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Psychohistorical Crisis

Tor, HC, © 2001, 511 pp, ISBN #0-312-86102-8
Reviewed June 2002

Are you a fan of Isaac Asimov's original Foundation Trilogy? Were you disappointed in Asimov's 1980s extensions of the series because he threw away everything that was cool about the original trilogy? Or maybe you just enjoy science fictional future histories, such as H. Beam Piper's Terro-Human Future History? If so, then you should give Donald Kingsbury's Psychohistorical Crisis a try.

The premise of Crisis is that following the Second Foundation's handling of the Mule, the Psychohistorical plan of the Foundation was seen through to its thousand-year completion, at which point a Second Empire was established, and Crisis takes place 1600 years after that founding. But Crisis is more complex than that. It disguises the Foundation characters and places with new names (Trantor becomes Splendid Wisdom; Hari Seldon is "the Founder"; the Foundation is a planet called Faraway; the Second Foundation are the Pscholars; the Mule is Cloun-the-Stubborn). and updates the technology to modern SFnal standards (the Mule wasn't a mutant, but an individual who gained use of mind control technology, and the Pscholars adapted the technology themselves to counteract him; this technology developed into "fams", supercomputers attached to a human mind to augment and expand it). And then sets things in motion.

Eron Osa was an ambitious Pscholar who at the beginning of the novel is convicted of a crime and has his fam destroyed. Since much of his memory was on his fam, he can't even remember what crime he committed, much less his Psychohistorical background! The story then jumps 20 years earlier to young Eron's childhood where we see how he got to that position. Ambitious and intelligent, he's recruited by his tutor, Murek Kapor, to study math on Faraway. But Kapor is really a false personality for an agent of the Oversee, Hiranimus Scogil. Since Psychohistory can only track large events involving huge number of people (tens of billions), the Oversee is rebelling against the Pscholar-controlled Empire by creating many tiny disturbances in the hopes of perturbing future history in a way the Pscholars can't manipulate. Scogil sees in Osa the potential to plant a spy among the Pscholars by modifying his fam.

Osa eventually falls in with Hahukum Konn, a second-rank Pscholar who is the Empire's chief paranoid: He looks for tiny perturbations in the galaxy and investigates them, even if no one else believes they're of consequence. Hence, he's the direct adversary of the Oversee, even though neither of them knows the other exists. Based on this background, Osa uses his own formidable skills to see the true heart of the Psychohistorical crisis which is facing the Empire, and which no one else perceives.

While the crisis itself is interesting, the true heart of the book is to see Kingsbury playing around with history. Taking place hundreds of centuries in the future, Kingsbury paints a culture deeply committed to learning about its history, but realizing that the past is almost as unseeable as the future. To the Empire, the nineteenth century is much like the twentieth, leading to some amusing errors of dating committed by Konn and company. We're given sweeping summaries of chunks of the future history which the characters inhabit, sometimes maddeningly brief, sometimes profoundly thought-provoking. At its core, Crisis is about considering how we view ourselves, our past, and our future, and how those facets of our lives relate to other peoples' lives.

Crisis isn't entirely successful, though. Despite its length, it feels like it ends abruptly, without truly resolving its issues. I'd have preferred to see some chunks cut out of the extensive telling of the backstory in favor of more exploration of how things turn out. We're given a road map to how the crisis will resolve itself, but we sadly aren't really shown this. We need to infer it, and that makes the ending weak.

The book is also astoundingly dense, and you do have to be persistent to work through it. It's certainly not a book for everyone, and if you hate books with lengthy exposition about the world they're portraying, then Crisis probably isn't for you.

I, however, enjoyed it quite a bit, despite its flaws. There's nary an Asimovian robot in sight, never mind those annoying folks from Gaia who wrecked the later Foundation novels, and it was basically rewarding to see Psychohistory taken out and treated seriously again. It was always the core of the Foundation trilogy, and that series fell apart without it.

If you find yourself nodding in agreement with some of my sentiments, then Psychohistorical Crisis might be just the thing for you.

hits since 6 June 2002.

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