Foundation and Dune

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.

Spoiler Alert!

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 warship Invictus

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!).

Emperor Day

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.)

Zendaya as Chani

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.

Aerial battle in 2011 The Three Musketeers

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.

Third Foundation

I finally caved and subscribed to yet another streaming service, Apple TV+.  I couldn’t resist the need to see what the new TV series would make of Isaac Asimov’s classic SF Foundation stories.

Although the book series is on the order of eighty years old, the TV series is just getting started, so I need to issue a

Spoiler Alert!

Asimov’s Appeal

I grew up reading the Foundation series; it was always a favorite of mine.  Asimov took his premise from Gibbon’s History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1789), with a science-fictional twist.

Isaac Asimov, Foundation, cover

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.

A few years ago I discussed the Seldon Plan in a post on “Prophecy and the Plan” (2018).  For a more detailed description, and one reader’s take on the novels, see Ben Gierhart’s 10/6/2021 article on Tor.

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.

Second Foundation cover

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 . . .

Apple’s Augmentation

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

Gaal Dornick, reimagined for Apple, with the Prime Radiant

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.

The world-city of Trantor

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.

Salvor Hardin, a la Apple

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.

Eto Demerzel (Daneel Olivaw)

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.

Portraying the Transhuman Character

More Than Human

Kevin Wade Johnson’s comments on my recent post about The Good Place raised a couple of issues worth a closer look.  Here’s one:

Lots of science fiction, and some fantasy, deals with characters who are greater, or more intelligent, or more gifted in some way, than mere humans.  But we the authors and readers are mere humans.  How do we go about showing a character who’s supposed to be more sublime than we can imagine?

It’s one thing to have characters whose capabilities are beyond us.  Superman can leap tall buildings with a single bound; I can’t.  But I can easily comprehend Superman’s doing so.  (I can even see it at the movies.)  On the other hand, if a character is supposed to be so intelligent I can’t grasp their reasoning, or has types of knowledge that are beyond me, that’s harder to represent.  I can simply say so:  “Thorson had an intelligence far beyond that of ordinary men.”  But how can I show it?

Long-Lived Experience

There are a number of ways this can come up.  For example, if a character lived a very long time, would their accumulated experience allow for capabilities, or logical leaps in thinking, beyond what we can learn in our short lives?

I’m thinking of a Larry Niven story—I’m blanking on the name:  maybe one of the “Gil the Arm” stories?—in which a character who appears to be a young woman turns out to be centuries old, and when she drops the deception, she moves with uncanny grace—she doesn’t bump into anything or trip over her own feet, because she’s had that long to train herself in how to move (without the limitations imposed by our bodies’ degeneration from aging).

Of course, a story about long-lived people doesn’t have to take long-lived learning into account.  The depiction of the “Howard Families” in Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children and Time Enough for Love almost seem dedicated to the opposite proposition, that no matter how long we live, we’re basically the same kinds of personalities; we don’t learn much.

Galadriel, radiantIn a similar way, Tolkien’s immortal elves may seem ineffably glorious to us, but their behavior often seems all too human—especially if you read The Silmarillion, where elves make mistakes, engage in treachery, and allow overweening pride to dictate their actions in ways that may surprise those of us familiar only with LotR.  On the other hand, the books and movies do succeed in convincing us that characters like Galadriel and Gandalf are of a stature that exceeds human possibility.

Logic and Language

There are other ways to have transhuman abilities.  As Kevin observes, Niven’s “Protectors” fit the description.  Niven imagines a further stage of human development—something that comes after childhood, adolescence, and adulthood—that we’ve never seen, because when our remote ancestors arrived on Earth from elsewhere, they lacked the plants hosting the symbiotic virus necessary for transition to that final stage.  The “trans-adult” Protectors are stronger, faster, and more durable than ordinary humans.  They also think faster.  Thus Niven shows them as following out a chain of logic with blinding speed to its conclusion, allowing them to act long before regular humans could figure out what to do.  Because this is a matter of speed, not incomprehensible thinking, Niven can depict a Protector as acting in ways that are faster than normal, but are explainable once we sit down and work out the reasoning.

