a difficult cinematic challenge.
On the whole, though, the storyline of the movie closely reflects that of the book. This means we get to enjoy the things that made the book engrossing in the first place: the conflicting allegiances that the hero, Paul Atreides, must navigate; the quasi-mystical disciplines and secret long-term planning of the Bene Gesserit; the devious alliance of the Emperor and the villainous House Harkonnen; the way Paul and his mother Jessica begin to become familiar with the culture of the desert-dwelling Fremen, first officially, and then later when they’re on the run from the Harkonnen. These pieces have to fit together perfectly to make the plot understandable; and from what I hear, the average moviegoer who has not read the novel is enabled to follow that intricate plot. This is a noteworthy achievement for the director, screenwriters, and cast.
When we hear that a favorite book is being translated to film, this is what we’re primarily looking for: a new perspective on what was so good in the book. A movie can get away with substantially altering the story: see, for instance, my earlier discussion of Man of La Mancha, or the 2011 steampunk version of The Three Musketeers. But if that’s the path they choose to follow, it’s up to the screenwriters to make the revised story work, and give us a new structure that’s just as satisfying as the original (though perhaps in different ways). The third possibility is that instead of doing either of those two things, the writers just mess up the original story without giving us a new “take” that can stand on its own feet. And unfortunately, that third category is the one into which Apple’s Foundation seems to be falling.
Hope for the Future
Perhaps the Foundation crew will still find a way to pull something great out of the plot snarl they’ve created so far. Perhaps not. But I’m pleased that the box-office success of the latest Dune can stand as an example to the industry that a genuinely faithful version of a SF story can be both a critical and a money-making success. With luck, we might see a trend in this direction—drawing on the widely varied types of stories available in the F&SF genres rather than simply looking for the next Game of Thrones or Star Wars.
A twelve thousand-year-old empire rules the galaxy; but Hari Seldon, inventor of a new science of “psychohistory” that statistically predicts the aggregate actions of human masses (as distinct from the acts of individual persons), realizes that the Empire is headed for an inevitable collapse. Thirty thousand years of chaos and barbarism will follow. But, while Seldon concludes the fall cannot be stopped, he does see a way to shorten the period of darkness. He establishes two “Foundations” from which civilization may be restored more quickly—in a mere thousand years. Seldon’s mathematics allows him to arrange things in such a way that the Seldon Plan will inevitably prevail—at least to a very high order of probability.
The original three books consist of a series of short stories taking place over about four hundred years. There are some overlapping characters, but no character persists through the whole time period. Part of the attraction of the series is the sweep of history over many lifetimes, giving a sense of scope and gravity to the combined stories. Some of it comes from the age-old appeal of the fated outcome: we know the Plan will prevail, but how? And from the midpoint of the series on, a different question takes over: if through a low-probability turn of events the Plan is in danger of failing, can it be preserved?
We do want it to be preserved, even though the (First) Foundation is composed of fallible and all-too-human people; because the great overarching goal of the Plan is the preservation of civilization in the face of barbarism. I’ve noted before that this is a compelling theme.
Most of the original stories were first published individually in the SF magazines, and later collected into the aforementioned three volumes—Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation (1951-1953). Then things got complicated. In 1981, Asimov “was persuaded by his publishers” (according to Wikipedia) to add a fourth book, Foundation’s Edge. Several more followed, in the course of which Asimov tied in the Foundation series with his other great series, the positronic robot stories. The new additions in some ways sought to resolve issues in the original trilogy, and in others tended to undermine the originals. After Asimov’s death, three other celebrated authors—Gregory Benford, Greg Bear, and David Brin—were recruited to write three more Foundation books. In the last volume of this new trilogy, Brin manages to pull off a brilliant resolution of the whole series. But even that conclusion didn’t stop the flow of further related tales.
And now, as if things weren’t already confusing enough . . .
A screen adaptation of the series was announced in 2017, and Apple picked it up in 2018. Asimov’s daughter, Robyn Asimov, serves as one of the executive producers. The principal writer, David S. Goyer, foresees eighty episodes—none too many for such a vast saga.
The trailers (such as this one) made it clear that the look and feel of the TV series would be rather different from those of Asimov’s cerebral books. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The original tales have become dated in both content and style. The question is, can Apple preserve what’s appealing in the original stories, while bringing them to life for a modern audience?
We’ve now seen three episodes (the fourth premieres tomorrow). That’s not enough to allow for a full evaluation of the series, of course. But it’s fun to try and guess where it’s going and report on how it’s doing, even at this early stage. If nothing else, there’s the entertainment value, later on, of seeing how wildly inaccurate my take on the story may turn out to be. So let’s see how the adaptation stands as of the third Foundation episode.
