Thursday, June 11, 2009

Diverting the River of Time

A review of Psychohistorical Crisis, by Donald Kingsbury (New York: Tor, 1996).

Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, as commenter Ian M. pointed out here, was written at a time when the intellectual climate favored determinism. People in rocketpunk era SF thought nothing of rainfall being scheduled for next Tuesday morning. Freud was much in vogue, and evidently promised to draw out even the murky depths of human impulses and put them on the couch for analysis and adjustment. (This perhaps explains why Hari Seldon's imagined discipline is called psychohistory, though it is much more like a ramped up sociology and economics.)

Chaos as an idea did not yet really exist. The world of the early 1940s was nothing if not chaotic, but in a way that itself seemed all too dreadfully predictable, World War II the unfinished business of World War I. Perceptive observers had already guessed as much, one dubbing the Treaty of Versailles 'a peace to end all peace.'* So there was plenty of attraction in the idea that intelligent people might be able to figure out a way to formally predict – and act to preclude – cataclysms that seemed all too predictable.

Time has not been friendly to this confidence in predictability, but Foundation Trilogy had an enormous intellectual impact on me when I read it in the Golden Age of SF, 7th and 8th grade. (It also had an intellectual impact on both Newt Gingrich and left-leaning economist Paul Krugman; make of that what you will.) What I learned was that history wasn't just made by Rocket Rangers zooming around and zapping bad guys; ideas could shake more worlds than fleets of interstellar hyperdreadnoughts.

At age 14 it wasn't obvious to me how Asimov had painted himself into a corner. In fact it wasn't even obvious to Asimov how to paint himself back out of it. The problem he had was how to make a story out of Seldon Crises, when their outcome was known in advance (at least to the psychohistorians of the Second Foundation). He got through the first few by showing how skilled statecraft could ease the inevitable transition – in modern parlance allow a 'soft landing' – whereas stupidity made the inevitable much rockier to live through.

But after a few cycles this appeal began to pall, and Asimov had to fall back on a diabolus ex machina, the Mule, to shake up the game by knocking over the chessboard. Many years later he retconned the whole Foundation-verse into his robot stories, which as I argue (in the above link) works in robot terms but not at all in Foundation terms. Asimov missed a subtler point – namely that Seldonian psychohistory carries the seeds of its own disruption. Anyone who works it out can act to manipulate the future in the same way that Seldon himself did, but perhaps to different ends. What happens when rival Seldon Plans collide?

I'm not the first to come up with this. Donald Kingsbury did so some years earlier, and also did something about it: He wrote Psychohistorical Crisis, dealing with precisely the question of rival psychohistorians. Lacking permission from Asimov's estate to set it overtly in the Foundation-verse he does the next best thing, placing his story in a transparent knockoff. Blatant imitation is all too common in SF/F, but this is imitation with a purpose, and it works.

I won't deal here with the plot, or the intriguing little gadget (called a fam, for 'familiar') that Kingsbury comes up with to put a bit of contemporary gloss on Asimov's 50s-esque SF technology. For that, and his plausible retcon of 'Cloun-the-Stubborn' (albeit less tragic than the original Mule), read the book. The flavor is appropriately Asimovian. If you are looking for action of the biff-bam-pow sort this is not the book for you, any more than Foundation Trilogy was.

I agree with commenter Jim Baerg, here, that Kingsbury does a nice job of portraying some the local complexities beneath the surface of the Second Galactic Empire. He also corrects a few minor Asimovian slips. The Empire's capital world, Splendid Wisdom, has a trillion people, versus a pitiful 40 billion on original Trantor. Given a city-planet about the size of Earth, even a trillion people yields a population density only comparable to San Francisco – Trantor wouldn't even be suburban, with a population less than seven times that of present-day Earth.

When the characters visit the human ancestral planet, Rith, things go off the track a bit. It is fun stuff in itself (the Pyramids still stand, as they likely would after a mere 80,000 years, and the Great Pyramid has been tackily restored). But Kingsbury somewhat violates his own argument about the difficulty of reconstructing history of the very remote past, while an archeological replica violates Checkhov's Law in a big, rumbling, four-engined way. The final confrontation of psychohistorians feels rushed as a scene, but both the logic and the implied ethics are gracefully Asimovian.