Sherlock Holmes, arena fight sceneA visual analogue is used in the 2009 and 2011 Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey, Jr.  Unlike most other treatments of the character, Guy Ritchie’s version supposes that Holmes’ incredible intelligence can be used not only for logical deduction, but to predict with lightning speed how a hand-to-hand combat may develop.  Holmes thus becomes a ninja-like melee fighter, so effective as to confound all opponents.  The movie shows us this by slowing down the process that to Holmes is instantaneous:  we see a very short montage of positions and moves as they would occur, or could occur, before we see Holmes carry out the final “conclusion” of his martial reasoning.  This allows us to appreciate what the quasi-superhuman character is doing and why, without actually having to execute the same process ourselves.

Preternatural intelligence may be more subtle in its effects.  Such a person may, for example, be able to understand things fully from what, to us, would be mere hints and implications.  So, for example, when Isaac Asimov introduces the members of the Second Foundation in his Foundation series, he tells us that their tremendous psychological training allows them to talk among themselves in a manner so concise and compressed that entire paragraphs require only a few words.

Speech as known to us was unnecessary.  A fragment of a sentence amounted almost to long-winded redundancy.  A gesture, a grunt, the curve of a facial line—even a significantly timed pause yielded informational juice.  (Second Foundation, end of chapter 1, “First Interlude,” p. 16)

Second Foundation coverBreaking the fourth wall, Asimov warns us that his account is “about as far as I can go in explaining color to a blind man—with myself as blind as the audience.”  (same page)  He then adroitly avoids showing us any of the actual conversation; instead, he says he’s “freely translating” it into our ordinary language.  This move illustrates one of the classic ways of presenting the incomprehensible in a story:  point out its incomprehensibility and “translate” into something we can understand.  (Note that this is much more easily done in writing than in a visual medium such as TV or the movies.)

A similar technique is used by Poul Anderson in his 1953 novel Brain Wave, which starts with the interesting premise that in certain regions of space, neurons function faster than in others.  When Earth’s natural rotation around the center of the galaxy brings it into a “faster” area, the brains of every creature with a central nervous system speed up, and human beings (as well as other animals) all become proportionately smarter.  Anderson notes that the speech of the transformed humans would be incomprehensible to us and, like Asimov, “translates” it for our convenience.  When a couple of the characters, in a newly invented faster-than-light spaceship, accidentally cross the border back into the “slow zone,” they are unable to understand the controls they themselves designed until the ship’s travel brings them out and lets their intelligence return to its new normal.  (Anderson’s concept may have been the inspiration for the “Zones of Thought” universe later developed in several fascinating stories by Vernor Vinge.)

Showing and Telling

We can glean some general principles from these examples.  If the extraordinary acts don’t actually have to be shown in the medium I’m using, I can simply point to them and tell the reader they’re there.  In a written story, I can say my main character is a world-class violinist without having to demonstrate that level of ability myself.  (Although if I have some experience in that particular art, I’ll be able to provide some realistic details, to help make my claim sound plausible.)  But if the supernormal achievement is something that can be shown in our chosen medium, we have to be able to demonstrate it:  a movie about the great violinist will have to exhibit some pretty masterful violin-playing, or those in the audience who know something about the art will laugh themselves silly.

Flowers For Algernon coverWe should note that there are good and bad ways of telling the audience about a character’s superiority.  In the unforgettable short story “Flowers for Algernon,” which consists entirely of diary entries by Charlie Gordon, the main character, the text vividly shows us the effects of an intelligence-raising treatment on a man of initially lower-than-normal intelligence.  The entries improve so radically in writing competence and understanding that when Charlie describes how his brainpower is beginning to exceed that of ordinary humans, we believe him, because we’re already riding on the curve of rising ability up to our own level that is apparent in the text—a true tour de force of writing.  On the other hand, in the drastically worse movie version, Charly (1968), the screenwriters are reduced to having Charly stand in front of an audience of experts and scornfully dismiss the greatest intellectual achievements from human history—a weak and ineffective technique at best for conveying superiority.


