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From Foundation to The Expanse, most sci-fi adaptations are trash – but us nerds watch them to the bitter end

It’s been slim pickings for those of us whose literary priority is unfilmable sci-fi – until now, writes Ed Cumming

Tuesday 05 October 2021 18:03
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<p>Jared Harris in Apple’s expensive sci-fi ‘Foundation’</p>

Jared Harris in Apple’s expensive sci-fi ‘Foundation’

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Foundation launched on Apple TV+ this month. Predictably, it’s complete trash – a Frankenstein assemblage of pomp, nonsense and flying cars. I’ll watch it until the bitter end. It’s always like this with these gigantic new streamer sci-fis. I sit down with enormous hopes, like a parent at sports day, have those dreams shattered, and persist with the programmes anyway. It was true with Altered Carbon, and The Expanse, and even the regrettably porny Brave New World, which was cancelled after one series. A few multimillion-pound CGI cityscapes, a gruff middle-aged rebel or two and some spurious spaceships and I’m hooked. It’s the simple pleasures.

I realise this is a nerd thing. We’ve never had it so good. Literary genres are not equal when it comes to telly adaptation. Jane Austen ultras can relax, safe in the knowledge that there will be a glorious new small-screen version every few years until the end of time. With Bridgerton, Netflix went one further and adapted a Jane Austen satire. Other writers are available! The great Victorian novels are similarly strip-mined. Once producers reach the end of the classics, they just go back to the start of the classics. Just as once upon a time no investment manager would be fired for buying IBM stock, no TV executive was ever sacked for taking a punt on more crinoline and angry servants in listed buildings. From small ambitions comes another Great Expectations.

The same is true of long-running crime thrillers. At a certain sales point, a TV version becomes inevitable. This year we’ve had John Sim in Grace, the long-awaited screen debut of Peter James’s Brighton-based behemoth. Apple is in the process of making Slow Horses, the first in Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb books. Since Game of Thrones, producers have been optioning anything with even a wisp of dragon smoke. If you like Martin Amis, you are guaranteed that they will keep trying to adapt him until the end of time, even though every treatment has been a grip-the-seat-and-shut-your-eyes disaster. It goes without saying that the entire culture is ruled by comic books.

The pickings have been slimmer for those of us whose literary priority is unfilmable sci-fi. I don’t mean Star Trek and those other spaceship shows, which were designed to be filmed on rickety little sets for not much budget. I grew up reading interminable series of novels about galactic wars, rich in abstract concepts, impossible technology, vast scenery, alien lifeforms and outlandish weaponry. Stories so big, they could never be depicted on screen. To be a fan of Asimov’s Foundation books, or Iain M Banks’s Culture novels, or Joe Haldeman, or Peter Watts, or Vernor Vinge, or more recently Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem, was to know that nobody would ever be so foolish as to attempt to render them on screen.

Not any more. Every episode of Foundation has a budget that would make most Hollywood films blush and look at the floor. Everywhere you look you can see money being burnt. Alien planets? Cash. An exploding space elevator? More cash. Jared Harris? Loads of the stuff. Sci-fi has always appealed in theory to producers because there’s no limit to the amount you can flog them afterwards. If you liked the first Star Wars, you will watch every Star Wars, buy small plastic figurines of Star Wars, and possibly pay to attend conventions in costume. Say what you like about Rachel Cusk, her novels have yet to occasion a range of figurines. Computer VFX are so advanced, and the streamers’ purses so distended, that the “unfilmable” goalposts are not what they used to be.

Foundation trailer

The problem, as everyone who watches Foundation will realise, is that the beauty of sci-fi books is that the reader is free to edit and fill in the nonsense as they see fit. Everyone finds their own path through the stories, selectively prioritising the parts that speak to them and ignoring those that don’t make sense. That’s why it’s so hard to explain great sci-fi to people who haven’t read the books; it’s almost like trying to explain a dream. It’s easy to describe a period drama because we’re all familiar with the periods. Each sci-fi is set in its own universe. By filling in all the detail, the camera forces the nonsense on the unsuspecting. This may explain why the most beloved TV sci-fi, like Doctor Who, is almost self-consciously unflashy. The Expanse is a good example of a series that straddles the divide. Its first few series were classic rickety-set spaceship hokum. Then Jeff Bezos turned up with his credit card and suddenly they were roaming around on the surface of Mars. It’s hard to say it’s definitively better for the money.

There’s no sign any of this is stopping. The Culture series, The Three-Body Problem and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars books are all lodged in various stages of development hell, among countless others. They’ll probably all be disasters, if they ever make it to screen. Originally the reports were that Amazon planned to spend a billion dollars on Three-Body. It could spend 10 times that and fail. When you reach for the stars, you always fall short, however beautifully rendered they are. The nerds will love it all anyway. If there’s one thing they – we – enjoy even more than space opera, it’s being critical.

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