Emperors Demand Attention
As of Episode 2, I was favorably impressed. Scores of details had been changed from the books, but often in interesting ways. For example, Asimov’s cast of characters tended to be almost all-male—although the latter half of the series did include two distinctive female characters with strong agency, Bayta Darell and her descendant Arkady Darell. The TV series diversifies the cast considerably. Seldon’s protegé Gaal Dornick is now a black woman. So is Salvor Hardin, the first Mayor of Terminus and leader of the Foundation. The technology and culture of the Empire looks pretty convincing on-screen, though it doesn’t exactly track Asimov’s descriptions. Goyer & co. introduce some up-to-date speculative ideas, such as the notion that the succession of Galactic Emperors at this time is a series of clones—though there’s no obvious reason for that last, other than to modernize the hypothetical science a bit.
The third episode, though, seems to veer away from Asimov’s basic underlying concepts. However interesting Goyer’s repeating Emperors might be, I expected us to shift away from them as the Foundation itself took center stage. But Episode 3 continued to focus a great deal of attention on the Emperors. This seems to run counter to the underlying theme that the Empire fades away as other players become ascendant on the galactic scene. I don’t know why we’re still spending so much time on the Emperors, unless they’re going to play a larger continuing role than the books would suggest—which makes me wonder what else is happening to the plotline.
Science and Mysticism
Asimov’s story, while engrossing, was essentially rationalistic. Historical events had logical explanations (generally laid out explicitly by the characters after the crisis had passed). Science, whether technological or psychological, was a dominant theme. And the key to the whole Seldon Plan concept was that the course of history is determined by economic, cultural, and sociological forces, rather than by any individual’s actions. One might agree or disagree with that premise, but it was the (I can’t believe I’m saying this) foundation of the whole original series—even though Asimov himself found a way around what might have become a stultifying predictability with the unforeseen character of the Mule.
The video adaptation points up a number of elements with a more mystical quality. The Time Vault, which in the books is merely a recording of speeches about historical crisis points by the long-dead Seldon, in the TV series is an ominous pointed object hovering unsupported over the landscape of Terminus; we haven’t yet seen what it does. The “Prime Radiant,” a sort of holographic projector containing the details of the Plan, is presented as a unique and numinous object—though that is, to be sure, a genuine Asimov detail, albeit in a different context.
More significantly, Salvor Hardin, a likeable if devious political schemer in the original stories, here appears to be the “Warden” of the Vault, a sort of Obi-Wan Kenobi figure who lurks in the desert. In Episode 3 we see her set apart even as a child; as an adult, she’s the only person who can pass through the protective field around the Vault that repels all others. One character even suggests that she may have been somehow included in the Plan.
Now, this invocation of the “Chosen One” trope is directly antithetical to the notion that history is shaped by statistical aggregates and social forces. Seldon’s Plan, by its nature, cannot depend on the unique actions of individuals. Even when Asimov introduces the Mule as a mutant with mental powers that can change the large-scale behavior of human populations, that’s presented as disrupting the Plan, ruining Seldon’s statistical predictions. To have personal qualities written into the Plan itself would undercut the whole idea. Thus, at the end of Episode 3, I’m wondering whether the TV series is going to carry through the basic Asimovian premise at all.
The Expanded Universe
The sequels to the original trilogy, first by Asimov himself and then by others, took the book series off in somewhat different directions. I’d been wondering whether the TV series would incorporate the whole “Robots and Empire” connection, or stick to the earlier structure. To that question, at least, we seem to have an answer.
A recurring character in the first three episodes is a woman, an advisor to the Emperors, who turns out in one scene to be a robot. I hadn’t caught her name at first, and had to look it up in the cast list. She turns out to be Eto Demerzel (male in the books), who is really the very long-lived robot R. Daneel Olivaw, operating under an alias. Daneel is one of my favorite characters in the early robot novels The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. In Asimov’s later stories he assumes a much greater importance in shaping the whole course of galactic history.
So it appears that Goyer’s version of the Empire’s history does incorporate Asimov’s later expansion of the Foundation universe, at least to that extent. It will be fascinating to see how far the writers take that connection—in particular, whether the “second trilogy” contributions of the “Killer Bs” (Benford, Bear, Brin) also figure into the plot. We’re not likely to see those ultimate developments for years (in real time), though, if the eighty-episode prediction is accurate.