This quick review of the problem turns up several methods for handling supernormal abilities in a story.


  • If the superior ability is intelligible to us ordinary people in the audience—maybe it’s just doing normal things faster—we can have the wiser or super-enabled person explain it to someone less wise: our last post’s Ignorant Interlocutor.
  • If the advantage is mainly a matter of speed, we can slow it down to a speed at which regular people can follow the action.
  • If we can get away without actually showing the ability in question, we may be able to point toward it, or “translate” it into something we can understand, and convincingly tell the audience about it—if we can achieve the necessary suspension of disbelief.
  • If a character is supposed to be, let us say, preternaturally wise, and there’s simply no way to avoid showing that in the dialogue, the best we can do is to evoke the best we can do—have the character be as wise as possible—and imply ‘like this, only more so.’ This method—like “projecting” a line or a curve—is the method of “supereminence,” which is sometimes employed in theological talk about things that are inherently beyond our full understanding.


Kicking around this question makes us aware that portraying the more-than-human character is only a special case of a more general problem.  When our stories try to incorporate anything that’s indescribable, incomprehensible, how do we handle that?  Our F&SF stories frequently want to reach out beyond the boundaries of human experience, yet in a tale written for ordinary humans.  We’ll talk about the more general question next time.

Becky Chambers and Domestic Science Fiction

Hugo Material

Science fiction writer Becky Chambers is up for a Hugo award (SF’s equivalent of the Oscars or Pulitzer Prize) this year—twice.  Her 2018 novel Record of a Spaceborn Few has been nominated for best novel.  The Wayfarers series, of which Record is the third book, is also in the running for best series this year.

Wayfarers series coversThe series as a whole, and especially the most recent book, highlight a facet of SF that can sometimes be neglected in the shadow of the world-shaking blockbuster epics:  stories that are concerned more with what happens to individuals and small groups than with the Fate of the World.  I’m going to tag this subcategory “domestic SF.”

I don’t mean to imply that Chambers’ tales are concerned with cosy traditional family life.  On the contrary, some of her characters’ situations are decidedly nonconventional.  This is science fiction, after all.  But family and home do play a central role.

High Stakes

When we think of science fiction—especially early modern SF, from about 1920-1940—we tend to think of adventure stories:  space opera, “planetary romances” like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter stories, or the modern revival in Star Trek and Star Wars.  In these tales, conflict was a must, and often on a grand scale.  We were Saving the World, or even the galaxy, the universe; or at least (for instance) the beloved city of Helium, as John Carter was wont to do.

Many of these early epics had to do with exploration.  We were ‘going where no one had gone before’ in the Jules Verne Voyages Extraordinaires, or in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds (though in the latter case one might say instead that ‘where no one had gone before’ was coming to us).  The heroes were frequently achieving the first of something, a momentous event:  first spaceflight, first interstellar flight, first contact with nonhuman intelligence, or (when spaceflight had become routine) first landing on some particularly odd sort of planet.  Whatever they were doing, it was a big deal.

Of course this was never all of science fiction; but it made up a major part of modern SF.  And this tendency continued into the mid-20th century.  Even a scenario that initially seemed purely local and personal often turned out to have grand-scale implications.

In Heinlein’s The Star Beast (1954), for example, the Everyboy teenage hero is unusual only in having a pet that was puppy-sized when his great-grandfather brought it back from an interstellar trip, but has gradually grown to the scale of a medium-sized dinosaur.  The story opens with “Lummox” getting into trouble by eating a neighbor’s roses, plowing straight through a set of greenhouses, and so forth—the kind of domestic turmoil that might turn up in any situation comedy.  (At least in science fiction.)  But it eventually turns out that Lummox is actually a mere child from a fearsomely intelligent and pugnacious extraterrestrial species that lives for centuries.  When her relatives come calling, it requires a major diplomatic effort to head off an interstellar war.  What started out as a neighborhood squabble has become a planetary crisis.

