Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Revolt Against Asimov’s Second Empire

Review: Psychohistorical Crisis by Donald Kingsbury


One of the pillars upon which the giant reputation of Isaac Asimov still rests is the sweeping Foundation Trilogy.


These three novels detail how mathematician and historian Hari Seldon foresaw a 30-millennium-long Galaxy-wide collapse of civilization, and devised a plan to shorten those coming dark ages to a single millennium. Seldon planned an openly-acknowledged path of historical development for the newly-created Encyclopedia Foundation located on a world at the fringe of the Empire whose collapse Seldon predicted. 

Periodically, this Foundation would face a Seldon Event, a psychohistorical crisis, in which a threat to its existence which would constrain the nascent second empire to follow a single, pre-determined, path. To keep the Seldon Plan on track, a second, hidden foundation consisting of heirs to Seldon’s science of psychohistory would act as “wizards behind the screen” to ensure the coming of the Second Empire.

In Psychohistorical Crisis, Donald Kingsbury looks at the re-established Second Empire, over 2700 years after the crafting of the Seldon Plan. In this far-distant future, Seldon’s name is lost in the mists of history, and psychohistory is a occult practice, whose “Psycholars” maintain their Galactic rule by keeping the tenets of their science a deep secret. Citizens of the second empire exist in their complex society only with the aid of a mind-enhancing outgrowth of Asimov’s mind-probe, the quantum-mechanical familiar, or “fam”. On the surface, all is pleasant and peaceful.

Beneath that calm, however, are roiling currents of revolution. And bobbing along, pulled this way and that by these currents, is Eron Osa, a mathematical genius with a modified fam. We meet Osa as he is stripped of his fam for an unspecified crime. Condemned to live without his memories (but warned by the rebel Psycholar Hahukum Konn not to use the “prosthetic” fam supplied by the ruling council), Osa is forced to live by his native wit—even to the extent of actually reading with his eyes (gasp!) a purloined book of the Founder’s lessons as he attempts to recover the science he has lost.

We then flash back to Eron’s childhood, where we meet Hiranimus Scogil, another rebel, who is seeking a brilliant student to place as a sleeper in the Psycholar’s Lyceum on “Splendid Wisdom,” the seat of the Second Empire. Scogil places his student in the hands of Nemia of l’Armontag, who modifies his fam, ostensibly to give him faster access times, but with a longer-term plan to allow the mysterious Oversee organization to activate their sleeper when desired. 

We meet Kikaju Jama, yet another schemer bent on manipulating events by training and releasing agents, the tattooed barkeep Rigone of Splendid Wisdom, and Frightfulperson Otaria of the Calmer Seas, all of whom have designs upon the mind and future of Eron Osa. In deliciously complex inter-woven character histories, Kingsbury examines the human desire to manipulate others, on the personal as well as the Galactic scale.

Wrapped in layers of philosophy, history, metrical science and astrology, Kingsbury has also given us a closer look at the central premise of Asimov’s trilogy: that what men can predict, men can control. He then challenges this premise, exploring themes of free will vs. prediction; the scalability of government styles, knowledge acquisition and knowledge retention; and the quantum-cat nature of both prediction and history.

This is a demanding read, with sly references to a wide range of science-fictional works in addition to its densely-woven core story. You can enjoy the novel as a mystery (why does Eron Osa merit the execution of his fam?), as science fiction (will the various rebels succeed in overthrowing the Psycholars’ rule, and what is the mechanism by which knowledge slides into myth?), or as skillful homage to Asimov. 

However you read it, the book is thoroughly enjoyable.

Liner Note

At the time of this review, the book was not available on Kindle.

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