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a sly, swift behemoth

Donald Kingsbury
Psychohistorical Crisis
Tor
2002
$27.95
511pp
ISBN 0 312 86102 8

If a column (like this one) could be said to have a mind of its own, a small rudimentary AI muttering away somewhere in the NoSpace between key and chip and disk, then the AI or Made Mind of this occasional column called Scores has (it must be said) a strong predilection for Century Thoughts.

Here's one now. We are in the new century (I find myself typing, not really for the first time). Now is the time (I continue) to begin to try to understand what it is we've just lived through. Science fiction is the window we saw things through in the twentieth century, so maybe it's time to begin to try to understand how we framed the window back then; and how it framed us.

I have on my desk, as though the Ghost in the Column had insisted on its being there, Donald Kingsbury's new novel, Psychohistorical Crisis, his first since The Moon Goddess and the Son(1986), and his best since Courtship Rite (1982). It is an sf novel, but the cover (cleverly executed by Donato) subtly conveys a sense that this is an sf novel about sf itself. Through a bronze armoured iris that opens like the eye of a vast Fritz Lang camera into the heart of some machine-like complex, we observe three human beings talking together intensely there, umpteen fathoms deep in the heart of the engine of the world. And somehow it is clear (Donato's cover is of prize-winning brilliance) that they are the voice of that engine, that the gigantic world at whose pounding heart we find them talking is a world amenable to that talk. It is, in other words, a pure-quill twentieth century sf world: a world shaped by the advocating voice of sf discourse.

We open the book. We discover that Psychohistorical Crisis begins in the year 14,810 of the Galactic Era, which is (as we are told in the "Timeline of Galactic History" which comprises Appendix B of this enormous book) precisely 80,394 AD. Precision this great tells us what the cover has already hinted: that we are in a Thought Experiment world, one of the tomorrows of yesterday, when sf writers routinely laid down Future Histories whose tomfool precision depended on the assumption that one could usefully describe some distant future (this one is 761 centuries away from now) whose difference from now could be argued through a single thread of extrapolation.

Nonsense, of course.

But it is a form of nonsense which was a twentieth century habit, a habit of mind which brushed aside the terrible intagliated choking complexity of things — the poison gnaw of side-effect which mottles deadly this world we are allowed to continue to inhabit, for a while, until it wipe us out — in order to imagine a Next Thing simple enough to control, to incorporate into one's mission statement, to profit from. This is perhaps the greatest sin of twentieth century sf: that it told us the world was supine to our will and idea; that it gave us the habit of command. So it is not only 80,394 AD in this novel; it is also 1950. Or, more precisely, 1942.

Because Psychohistorical Crisis, at first sight anyway, is an homage to the Foundation sequence of stories and novels which Isaac Asimov began to write in 1942, only stopping a half century later, but only because he died. What Kingsbury seems to have done, at first sight, is to modernize slightly Asimov's argument that a plausible future history could be constructed around an imagined mathematics of social prophecy; that the secret prognostications of Asimov's Hari Seldon could plausibly — at least in a work of sf — be deemed accurate enough to predict and control, through a whole flotilla of sequels, the precise future of an imagined galaxy full of trillions of human beings. But only at first sight. Kingsbury's enterprise turns out to be darker and more destructive than a simple modernizing homage to the colossus of ago; and it may be for this reason that he has not been given permission by the Asimov estate to place his tale explicitly in the Foundation universe (as Gregory Benford did in Foundation's Fear [1997]). Or maybe he never asked, maybe he knew that (unlike Benford) he had not come to praise Caesar&133;

It does, all the same, sound an awful lot of Foundation, at first. The place is the same: a galaxy inhabited by trillions upon trillions of human beings with nary an alien in sight, and dominated, all twenty-eight million inhabited systems of it, by one city planet named not Trantor but Splendid Wisdom. Likewise the history: after a lot of centuries of imperial sway over the whole galaxy, an earlier empire becomes unstable, and a great mathematician named not Hari Seldon but simply the Founder works out, through the equations he has generated, the precise history of the next several thousand years, including an Interregnum, a Mule (Cloun-the-Stubborn, who almost overturns the applecart through the use of a revolutionary control device — interactive AIs called familiars or, familiarly, fams — and is only defeated when somebody works out how to transform these fams into quasi-symbionts that make those who where them — eventually everybody — very very smart), and a succeeding period of Peace. Likewise the names: characters with Tin Man monikers like Eron Osa and Jars Hanis and Tamic Smythos and Hiranimus Scogil and Hahukum Kon and Kargin Linmax fill Kingsbury's thousands upon thousands of sentences. And likewise the Ghosts in the Machine: here called the Fellowship, not the Foundation, and which from its base in Splendid Wisdom monitors all twenty-eight million systems, using the Founder's equations to predict and to avert rebellion, the poison gnaw of side effect, chaos, free thought.

And we begin to understand. It turns out that Eron Osa, who has been executed at the beginning of the novel by having his fam destroyed, has committed the ultimate sin in this world of sf-like control of outcomes: he has published publicly a mathematical paper which incontrovertibly demonstrates the fact that precisely through their obsessive secret control over the Founder's tools of thought, the Fellowship has created an ultimately uncontrollable psychohistorical crisis. Because control itself generates side-effects. TANSTAAFL: in an open system, control is always compensated for. There is no free lunch. To own is to pay. To rule is to ruin. To tell creative accounting tales about the world (the way twentieth century sf did, as though the future were a pyramid scheme) is to sharecrop Enron.

In the novel itself, very little actually happens. We are taken back into Eron Osa's childhood, follow him through adolescence and into the Fellowship; we are given several guided tours of various parts of the galaxy; we meet the conspirators who, in precise obedience to the mathematics Osa will eventually generate, have begun to destabilize the sf world of the Fellowship, have begun to threaten the whole galaxy with a dose of consequence. But though almost nothing happens — even the consequences of the psychohistorical crisis adumbrated by Osa are seen solely as computer simulations, which simulations cause the Fellowship to collapse before the galaxy can — Psychohistorical Crisis hums with movement. It is the movement of thought. At the deepest level, Kingsbury's hilarious, ponderous, sly swift behemoth of a tale homages the voice of Isaac Asimov speaking. In his prime, Asimov was (as this reviewer argued in an obituary notice exactly one decade ago) the default voice of sf. It is that voice — penetrating, calm, smug, acute, unstoppable, utterly reassuring — whose replication in Psychohistorical Crisis constitutes that novel's brilliant central coup of usurpation and love. Kingsbury couches his demolition of the engine of sf in language — every page of the book adding to the flow of discussion, aphorism, insight, plays of word, intricate transactions between the figure and ground of the huge telling — that Isaac Asimov could have uttered, though he would not have perhaps ever said the things Kingsbury tells us here, in that voice we remember, in our dreams, that voice of sf of ago, cajoling the world to turn.

 


John Clute is the pre-eminent critic of science-fiction and fantasy, co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and the The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, and writer of more flinty, terrain-gobbling reviews than the normal mind can encompass.

His newest collection of reviews and essays, Scores: Reviews 1993 - 2003, which includes some written for The Infinite Matrix, is now available. It can be ordered from Amazon, and from Old Earth Books.

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