E.T. poster, fingers touchingWe see something of the same development, but with a different twist, in the movie E.T.:  the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).  The first part of the story focuses mainly on the friendship that develops between E.T. and young Elliott.  The situation grows into an adult-level crisis in the second part.  But Spielberg has a different take:  even at the end, the story remains centered on that personal relationship between the two main characters.  The trail of candies Elliott lays out for E.T. leads to a momentous first-contact moment; but it isn’t clear at the end whether Elliott’s contact will lead to some kind of new era for humanity, or whether things will return to normal once the alien spacecraft departs.

E.T. shows that what’s at stake in SF doesn’t have to be world-shaking.  The whole story may simply revolve around the lives of a few main characters.  And that’s what I mean by ‘domestic SF.’

The Wayfarers Books

Chambers’ first novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014), opens when a young woman named Rosemary Harper joins the motley crew of an aging spaceship-for-hire called the Wayfarer.  Her relationships with the varied personalities (and species) of the crew draw her out of herself and allow her to develop her potential in classic bildungsroman fashion.  As the plot thickens, Wayfarer does get involved in major diplomatic affairs, in a small way.  But, as with E.T., the focus stays on the characters and their interactions.  We’re much more concerned about whether (for instance) the ship’s AI, Lovelace, will succeed in being downloaded into a human body at the urging of her human beloved, than in galactic politics.  Wikipedia puts it concisely:  “The novel concerns itself with character development rather than adventure.”

This tendency is even more pronounced in the second story.  A Closed and Common Orbit (2016) leaves behind most of the characters of the first book to follow the distinct, newborn AI that ended up occupying the human body in question at the end of The Long WayOrbit entirely eschews the grand scale in favor of personal relationships, as the main character tries to decide how to manage this strange new life in the flesh while making friends with a woman who herself had an extremely odd childhood.  One review correctly observed that Orbit is even “more intimate than its predecessor.”

The third story, Record of a Spaceborn Few, takes place in the same universe but, again, mobilizes an entirely different cast of characters.  Chambers is not writing a cumulative single story on the model of, say, the Star Wars movies.  Rather, each book is complete in itself, although they share a common background and characters occasionally cross over.  This in itself indicates that we are not building up to a single galaxy-spanning climax.  The author’s interests lie elsewhere.

Record of a Spaceborn Few

Record of a Spaceborn Few coverThe most recent book builds on the backstory of which we’ve seen glimpses in the prior volumes.  In Chambers’ future history, humanity, having ruined its home planet, sets out en masse to search for new homes in slower-than-light generation ships, the “Exodus fleet.”  It’s only when the are discovered by more advanced nonhuman species that they gain limited access, as impoverished refugees, to higher technologies and faster-than-light travel.  By the time of the stories, people from the Fleet have spread out to live among other species on numerous other worlds; some have even returned to their own solar system to colonize Mars.  But a substantial number of humans still remain aboard the immense ships that had been their ancestors’ homes for so long, which have now been put in permanent orbits around a star loaned to them by another species.

Record explores possible options for choosing to live one’s life in these circumstances.  Some of the “Exodans,” like young Kip, pine for the wider horizons of a planet, yet end up opting for a place within the Fleet—after spending some time going to college “abroad,” onplanet.  Others, like Tessa and her family, do take on the new experience of living in the open, on a planet.  Meanwhile, some of the dispersed humans born on planets come to decide they’d rather live aboard the Fleet, whose close-knit culture has its attractions despite the shabby and relatively modest conditions aboard; and some of the Exodans choose to create a “cultural education” center to train these returnees so they can fit into that culture.

A friendly alien observer, visiting the Fleet to gain material for a study and staying with one of the main characters, provides an external viewpoint to place these various life decisions in context.  But the core of the story is how each individual or family chooses among the different possible ways of life.  There’s no great crisis or climax, and the story doesn’t come down on the side of one lifestyle or another.  It simply lays out the possibilities.

Family Life Out There

Chambers’ stories, then, seem to be moving more and more in the direction of ‘domestic’ or small-scale concerns.  There’s a continuing theme of belonging to a family group, or something like one—even when the “family” in question, as in Orbit, consists of both ordinary embodied humans and “sessile” AIs that never leave the home they operate (giving a whole new meaning to the term “homemaker”).

