'Foundation' and the American Empire

Your weekly down note

If you’re watching Apple TV’s attempt to turn Foundation, a collection of novels, novellas, and short stories into a series fit for a box in your living room, you’re either confused at this point in the season, or—having read the books—you’re probably disappointed and confused.

The premise of both books and show is that a galaxy-spanning empire is rotten at the core and crumbling from the edges. Only one man can see this reality. Hari Seldon has discovered a system of mathematics that allows him to predict the future. He calls it psychohistory.

Seldon sees the fall as inevitable, but hopes to shorten the coming darkness by creating a “Foundation” as the seed of a better galaxy.

From there, many of the characters in book and show share names, and so do the planets, but that’s about it, to the show’s detriment.

There ends the review.

The original stories were written by Isaac Asimov at the height of America’s power, and the books were published during Sen. Joe McCarthy’s red scare. They reflect both. 

And while the books are cognizant of Rome’s decline and tell that story, too, they also hold a mirror to the present day, in ways that are both prescient and scary. 

America’s republican experiment nearly ended in a coup in the early weeks of January 2021. The plotters were sneaky and incompetent both, and the result was a riot that engulfed our seat of government on Jan. 6, but didn’t affect the outcome. In the end, neither legal wrangling, nor a bizarre attempt at brute force were able to end American democracy.

But if you’re looking for evidence of rot at America’s core, it’s there to see. Put the almost-coup to the side (if you can) and regardless of the outcome, the system appears corrupt. The election was either stolen, with ballots thrown in the garbage while the dead voted exclusively Democratic, or restrictive voting laws and a hoary Electoral College nearly canceled the will of the people.

Neither view is good and both sides see near-fatal decay as we move toward 2022 and 2024. Laws intended to shore up Republican power for decades to come, under the guise of protecting election integrity, are being locked in place. Democrats squabble to such an extent that they can’t even work toward self preservation.

A self-proclaimed Emperor Trump waits loudly in the shadows.

That’s the center of the empire, the American homeland. 

On the fringes of empire, America has lost the province of Anacreon, as Asimov might dub Afghanistan, to the barbarians. The nation’s force, hard and soft, was finally expended and both the civilian administrators and troops were withdrawn. The way they left, in chaos, also speaks to the limits of the nation’s will and power. 

The United States has also ruffled alliances with France—and everyone else—weakening the empire further at the fringes. Rivals are growing stronger and bolder, just as Asimov foretold.

Maybe there’s time to reverse the rot, maybe there isn’t. If there isn’t, we can only hope there is a Foundation somewhere that can preserve what’s good in us.