On My Bookshelf: Psychohistorical Crisis

Psychohistorical CrisisThis seems to be a running theme in my leisure reading these days: dissatisfaction. That might mean I either could write my own novel, or I could give up on everything but Ignatian spirituality.

Other good authors have tackled Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. And with an inspirational cornerstone like an empire of quadrillions of people, no wonder. The grandmaster of science fiction was himself inspired by the fall of the Roman Empire, and extrapolated it on an immense scale: a galaxy of thirty million inhabited worlds ruled by a cold, cruel, and corrupt bureaucracy at the center of the settled universe. After Asimov’s death, his estate authorized the so-called killer B’s (Gregory Benford, Greg Bear, and David Brin) to pen a trilogy late last century. I wanted to like that series more than I did. But mostly I found it lame.

And somehow, not every Isaac Asimov Foundation story was itself genius. Some of his tales were pretty limp. But the basic idea, and how a good writer can handle it: that is what is so promising. And in so many cases, elusive.

The most successful non-Asimov treatment of the Foundation was Donald Kingsbury’s novella “Historical Crisis,” a work commissioned for a 1997 collection, Far Futures.

Mr Kingsbury expanded his crisp and deft treatment of the far future Second Galactic Empire into a novel of 500-plus pages. More background. More development of people. On the flip side: more indulgence, more dead-ends. This tale is set 2700 years after the Founder establishes a Plan to stave off thirty millennia of galaxy-wide barbarism and preserve human ascendancy in the Milky Way Galaxy. Three hundred centuries can be collapsed into just ten and will culminate in a merger between a technological society based at the frontier of human settlement and a highly secretive class of overseers. Those rulers use the Founder’s predictive mathematics of psychology to control the immense collection of human worlds in a benevolently-ruled Second Empire. Better, it is hoped, than the first.

The novel starts off well enough: the main character, Eron Osa, is found guilty of treason to the ruling caste, receives a punishment that deprives him of memory and intellectual ability. Then the author takes us back to Osa’s boyhood and a series of slow adventures in which we see him as an unknowing pawn in bigger plots that hope to level the Second Empire.

The content is interesting in its descriptions of planets and sometimes, the ideas. But the book suffers that there’s too much. The bad guys all seem to blend in with one another. I also got the sense the author himself got tired about two-thirds of the way through the book and realized if he wanted it shorter than the original Foundation trilogy, he was going to have to pick up the pace.

I found a little too much fascination with under-age girls that contributed nothing to the movement of the plot. In all of Asimov’s Foundation novels, there was nothing of the mythical Earth until the very end of the seventh book. But here, there’s a little too much known not only about the home planet of humanity, but details of history. A visit to Earth 75,000 years in the future is an interesting adventure for Eron Osa and the reader, but it doesn’t do anything for the novel. Far more interesting is the expedition to a prison planet and what the novel’s characters find there.

What would have made this a better reading experience? Less about the Earth. More definition amongst the antagonists. Half the length. Fewer references to a history characters shouldn’t know and stronger motivation from the characters themselves.

Mr Kingsbury does explore a classic Asimov conundrum: free will. Can human beings retain control of their own destiny and somehow avoid utter destruction? Or are we in need of some master plan that guides us and shapes our choices to good ends?

It’s a good problem for “religionists” to consider. Are believers better off as happy serfs under a kindly authority of clergy? If we can trust the resolution of Psychohistorical Crisis, Kingsbury would suggest knowledge is power. The common folk can and should be trusted with the secrets of the empire. Those who think otherwise are blind and will eventually come to ruin and defeat.

Did I need an overly-long novel with the occasional teenage prostitute to tell me that? Maybe I need to write my own book.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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