The Rolling Stones coverWith Chambers as the bellwether, so to speak, we can trace similar kinds of stories back through the history of SF.  For example, another Heinlein “juvenile” novel, The Rolling Stones (1952), really is a domestic story:  the Stone family, bored with their comfortable life on the quietly citified Moon, buys a spaceship and sets off to visit Mars and then the asteroid belt, getting into various scrapes and small-scale adventures as they go.

These “adventures” can be as mundane as the teenage twins’ run-in with bureaucracy and the law when they try to import bicycles to Mars without first researching the customs duties—or as serious as a life-endangering spacecraft malfunction.  But there are no grander events or interplanetary crises involved.  (Incidentally, the book has nothing at all to do with the band The Rolling Stones, not even if you try to compare the “rocks” of the asteroid belt with—no, even I’m not going to go there.)

Another perennial favorite of mine is Zenna Henderson’s tales of the People, refugees from a far-off world who are scattered across the Earth when they must escape in “life-slips” as their spacecraft breaks up on entering our atmosphere.  These short stories each center on different individuals or families of characters, built around a common theme of finding the lost and bringing them back to their own people.  The unusual powers of the People often evoke xenophobic hostility in the Earthlings among whom they are hiding—but just as often bring out compassion and kindness from the people who take them in and help them.  The array of short stories does not really build to any climax or conclusion.  Rather, each person’s fate is a story in itself—though it is intimately bound up with those of others.

Whole subgenres of SF are inherently oriented toward the small and personal.  There’s a significant category of science fiction murder mysteriesIsaac Asimov was famous for these—which by definition revolve around a particular individual’s death, which may or may not have cosmic ramifications.  Similarly, a SF romance necessarily focuses on a particular couple; and again, while their relationship may have broad-scale importance, the story is just as sound if what matters is only the two of them.

On the Big Screen

My impression is that SF movies, even more than books, have tended to concentrate on big crises and broad scope; perhaps a visual medium evokes a particular fascination with spectacle.  (Explosions, give me lots of explosions.)  But that’s not always the case.  Now that we’ve shown we can do believably spectacular stories along the Star Wars lines, moviemakers may be turning back toward more personal-level tales.

The Space Between Us posterA good example is the teenage SF romance The Space Between Us (2017).  I’m fond of this film, though it didn’t do well as the box office and was disliked by critics.  The movie fits our survey here because it’s all about the particular pair and the other people involved with them.  There’s a base or colony on Mars, but that’s just the background that sets up the essential premise of the story—how a boy born and raised in a scientific station on Mars is determined to visit the home planet and to meet the girl he’s been corresponding with there.

I’m tempted also to cite the Chris Pratt-Jennifer Lawrence film Passengers (2016).  It’s all about the two principal characters (who are the only characters for much of the story).  The stakes do rise at least to “save the ship” level when the main characters have to perform death-defying acts to prevent the destruction of the sleeper ship they’re on.  But, as a romance, it does maintain a focus on the fates of those two people—in a way that is rather poignantly realized at the end.


Becky Chambers’ Hugo nominees thus illustrate that aspect of SF that deals with the personal and local rather than the grand and spectacular.  I’m all for more of this.  Once we get over the initial amazement at space travel and other scientific advances, we can settle down to telling the small individual stories that these advances make possible—without giving up the grand-scale tales as well, of course.  In a literary realm, eating our cake and still having it is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

The Great American Read

PBS is conducting a poll asking about our favorite novels in connection with a TV mini-series, “The Great American Read.”  Through October 17, we can vote each day for one or more of 100 candidates.  I haven’t watched the TV shows—but the poll alone is fascinating.

The Great American Read, logo

In my area, Fairfax County Public Libraries is running its own variant.  They’ve broken down the 100 books and series into brackets, like a tournament.  We vote on a series of pairs—which of the two we prefer—and the candidates get whittled gradually down to a climactic final round.  They’re about halfway through at the moment.

The Best and the Best-Loved

Looking at somebody else’s “Top Ten” (or Top 100, or generally Top N) list is always interesting.  We may be talking about books, classic rock songs, movie heroes and villains, or almost anything:  the most common reaction, I suspect, is when we look at some of the entries and ask ourselves, how could that possibly have gotten on the list?  Or, conversely, how could they ever have left out this?

