Donald Kingsbury

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!

The Moon Goddess and the Son, Donald Kingsbury

Baen, 1986, 471 pages, C$5.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-65381-4

The Cold War has been over for more than a decade, but the books of that era will continue to dog us for a while yet. When readers and critic discuss Donald Kingsbury, they usually talk about Courtship Rite, or even Psychohistorical Crisis, but most tend to forget that the capable Canadian SF author has written a novel in-between, The Moon Goddess and the Son. With good reason, mind you: While I can still imagine the previous two titles being read, discussed and enjoyed decades from now, it’s going to take some effort to even try pretending that his second novel was anything more than an overlong mess.

No, I’m not going to try to pretend deep love and affection for the novel, despite all the personal respect I’ve got for the author and my usual bias for all things Canadians (or, in Kingsbury’s case, from the Montreal area) I’m feeling cranky, and that’s because dull books that take forever to establish a novella’s worth of story always make me cranky.

Heralding from the Cold War’s last dying moments (hey, 1986 is already, what, more than fifteen years old), The Moon Goddess and the Son is a hodge-podge of Soviet philosophy, space boosterism, March-September romance (ew), clashing generations and attempts at a political thriller. It’s long, it’s rambling and if there are quite a few things to like about it, it takes forever to get to them.

You may think, at first, that this is a story about a space-struck young girl who, when she’s abused by her father, escapes into fantasies about a famous astronaut. But don’t, because that’ll come into play only late in the novel (in pretty much the fashion you apprehend). Then again, The Moon Goddess and the Son may be about the famous astronaut and his difficult family relationships. But that’s not it either, at least not at first. Then again, this may be about a role-playing game designer at the end of his rope and the sadistic treatment he’s got in mind for his abusive boss.

Now that may be a thread. Because the designer’s elaborate pain-and-punishment recreation of Russian history ends up being exactly what his boss is asking for in order to understand the Russian mind. Meanwhile, in another plot thread, our young star-struck teenager will sleep with the spaceman of her dreams as well as his son, helping out the family by doing so. Yes, it’s that kind of novel.

But it’ll take forever to get to those plot points. Most of the novel is a pointless collection of scenes that does little to advance the story. Character do stuff; we don’t care. Saudi Arabia undergoes a revolution; we care even less. The Russians threaten to take over the world; maybe that would be best for all involved.

Oh, it’s not as if it’s a total loss: The Russian national character is described with noblesse and respect, setting this novel apart from some of its contemporary ultra-paranoid fiction. Some of the technical details are interesting. It all amounts to a novella’s worth of story.

But it will take special skills today to slog through this brick. Cold War-era politics are about as useful as Tzarist policies these days, and a lot of the cheering for space exploration seems identical from what we’re hearing these days. Coupled to the lack of sustained dramatic hard, it makes it hard to imagine that anyone but Kingsbury completists (and I’ll raise my hand at this moment) being willing to undergo this particular mild punishment.

Maybe there’s a historical worth to this book, if only for a feel of 1986-era thinking. But then again you could just grab Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising and “get” the cold war. As far as Kingsbury is concerned, grab Courtship Rite, read it, treasure it, cherish it and skip directly to Psychohistorical Crisis. Anything else would just be a waste of time.

Courtship Rite, Donald Kingsbury

Pocket, 1982, 409 pages, C$4.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-46089-7

If you should be so lucky as to meet Donald Kingsbury in person, you will be impressed. With his 6-foot+ frame, unkempt white hair and long-winded interventions, he’ll towers above you physically and intellectually. He’s the perfect picture of a British intellectual. He’d make a perfect mad scientist. Instead, he turned to Science-Fiction.

My first Kingsbury fiction was the excellent “To Bring in the Steel” in the Hard-SF anthology The Ascent of Wonder. A good hard-SF tale, it also delved unusually deep into the psyche of its characters. “A mix of Herbert and Heinlein,” I thought at the time.

With Courtship Rite, the comparison with Herbert seems more and more adequate:  it’s a planetary romance of the best, most intricate sort… just as Dune was.

On the planet of Geta, several centuries in the future, a human civilisation has evolved after quite a few centuries of isolation from Earth. Geta is a desert: arid, harsh, barren. Most of the plants are poisonous. The human society has adapted in consequence: Cannibalism is the only source of meat, marriages involve multiple partners, people “decorate” themselves with scars and complex rituals dictate courtship, death, love… This isn’t a “nice” society, nor an easy book to digest. The technological level is barely above medieval despite the advanced genetic knowledge and some scenes are simply brutal.

The story itself is ho-hum: Boys love girl, but chief orders them to marry barbarian princess. Boys stage Ritual of Death to see if she’s worthy and the story goes on from there. What follows is war, pain, death, a more-or-less happy ending, several levels of intersecting intrigue and a fascinating social exploration. The book is immensely detailed, yet effortlessly so: Kingsbury obviously knows Geta like he lived there.

For Courtship Rite is the social equivalent of Hard-SF tales. Geta’s society is meticulously described by affection and -yes- admiration. I was impressed by the originality and completeness of the vision. In many ways, this book is a trip on another planet.

The characters are exceptionally well-drawn. This is a superior planetary romance, on both sense of the term: A smart SF Harlequin book… (albeit an unusually sadistic one) Kingsbury had put a lot of care in his characters and it shows. Whatever the story is, you care for them. What’s more, I got the unusual feeling that the latter part of the book was moved along by the characters; excellent. Each of the book’s 66 chapters is headed by an original epigram -another touch of Dune– and some of them are true gems.

It’s a magnificent tapestry, a very dense, well-written book. I recommend spending a little more time on this book. I didn’t and frankly, I now regret it. A re-reading in a few year will be much more satisfying. It has the depth of Dune, if maybe not the strong narrative drive: The story is uneven and takes more than a while to rev up to speed. Add to that a few technological inconsistencies (the genetic vs mechanical knowledge) and the overall effect is diminished, but still impressive.

Still, it’s a very good read. It’s no wonder it was nominated for the 1982 Hugos. If you can find it in used libraries, don’t hesitate to pick it up. This isn’t for everyone, would make a rotten miniseries, will certainly shock most SF readers in places (even the most jaded) but is worth of attention by mature SF readers.