Not A Conclusion
We’re still very early in the development of the Foundation video series. Tomorrow’s episode might overturn half my speculations here and send us off in an entirely different direction. But in the meantime, it’s fun to go over what we’ve seen so far and where it seems to be going—even if the secret plans of the screenwriters are as mysterious to us as the Seldon Plan is to the Foundation itself.
A song—especially a love song—often implies a story.
Some songs, it’s true, just express a state of things: say, being in love. The Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywhere” talks about things that happen (“Someone is speaking, but she doesn’t know he’s there”)—but nothing actually changes in the song. It’s a snapshot of a relationship.
But frequently the song refers to a sequence of events, and this sequence is at least a fragment of a story. “She Loves You,” after the refrain, starts out “You think you lost your love” (addressing someone who had been in love, but they seem to have broken up). The lyric continues: “Well, I saw her yesterday” (the singer/friend brings new information)—and eventually looks to the future (“Apologize to her”). The song describes a progression in a relationship.
The Story of the Video
When the modern music video came into vogue in the 1960s, and picked up steam with the advent of MTV in 1981, a new factor was added. If the video simply showed the band performing the song, then the story implied by the song didn’t change. But if the video began to incorporate other elements, such as actors or band members acting out things that occurred in the song, then new possibilities opened up. Is the story we hear always the same as the story we see?
The pure performance video represents what we might call the null case—just the song, illustrated by imagery of the band. The next step is represented by a video that provides a sort of impressionistic imagery the illustrates themes or ideas in the song, without altering the storyline. For example, the video of Peter Cetera’s “One Good Woman” shows clips of Cetera singing the song, interspersed with roses and bottles on tables, kisses and embraces, the faces of women who might be the one referred to in the title, plus other images whose relevance is less clear (clocks, hats, a metronome, abstract shapes). The concept video for “The Great Adventure” riffs on the lyrics (“Saddle up your horses / We’ve got a trail to blaze”) with Western ranch scenery, as well as images of walls falling that express the movement of the song. For similar examples, check out “True Believers” and “Once in a Lifetime.”
Showing the Story
In the most literal sense, the video can amplify the impact of a song by simply depicting the events described in the lyrics. For example, Blake Shelton’s song “Austin” tells a rather charming tale in which a woman has gone off to Austin, but realizes from the answering-machine messages of the man she left behind that he still loves her. The video actually shows us clips of the events the song is talking about, interspersed with shots of Shelton singing, making the story more vivid.
Such a visual rendition in effect replaces our imagination of the story with a particular interpretation, in the same way that a movie makes visible in a particular way the action of the book it was based on. Of course, this runs the risk of disrupting the viewer’s appreciation, if the filmmaker’s idea is distinctly different from the viewer’s: “I didn’t picture it like that at all.” But it can also bring out the story more forcefully by providing lifelike imagery where our imaginations might not have been so vivid.
The video can also intensify the effect of a song by providing a visual mini-story that doesn’t exactly correlate with what the song is about, but reinforces it thematically. Take, for instance, Martina McBride’s “Ride,” which is about an overall attitude toward life. The video gives us a sequence about young people stuck in a traffic jam, who (watching a projection of McBride’s performance on a billboard) start having fun with each other in the spirit of the music. There’s nothing specific about traffic jams in the song, but the video sequence does add a further element of enjoyment to the effect of the song alone. Or take a look at the video of Carrie Underwood’s “Love Wins,” which very effectively underlines the song’s message through images of people making their way to a celebration.
Expanding the Story
The video can also take a slightly different direction by sticking to the original storyline, but adding elements. For example, in “Mine,” Taylor Swift describes her character as “a flight risk with a fear of falling,” and her boyfriend tells her that “we’ll never make my parents’ mistakes”—but the actual backstory isn’t specific. In the video, we see footage of her parents quarreling while Swift’s character as a child looks on, and this adds weight to the fight described in the song’s bridge—and thus to the uplift of her lover’s refusal to give up: we actually see them marrying and having a baby at the end. The story has expanded.
Similarly, in the video of Gloriana’s “(Kissed You) Good Night,” we get some opening dialogue adding context that may not have been contemplated in the song itself: the boy is in the Army and leaving the next day. The titular kiss goodnight is a more definitive farewell than we could have guessed from the lyrics alone. In Dierks Bentley’s reflective “Home,” the variety of the faces of America appearing in the video add depth to the song. The music video of Brad Paisley’s “Welcome to the Future” actually incorporates brief clips of children explaining what they want to be when they grow up—reinforcing the sense of possibility and achievement that makes the song compelling.