Obviously a list of the “twelve tallest buildings” or “five longest rivers” is going to be relatively uncontroversial.  But when there’s no quantitative measure that can be applied, the lists are bound to have a subjective element.  Reading them stimulates us to ask—what could were the listmakers have been thinking when they made those choices?

With the Great American Read (“TGAR”), the subjective side is even more emphasized, because the list (and the poll) is about “America’s 100 best-loved novels,” not the best novels.  The criteria aren’t the same.  There are books we respect, but don’t like.  My favorite piece of music, as it happens, isn’t what I would judge the greatest piece of music.  A more personal appeal is involved.

Someone for Everyone

It’s clear that PBS was at pains to include something for everyone.  The books cover a wide range of genres.  The list includes plenty of “classics”—the ones we got assigned in high school—and also a lot of popular volumes that couldn’t be considered classics by any stretch of the imagination.  (I suspect there are no high-school reading curricula that include Fifty Shades of Grey.)

In other words, we’ve got our “guilty pleasures” right alongside acknowledged masterpieces.  I always enjoy the way alphabetical listings produce similarly odd bedfellows:  on my bookshelf, Jane Austen rubs shoulders with Isaac Asimov, while Tolkien is bracketed by James Thurber and A.E. van Vogt.

Adventures of Tom Sawyer, coverAlice's Adventures in Wonderland, coverAlmost any reader should find something to vote for in the TGAR collection.  If you don’t like Tom Sawyer, how about Alice in Wonderland?  Not enthused about The Godfather—try The Pilgrim’s Progress?  If you’re not in the mood for 1984, maybe you’ll find Anne of Green Gables more congenial.

By the same token, I’m guessing almost no one would accept every book on the list as a favorite.  If there’s someone whose personal top ten list includes The Handmaid’s Tale, Atlas Shrugged, and The Chronicles of Narnia, I’d like to meet them.

The F&SF Division

Isaac Asimov, Foundation, coverIn my own sandbox, the science fiction and fantasy field, the listmakers came up with an interesting cross-section.  I was a little surprised to see Asimov’s Foundation series on the list:  it’s great stuff, and an SF classic, but I’d have thought it was “inside baseball,” widely known only among card-carrying fans.  Another classic, Frank Herbert’s Dune, is probably more widely read.  (I notice the entry for Dune is not marked as a series, which is a good thing.  While there are quite a few follow-on Dune books, after the original the quality drops off exponentially.)

Other SF picks are more contemporary.  We’ve got The Martian, which I’ve mentioned before, and Ready Player One, which was just made into a movie this year—both good choices (by my lights), though not yet perhaps seasoned enough to be classics like the Asimov and Herbert entries.

We’ve got the comedic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the classic Frankenstein, the satirical Sirens of Titan, the young adult Hunger Games, SF horror in Jurassic Park, dystopian tales in both 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale.  We have what you might call prehistorical fiction, The Clan of the Cave Bear, which I’d class as a variety of SF, and time-travel romance in Outlander (also recently come to video).  A Dean Koontz novel, Watchers, which I’d never heard of, may represent the SF thriller.  Then there’s Atlas Shrugged, which probably belongs in SF given a technological premise, although these days it’s more often thought of as a political tract.

Of course it’s always possible to regret the omissions—Heinlein or Brin or Bujold, for example—but a list of 100 nationwide favorites in all genres is never going to be able to pick up every quality work.  Since the TGAR candidates were largely chosen by a random survey of 7200 Americans, it’s easy to see why more widely-read examples are favored, whether or not they represent the highest quality.  The focus on American readers also introduces some selection bias, which might account for omitting, say, Arthur C. Clarke.

Lord of the Rings, coverOver in fantasy, the “high fantasy” epic is well represented by The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, and A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones), with the children’s division held down by the Narnia tales and Harry Potter.  Again, there are some familiar subgenres:  satire (Gulliver’s Travels), whimsy or children’s books (Alice, The Little Prince), horror (The Stand), young adult (Twilight).

