Math isn’t magic. It’s science.
As a fictional science device, it may go beyond what we understand science to be right now, to become the incomprehensible magic Arthur C. Clarke was talking about. But it’s still a science. How we treat it and talk about it in fiction makes all the difference.
Take, for example (since I’ve mentioned him already), Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama (1973). A group of scientists stumble upon a world inside a spaceship that is hundreds of years beyond their scientific ability. Intersecting at a time of strife in the human race’s development, the novel straddles three powerful human motivations; science, religion and politics.
Since the crew selected to rendezvous with the spaceship Rama are scientists, they believe that this world is a scientific marvel from another planet and is open for all to study. The few religious factions in the crew mirror the varied beliefs on Earth that this ship heralds the coming of a Divine Will. After all, the boat is named Rama by most of Earth, invoking a deity from one of the largest religions on Earth, Hinduism. Politics is then the third plot angle which is only really interested in itself and how the spaceship Rama will affect the interplanetary stability of the economic system.
While Clarke makes no definite statement on Rama's actual origins and purpose (at least not in the first instalment), he builds into the fabric of his world rules that, although not understood in total, are actual and potentially understandable. They operate somewhere in that realm of magic that belongs only to the uninitiated, who can’t see everything Rama has to offer yet.
But Clarke’s Rama is a somewhat plausible example in science fiction — even given the increasing unlikelihood in the science of achieving interstellar travel. What about the more pseudoscientific worlds of the genre?
Discounting for a minute the post-modern mind trips of authors such as A. E. Van Vogt or Phillip K. Dick, authors who take more after William Burroughs in that the text exists only as a fragmented literary reality, pseudo-science fiction usually plays fair. It has its own rules, but it acts like its sibling hard science fiction.
Let’s take Frank Herbert’s The Godmakers (1972) as an example. Like Herbert’s famous Dune (1965), the novel concerns the development of the ubermensch or ‘superhuman’, a being that can shape reality to suit itself. Again, we’re off into the uncanny valley of science that looks like magic here, operating from rules that couldn’t quite exist in our conceptual world. Yet, in The Godmakers, these rules form a particular type of science that belongs specifically to that world in question. The rules function well, whether the characters understand their reality's science.
The point I’m trying to drive here is that neither Rama nor Godmakers actively discounts science as a performative reality. This is precisely why the new adaption of Foundation (2021) feels so off, given what the work it’s based on.
Isaac Asimov's original Foundation (1942–1950) was a series that used a pseudoscience fictional idea (of a sort). The whole plot hinges around a mathematical concept called psychohistory, which supposedly can predict the actions of humanity if enough data presents itself. With the entire human race to choose from, its inventor Hari Seldon can accurately map the coming events in human history. Hari decides to interfere in the affairs of history to save civilisation from a dark age of 30,000 years, reducing it to a mere 1,000. To do so, he must set up a counter-culture, a microcosm that’s independent of the ruling power of the Galactic Empire, to stave off its fall when the Empire collapses.
Much of the action of Foundation comes from sudden reveals that Hari has been less than truthful — the whole first Foundation is tricked into believing its only purpose is to carefully record the events of human history for the fall, not knowing that Foundation itself is being set up to survive the cataclysmic universal event. It’s also later established that even Foundation was predicted to suffer and that Seldon established a second Foundation to be the eventual successor of the Empire, bringing about the reduction of the great Dark Age.
Throughout the whole novel, as with much of science fiction, the actual math remains elusive — very few people want to dive into that much detail. But it’s always eluded and always there as a force. Even when the Mule emerges, an unforeseen mutated individual who can disrupt Hari’s plan, the story doesn’t throw out its scientific founding. The mutant’s powers are not understood but aren’t contradictory to the science of Foundation’s world.
This is why this latest adaption feels so off. Putting aside the different storylines which make more use of recurring characters (the events of Asimov's story taking place over hundreds, even thousands, of years), this TV adaption feels different. It misses the essential spirit of Asimov's work. It completely throws out the math.
Hari’s plan in the series is introduced as a great work of science that only a few can understand. It takes mathematical genius, which few display — Gaal Dornick, Hari’s often unwitting protégée, has to solve a mathematical problem posed in a competition before she can look at it. Visually, to avoid much complex explanation, the plan is shown as a giant CGI ball of glowing data points, written in (presumably) one of the show’s fictive future languages. It looks a bit like a sorcerer’s magic crystal, but we get that it’s partly for effect.
However, the show later goes on to completely discount this science. Salvor Hardin, one of the children who grew up in Foundation’s colony, can feel Hari’s plan as something repeatedly stated beyond science, even better than it. She can see without the math. It’s also later revealed that Gaal Dornick is prescient and can see into the future, which seems to counter her ability as a mathematician strangely. A later confrontation with Hari Seldon’s projection has her almost complete a 360-degree turn, lashing out at Hari and (seemingly) the scientific method itself. She realises herself at that moment as beyond science also.
In any other science fiction adaption, this wouldn’t be quite so jarring, but in Foundation, it feels like an accurate jab at the science on the political level. Science is a form of understanding that’s relegated to its white, power-hungry male characters, namely Hari Seldon and Empire himself, who manages to survive through the ages only through the science of genetic cloning. By comparison, Salvor and Gaal, the two more likeable characters who love beyond themselves, seem to reject the science imposed upon them. Even Eto Demerzel, the sole robot in the universe, becomes a better character by increasing her humanity, moving away from her programming to claim her soul.
I’m not sure how to feel about this shift in direction, other than the fact that it doesn’t hold with Asimov's original. I’d even suggest it feels a bit wrong in some ways that this first successful adaption has so little of the spirit of science in it. We can ignore the setting and characters and still get at the heart of the message, but here it feels completely removed.
The depiction of math as this mystical ball of knowledge ultimately rejected also leaves a strange taste in my mouth. It may be that this has always been at the heart of science fiction and that here it’s just a way of representing it as a visual shorthand, quickly addressing and then dismissing something that would otherwise slow down the plot. But it also feels like a gross simplification, unnecessarily so, of mathematics — suggesting that maths is so complex that it is magic, not just something that looks like magic to the uninitiated.
What we got in this adaption of Foundation is exciting but misleading for anyone expecting the novel in TV form. It also leaves me slightly scared about how we talk about math in the genre and overall. In what is being labelled the current ‘post-truth era’ to say that science is so complicated that we can’t and shouldn’t have to understand it is a somewhat dangerous position to take. It relegates science to a form of magic that battles against spirituality on its grounds, as something we don’t have the right to understand rather than something we don’t yet know. Science may even be ‘evil’ when it gives us the answers we don’t want to hear, rather than simply a matter of fact part of the universe.
So it’s this colouring of science and mathematics that has me concerned. Math isn’t magic; it’s science. Whether you believe it or not, they don’t fight on an even playing field because they are different disciplines altogether, even if it’s hard at times to distinguish them. Even when we don’t go into the details, the spirit of science in science fiction lurks somewhere in the background, like a familiar face we’re glad to see.
Only now it feels increasing like scientific scepticism and science are both being played by the same actor when they’re both so different. All of which makes it frightening when we can no longer clearly distinguish (or care to distinguish) between the two.
In conclusion, Foundation has presented something that stands up in its rights and offers its points. It feels off to me because, as the successor to a series nearly a century old now, it will replace the previous Foundation for most audience members. And to be honest, I’m a little worried about what it’s replacing, about Asimov's legacy, especially if we don’t care to realise the difference.
Foundation and Foundation. Please don’t confuse the two. Now read the book.