Psychohistorical Crisis, Donald Kingsbury

Tor, 2001, 727 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34195-6

Even more than fifty years after their original publication, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy stands as one of Science-fiction’s enduring classics. While the book’s narrative qualities now seem charmingly quaint at best, the strength of the trilogy’s main conceit has survived the ages: What if we could develop a hard science (say, psychohistory) that could accurately predict the behaviour of large human groups? What if this knowledge was used to prevent (or attenuate) major social catastrophes?

The implications of this concept have been mulled over at lengths by fans since then, but even Asimov’s subsequent exploration of the Foundation Universe (with some half-dozen sequels, plus an “authorized” posthumous trilogy by Bear, Brin and Benford) hasn’t slowed the speculation. Now, with an entire 750-pages “unauthorized” sequel thousands of years after the events of Asimov’s trilogy, Donald Kingsbury acquires some serious street creds as the most obsessed Foundation fan ever.

That, in case you’re still wondering, is a good thing. Kinsbury adjusts some of Asimov’s most unlikely missteps (the Mule’s psi powers are ingeniously retro-explained as a direct mind-link, with stupendous implications for the plotting of the novel), forgets all about that Robots and Empire nonsense added in the last few books and presents a galaxy-spanning sequel. He also questions the very foundations (har-har) of Asimov’s premise, and what it means for the average human living in that universe.

I have noted, in my previous review of the Foundation trilogy, how psychohistory (and most of Asimov’s later retrofits) could lead to an absolute power fantasy in which total control was exerted to control humanity’s fate. I certainly wasn’t the only one to make the remark (it even figures as a major plot point of Asimov’s last Foundation novels), and it’s only one of the kernels from which Kingsbury spins his tale.

It starts with a bang, as our protagonist -”Eron Osa”- is found guilty of unspoken (presumably unspeakable) crimes. Before his eyes, his “fam” (an artificial brain almost essential to advanced thinking) is destroyed as punishment. Eron is then released in the city, left to contemplate his new dumber existence. He doesn’t remember his crime —nor most of his life. The fam’s destruction took along his skills, his memories and all knowledge of his actions. Who is he? What has he done?

It’s an intriguing mystery and the first fifty pages of Psychohistorical Crisis are dynamite science-fiction. The thrill of discovering Kingsbury’s take on Asimov’s universe is deftly mixed with the initial mystery and the dense idea-rich prose. For readers weaned on the Foundation series, nostalgic about classical SF and anxious for the Next Big SF Novel, Psychohistorical Crisis is almost too good to be true; a high-powered update on one of SF’s most celebrated creation.

Almost inevitably, the feeling passes; the novel is very long, after all. The mystery of what Eron did isn’t forgotten as much as it’s explained in excruciating detail -though a book-length flashback describing his life! While the story is stuffed with wonders and supplemented with plenty of interesting intellectual digressions, the initial rush of the novel is lost, and so is the snappiness of the pacing. There’s not a lot of conventional action (our characters think a lot), but then again the whole Foundation series has always been a celebration in intellectual contemplation.

It recovers somewhat by the end of the book as plot lines converge toward the titular crisis and the mystery of Eron’s crime is made clear. Yes, the rambling pacing could have been improved and most of Kingsbury’s digressions could have been edited out. (The novel itself is longer than the original trilogy) But with Psychohistorical Crisis, Kingsbury finally delivers on the follow-up novel we’ve been waiting for ever since 1982’s Courtship Rite (No, The Moon Goddess and the Son doesn’t count): a thick, rich, almost embarrassingly good Science-fiction novel versed both in the traditions of the genre and the latest scientific thinking. It’s at once comfortable and daring, with the potential to snag fans of everyone in between Isaac Asimov and Cory Doctorow. While the self-conscious plotting of the book cannot live up to its initial expectations, it does deliver something as good. Delicious… and filling!

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