I was a little surprised to see three entries in what one might call the Christian fantasy column:  The Shack, Left Behind, and something called Mind Invaders.  When an item turns up that you’ve never heard of, it’s a useful reminder of how far-ranging people’s tastes really are.

An Author’s Range

The list can also spark some interesting reflections on the range of a prolific author.  Probably most people would pick Dune as Frank Herbert’s leading entry, and Pride and Prejudice as the most well-loved of Austen’s several great novels.  But the only candidate for Dickens on the list, for example, is Great Expectations.

Great Expectations, coverNow, I’m fond of Dickens, but Great Expectations isn’t one of the stories I particularly like.  Yet it does seem to come up frequently whenever Dickens is mentioned.  (I don’t even hear quite as much about A Tale of Two Cities, which we did read in high school—possibly chosen for school because it’s relatively short; assigning a class one of Dickens’ doorstoppers would have consumed an entire semester’s worth of reading time.)  Is Expectations really representative of Dickens’ best?  I’d have picked Little Dorrit or Our Mutual Friend, say, if I’d been in on the original survey.  Or David Copperfield, maybe, as the most accessible to a modern reader.  But, again, the list suggests there’s a reservoir of interest in Expectations that I just don’t happen to share—a broadening thought.

In a similar way, it may be harder to come up with the most representative Stephen King or Mark Twain novel—there are so many of them.  (The listmakers did confine themselves deliberately to one entry per author, which makes sense.)  Even within a single author’s oeuvre, it’s intriguing to see which work a majority of readers picked as outstanding.

Incommensurable Goods

After enough of this kind of reflection, we may find ourselves with a certain skepticism about the whole comparison process.

The Fairfax County bracket system, entertaining as it is, only strengthens this impression.  There is a sorting algorithm to create a ranking by going down the list and placing each item in turn in relation to those above it.  And it’s fun to weigh random pairs of works against each other, even within the particular classifications the libraries used (Classics, Midcentury, Late Century, Contemporary).

But the match-up process yields some odd results.  (I understand sports tournament designers also have to take care to ensure good playoffs.)  There’s some plausibility in a face-off between Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights.  But what should we make of pitting Anne of Green Gables against War and PeaceThe Great Gatsby against Alice?  In some cases the entries hardly seem to be in the same weight class, so to speak.  It strikes me as a no-brainer to match The Lord of the Rings against Where the Red Fern Grows, a novel I’ve never heard of.

Even within a given author’s work, one can wonder about how conclusive a comparison actually is.  There’s a scale factor that makes some matches clear:  Asimov’s sweeping Foundation series seems a more logical “top” candidate than even an excellent short story like “The Last Question” or “Robbie,” just because of its greater scope and size.  But it can be hard to decide between stories on the same scale—two great short stories, say, or two very different novels.

Natural Law and Natural Rights, coverAt this point I’m reminded of an argument made by philosopher John Finnis in his Natural Law and Natural Rights (1980).  Noting that one of the classic objections against utilitarianism (“the greatest good for the greatest number”) is the inability in practice to reduce all possible good and bad things to a uniform measure of “utility,” Finnis takes the position that there are a number of categories of human goods that can’t be reduced to each other.  His list of such goods includes life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, friendship, practical reasonableness, and religion (ch. IV.2, pp. 86-90).  These goods aren’t interchangeable.  They are literally “incommensurable”—they can’t be measured against each other.

It’s possible that some similar principle of incommensurability applies to the books we’ve been discussing.  Would I want to give up, say, Pride and Prejudice in favor of The Lord of the Rings, or vice versa?  They’re unique achievements, and we realize something quite different from reading each of them.  We might be able to create some rather vague order of precedence—for example, by the traditional question of what one book you’d want to have with you if marooned on a desert island.  But that’s not the same sort of comparison as equating a dollar with ten dimes.

On the other hand, the fun of weighing (note the measurement analogy) one story against another suggests there’s some common element, or elements, in our enjoyment of a good book.  If nothing else, such match-ups can get some entertaining discussions going.