November 15th, 2002

The Friday Lunchtime "Waiting For The Bid Review Meeting" Review: Psychohistorical Crisis

At Octocon, China Mieville talked about the need for a mature genre to e able to communicate within itself, and to use its own techniques to deconstruct and enter into a dialogue with other texts. That's what Donald Kingsbury is doing with Psychohistorical Crisis, and the texts he's chosen for this dialogue are some of the oldest, and most beloved, of the genre: Asimov's Foundation trilogy. They're books that he has a fundamental disagreement with, and Psychohistorical Crisis is his response.

Asimov's novels end on an optimisitic note. The heroic self-sacrifice of 50 psychohistorians has put the Seldon plan back on track, and everything is set fair for the eventual recreation of the Galactic Empire. But, wonders Kingsbury, what will happen next? Yes, the Encyclopaedia Foundation will fade away to nothingness, but what will happen to the psychohistorians who have guided and nurtured the reformation of a single human government. Kingsbury's thesis is that they will become a corrupt dictaorship, hidden behind the scenes, and intent on steering the Empire to a stagnant sea of stability, a state that is more fragile than they can possibly imagine - for it is only in freedom of action that we can be creative and grow.

Psychohistorical Crisis is not an approved piece of Foundation canon, like the "Killer B's" works. Instead, names are changed, but the spirit of Asimov moves on through the novel's back history. Trantor becomes "Splendid Wisdom", the Mule "Cloun the Subborn" - but we recognise them still. But in the years since the end of Asimov's story there have been changes - most significantly the development of Vingean intelligence amplification technology, the fam.

The Second Empire is no longer new when the story begins. Eron Osa, a psychohistorian, is sentenced to death for an crime he can not remember. but death here is not physical - it's the destruction of all his enhancements, the machine that makes him who he is. His fam destroyed, he's released into the teeming warrens of Splendid Wisdom, no longer a threat to the status quo. As he struggles to rebuild his life we follow the back stories of several indiviuals, all destined to be part of a conspiracy to tear down the imposed order of the psychohistorians. It's a story that takes us across the recovered empire, seeing its glories - and its grevious flaws. We watch how Eron is manipulated by friends and enemies alike, and as he's pushed in to violating one of the supremem tenets of the psychohistorians: there can only be one group attempting to control the future.

Like Asimov's novels this is an intellectual work. Key plot points aren't violence or action, but cool debate and the release of scientific papers on obscure aspects of quantum thermodynamics. Kingsbury himself is creating an argument, a libertarian response to Asimov's gentle manipulations. He believes in individual liberty, and points out that even the gross manpulations of psychohistory are curtailments of freedom. Yes, his slow stagnating Galactic Empire is a straw man, put up for the sake of his argument with the influence of Asimov's Foundation on the genre, but it's not the Foundation that's his target, just that idea of the techno-priesthood that Asimov popularised, the white coated men of science at the heart of Donald Fagen's song IGY.

And yet there are holes in Kingsbury's argument. If freedom is so good, why is Eron's contribution to that freedom forced on him? Perhaps this is still part of Kingsbury's argument, but it jars when you reach for his central themes.

Still, all in all, this is an excellent book. I'm still in two minds whether to call it an important book. As a literary deconstruction of a core text, it suceeds. But as as a novel, there are many points where it feels overwritten, and occasionaly directionless. The scenes on old Earth, with the reconstruction of a World War II bomber are enjoyable, but do little to advance the story or the characters. We already know that Eron's mentor is eccentric, we don't need a 100 page digression to show us just how eccentric...

(My only quibble is that I kept reading "Eron" as "Enron"... I blame the newspapers.)
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Good news for basking sharks... they are now protected in British waters.

I know they swim off my home island, but I've never seen them. Maybe now I will get the chance.

There's always been part of me that's wanted to be a marine biologist, and I keep being drawn to the sea and its creatures. I've always felt it's a result of coming from the home of the world's second largest tidal range, that and a childhood full of Willard Price and National Geographic ...
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