10 January 2012

Last Foundation

Psychohistorical Crisis
by Donald Kingsbury

The dust jacket of Psychohistorical Crisis claims that Donald Kingsbury is following in Isaac Asimov's footsteps by just reusing psychohistory in the same way another sf author might reuse "the starship, the robot, the time machine."  Indeed, the blurb goes on to indicate that Psychohistorical Crisis is about a man named Eron Osa trying to discover what crime he committed could be so heinous that he no longer remembers it.  Nothing too Asimovian there, it would seem (or even psychohistorical).

But this is nothing more than marketing spin, probably designed to avoid the wrath of the Asimov Estate.  Psychohistorical Crisis is, in fact, a very close sequel to Asimov's Foundation novels-- his original Foundation novels, as Psychohistorical Crisis ignores Gaia and the robots and anything else Asimov introduced in Foundation's Edge or later works. (Well, ignores them except for a couple jokes at their expense.) The book dodges copyright by substitution: "Splendid Wisdom" for Trantor, "Faraway" for Terminus, "Cloun-the-Stubborn" for the Mule, "Founder" for Hari Seldon, and so on.  Once you get used to it, this actually works very well; it's easy to imagine that "Trantor" actually means "splendid wisdom," or that Terminus's name shifted in the two millennia since we last went there.  It was the less clever ones that threw me out of the story every time they cropped up, like "Lakgan" for Kalgan.  Really?  That's not even trying.

Ignoring the copyright dodge, Psychohistorical Crisis is certainly the best Foundation novel to be published since Second Foundation.  In fact, it's probably the best Foundation novel full stop.  Asimov was great at introducing concepts, and he was great at scale, but Psychohistorical Crisis demonstrates that Asimov never really fully exploited psychohistory.  For Asimov, psychohistory was primarily an avenue for his typical hard sf puzzle stories: given this social circumstance, what way would Hari Seldon have seen out of it?  Later, this got more complicated: given psychohistory, what could knock it off track? what could you do to get it back on track?  But fundamentally, the original trilogy, and to a lesser extent Foundation's Edge and Foundation and Earth, are all puzzle stories, not strongly interested in the how or why of psychohistory, just the what.

What occurred to me while reading Psychohistorical Crisis is that, weirdly, the Foundation stories were never all that interested in history.  History is sketchy in those stories, and given that the Galactic Empire has been around for 12,000 years (and humanity has been in space for 50,000), there's actually not been that much of it.  Psychohistorical Crisis is replete with history; references to fragments of past events abound, and history directly influences the decisions of almost every major character in readily explicable way.  There's not just one galactic history, either, but Kingsbury draws attention to how different groups have their own histories, that may or may not connect to reality or other histories.
There were too many conflicting histories, a quantum ripple of alternate pasts. There were too many wars and too many intrigues and too many stars and too vast a span of time for one human... to comprehend. (374)
Asimov is often praised for his scale, but I think Kingsbury accomplishes more with it here than he ever did.  Kingsbury is very interested in how we process and understand our own history.  There's a repeated joke about how the characters are always getting the history of pre-spaceflight Earth wrong, which sometimes got on my nerves because I think that kinda thing's been done to death (we're told that Lincoln wrote the Ten Commandments, and that Dickens's London was Neolithic), but it fits into the project of the book as a whole.  To my surprise, I was utterly captivated by chapters solely about how it is impossible by physical law to know all of history, or about how the Egyptians developed the measurement of time. (The appendix on this topic, however, is much less interesting.)

The key to what Kingsbury did, I think, lies in a passing reference to Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: "I've been plotting galactic patterns of scholarship. It is always the same curve. Flat, then a sharp increase, then flat again when knowledge matures. During the explosion, scholars always think the explosion will go on forever. They do not value what is known.  Their pleasure is to seek new discoveries. During the mature phase, scholars always think that everything is known and see scholarship as the art of applying the known" (382).  This pretty clearly maps onto Kuhn's ideas of "normal science" and "revolutionary science."

Kingsbury's genius lies in finding a "psychohistorical crisis."  This is not a "crisis" in the Asimovian sense-- one predicted by psychohistory-- but in the Kuhnian sense-- the discovery of a point where a scientific paradigm no longer applies.  Kingsbury found a point where psychohistory would break down, not because of external forces like a telepath or a hive-mind, but because of the tenets of psychohistory itself.  And it's not even a real science!  It is a puzzle story in that sense, I suppose, but it's one that's interested in what makes psychohistory work in a way that Asimov never was, I don't think.

In addition, Psychohistorical Crisis gives us interesting characters, a twisty plot, and fantastic worldbuilding.  It's everything one could want out of a science fiction novel, and it deserves to be much more widely known.  Both as a part of Asimov's universe (I can't believe it took me ten years to read it when I read stuff like Foundation's Fear right off because it was "authorized") and as an excellent work of science fiction in general.

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