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Psychohistorical Crisis, Donald Kingsbury, TOR, 2001, 511 pp.

Psychohistorical Crisis is a book that is a meticulous homage to Asimov's Foundation series as well as a love letter to the genre of science fiction as a whole. Kingsbury constructs this hefty novel as a type of sequel to the original Foundation trilogy, except of course with a fellowship, a capital planet named Splendid Wisdom instead of Trantor, and a few other changes. Kingsbury explores the concept of the mathematical prediction of the future -- psychohistory -- to the fullest, and updates the context of the society in the book. A large part of the story deals with the fam, an electronic familiar, which is an astute observation about certain trends already present in information technology. More on that in a minute. Kingsbury also works hard to portray a galactic civilization of the far future, with mixed results but with far greater success than many other science fiction novels.

The events of Psychohistorical Crisis take place between 14,790 and 14,810 GE (Galactic Era, or 80,374 to 80,394 AD). The first chapter actually begins with a section in 14,810, and the subsequent chapters help us catch up with the preceding twenty-year span. The main character, Eron Osa, has just been judged guilty of a heinous crime and had his fam removed and destroyed. Unfortunately, in the absence of his fam, he can't remember what he had done, much about his profession, or for that matter, how to get around Splendid Wisdom. He remembers that he was a psychohistorian, a member of the elite group of Pscholars who control the events of 28 million star systems and 100 quadrillion humans, but the advanced math required for this position was held and manipulated mainly in the fam that was once fastened to the base of his skull. How did he come to be in this predicament? The story goes back 20 years to Osa's life as a boy on a remote planet, and his long journey across many different planets, a school where he trains as a physicist, and eventually the notice of psychohistorians. Is there really a looming psychohistorical crisis that the high-ranking Pscholars cannot see? The story also shows us the plans of various enemies of the status quo, including a man named Hiranimus Scogil, who chooses to be employed as Osa's tutor for his own reasons, Kikaju Jama, a Hyperlord of Splendid Wisdom who wants to regain his former glory, and Nemia of l'Amontag, who knows a thing or two about illegal modifications of fams. Once on Splendid Wisdom, Osa is befriended by Hahukum Konn, a Second Rank psychohistorian who is also feuding with Jars Hanis, currently the leader of the group.

The book ably portrays Osa's changes from his days as a petulant boy arguing with his father, through school days and a stressful apprenticeship with Konn, all the way to his state of panic as a famless criminal. Osa grows up on the planet of Agander, and Aganderian society is quite different than that of other planets. For example, Aganderians expect young males like Osa to have affairs with older women, while the Hyperlords of Splendid Wisdom are expected to have affairs with young women. Kingsbury gives each character an origin in a different society, helping to differentiate between them and also to add interest to that character interactions.

A far future setting is always tricky: logically, societal and scientific changes would be so vast as to be incomprehensible to us. Many science fiction books fall into the trap of referring too often to the events and ideas of our time. Kingsbury employs a number of interesting devices to combat this problem. First of all, he does well with the passages of time that have elapsed, filling in many interesting stories, bits of history, names of emperors, movements once influential, and a timeline in Appendix B to help keep track of all this. I'll give one example of an instance in which the colossal perspective of the far future is conveyed. Osa is on Old Rith (Earth), being offered an old skull by some entrepreneurial locals. But Osa knows the era from which it came: "In any event the skull was worthless. By not limiting their population, men of that era had depreciated the value of their skulls" (367). The second way in which Kingsbury portrays the age of galactic civilization is through attitudes towards Old Rith. Most people in the galaxy know that Rith claims to be the home planet for humanity, but this is generally regarded as dubious. Galactic views of events on the home planet (wherever it may be) are notably skewed, and similarly outrageous are the lies that the Rithians themselves tell. For example, Konn's historical reconstruction of uniforms from WWII: "Ultimate Sam's Amazing Air Fangs bluecoats complete with tricorns sporting the circular thirteen stars and appropriate saber sidearms" (387). Kingsbury's third method is to reiterate again and again the size of the galaxy. Early in the book, while Osa is being tutored by Scogil, Osa complains about the difficulty of doing research. Scogil replies:

'There are a hundred quadrillion people out there all writing their memoirs and taking cubes of their newest baby, and you expect everything to be linked with everything else, and instantaneously, all the way back to the cave paintings of Lascaux? That a student's life should be so easy! The Galaxy is a vast place,' he said tritely. (83).

Indeed, Scogil's last comment is repeated many times in the book, and at one point noted as a very common cliché of the time.

Psychohistorical Crisis is highly recommended as a worthy follow-up to Asimov's Foundation trilogy. Those who have not read Asimov might not get the same level of enjoyment, but Kingsbury creates quite an achievement here all the same.

Last modified: February 4, 2002

Copyright © 2002 by James Schellenberg (

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