Changing the Story
Sometimes, however, the video seems to take off in a different direction from that of the original song.
I’m fond of the late Moody Blues song “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere” (1988). (In fact, I have a sketch for a novel partly inspired by the song, but that’s another story.) As the title suggests, the lyrics depict a man searching for the girl he once loved. The video isn’t entirely inconsistent with that idea: the singer is clearly looking back to a love affair in the ’60s. But the singer is depicted in his actual persona, as a budding rock star, hustled away from her by the demands of the music business. As a result, we see much more of her longing for him than of him longing for her. The regret is mutual, but the emphasis is different.
Taking the discrepancy further, Céline Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” evokes a pair of lovers who had broken up but are now getting back together. At least, that’s what the lyric sounds like to me. But in the video it appears that Céline’s lover rode off on a motorcycle and died in an accident. Unless she’s being visited by a very substantial ghost—which would actually fit the rather Gothic tone of the video—they don’t actually seem to be reunited at all. (It gets weirder: according to the notes at the bottom of the lyrics page, the song was actually written for a play based on the Peter Pan story, and the lyrics were inspired by Wuthering Heights. As for the motorcycle, who knows where that came from.)
Gary Allan’s “Every Storm Runs Out of Rain” appears to be addressed to someone who’s lost their love, encouraging them to last through their pain and find someone new (“And walk out that door, go find a new rose, don’t be afraid of the thorns”). The video features a woman who’s clearly suffering (in a rainstorm), but at the end her soldier husband comes back. They were separated, true, but she’s not finding a “new rose,” just watering (as it were) one that was drooping.
Adding a Comic Note
The temptation to make the music video more of a humorous riff on the original song—a spoof of itself—must be strong. In a number of cases, the video makers seem to have decided just to have fun with the concept.
We started with the Beatles; their movies A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965) consist largely of song performances, but the accompanying video clip often has little to do with the subject of the song; sometimes it’s simply surreal. There’s a similar feel to the video of Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is A Place On Earth,” which opens with a bunch of masked children carrying lighted globes. We see these globes, apparently inspired by the mention of “Earth” in the title, splashing into water, or lying on a dark reflective surface. There are also shots of Carlisle singing and embracing a lover, but we keep coming back to these kids and their globes. Often they appear to be running in place. If that means something deep, I’m missing it.
“Shadows of the Night,” best known for a Pat Benatar recording in 1982, is one of those songs in which a pair of lovers is escaping into the darkness from some unspecified amorous angst. Might be an interesting story, though the lyric doesn’t provide much detail. Apparently it was actually composed for a movie about two young runaways in New York City, as discussed here, here, and here, and what seem to be the original lyrics were distinctly different. None of them, however, refer to anything like what we see in Benatar’s wacky music video, in which she seems to be playing the part of a World War II aviator/spy—or perhaps Rosie the Riveter, daydreaming.
The filmmakers for Thompson Square’s “I Got You” decided to take off on the fact that the song has almost the same title as, and develops the same theme as, Sonny & Cher’s iconic hit “I Got You Babe.” The duo is performing the song on a TV variety show hosted by themselves dressed up like Sonny & Cher. The video has fun with the gap between the two time periods: the pair hands “Sonny & Cher” their CD, but since that format didn’t exist in the ’60s, the hosts have no idea what to do with it, biting it like a donut, using it as a mirror, finally employing it as a coaster.
The video of “Take On Me,” by a-ha, starts with drawings of a motorcycle race, apparently part of a graphic book a girl sitting in a diner is reading. When the boy in the drawing reaches out a three-dimensional sketched hand to her, she takes it, and is literally pulled into the story as a line drawing. As far as I can see, the video has nothing to do with the song, but it is good wacky fun.
At times it isn’t clear whether the humor is intended or inadvertent. Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is a fine song, but the video takes the Gothic further than Céline and the random further than Carlisle. We see stained-glass windows, doves fluttering, Tyler looking out at the moon. A man walks in, and, apparently because Tyler’s backup singer refers to her as “Bright Eyes,” the man has literally glowing eyes. Boys sit in a classroom and toast around a table. Dancers with wings cavort around the singer. There’s literally an invasion of ninjas; at least, I think that’s what they are. The effect is so surreal that someone called “dascottjr” did a “literal video” version, having a woman sing lyrics that actually describe what’s happening on-camera. It’s hilarious.
The music video is a distinct art form, building on music but adding a new dimension. The two aspects may cohere, collide, or simply spin off in different directions. The result is a combination that we can enjoy on its own merits.