These are quibbles. I imagine the whole thing would be a bit lost on someone who never read the Foundation Trilogy, but if you did read it - and if you haven't, you should - Psychohistorical Crisis is well worth taking out for a spin.

Psychohistory is unlikely to be revived as a science fiction trope; indeed it never became a standard trope the first time around, unlike Asimovian robots that all but killed off the old hostile kind. All the same the original Foundation Trilogy established a crucial trope, the grand sweep of history. It was not the first; Olaf Stapledon dealt with far vaster eras of time. But Asimov – with some background help from Sir Edward Gibbon – gave us the Fall of the Galactic Empire, the backwards Interregnum that follows, and the implied rise of a Second Empire.

So, let's discuss history in the context of SF. I dealt with the theme in a group of posts starting here. Which themes, analogies, and ripoffs have reached their sell-by date and are due for retirement? What new historical themes and parallels, less drawn on thus far, might replace them?

* This later became the title of a book about one of Versaille's stepchildren, the modern Middle East.


Anonymous said...

I'll leave the Hollywood visual cliches out of it. That's a different discussion.

Rise and Fall of the Space-Roman Empire - The whole mighty empire/interregnum/renaissance cycle is overdone. As is the Space-American Frontier. How about a historical cycle based on the expansion of the Russian empire into the east? Or the Polynesian settlement of Hawaii?

Personally I think the whole Singularity thing is done to death. It really is a product of the tech bubble of the '90s.

There are others that I'm tired of seeing, but I'm trying to decide if they're actual themes or just Hollywood cliches.


Anonymous said...

The whole "Cycles of History" for humans is dependent on so many factors- not the least of which is the planet we live on. Our history is driven by our enviornment as much as human nature, accidents, calamities, and the disparity of resources. The history of human civilization on Mars, or Titan, or L-5, or Nova Terra will be different; if for no other reason than the climate and distribution of resources are different. Instead of fitting the old pattern into new circumstanses, how about coming up with new patterns of historical development that fit the setting?

For example: Worlds where artifical habitats are needed to survive, then city-states form the basics of geopolitics and there is generally a much higher degree of cooperation; if everybody doesn't share, nobody survives. On L-5, an insular city-statewhere the 'long plan' mentality developes to an extreme degree throughout a majority of the population.

Look at what forces are driving human civilization in different settings; Earth has drastic climatic changes every few hundred years; that cyclic pattern is reflected in human history, but without that subtle influance (or a completely different one) civilization would most likely fall into a different pattern.

Anyway, that's my thoughts on the matter...

Rick said...

Ian - In spite of my affection for the Decline and Fall thing, yes it is overdone. With the proviso that the familiar form is rooted in an old perception that has been left behind by scholarship of the actual period.

For example, I read a startling observation just a few weeks ago (alas I didn't record the link). In Western Europe beyond Italy there was almost no literary writing (e.g. histories) to speak of during the Roman period. Instead such writing - most famously Bede and the Irish monks, but also Isadore of Seville, etc., appears in the post-Roman period, 6th to 8th centuries. Which sort of upends the whole Interregnum convention.

If cyclicity is desired, there's also the Chinese historiographical tradition of dynasties going stale, losing the mandate of heaven, and being supplanted by another.

Polynesian expansion in general is a more plausible fit for interstellar colonization than the American frontier (or any overland expansion, for that matter).

As for the Singularity, interesting insight that it is rooted in the 90s tech bubble. It was overdone for me from day one - 'Rapture of the Nerds' pretty much captures my attitude. :-)

Ferrell - I've speculated about city-states making a comeback even on Earth; you could make a credible argument that they are more the Western norm than the national states of the last few centuries.

And generally good point about different environments creating different historical drivers. Toss in the fact that nearly all of recorded history involves agrarian societies, which arguably are radically different from postindustrial societies. Most human beings for a few thousand years were peasants, something rapidly ceasing to be the case.

Kedamono said...

There is a contemporary to Harry Seldon in H. Beam Piper's Cosmic Computer. And that worthy is Merlin the supercomputer built into the walls of Force Command Duplicate on the world Poictseme.

Now Merlin is different from Seldon, as it is a computational predictor, and must be fed new data, so that it can refine its predictions. When presented a series of choices, it can reasonably predict the outcomes of each choice, allowing the user to make an informed decision as to the best course to follow.

Of course, Merlin and Poictseme are curiously absent in later stories of empire in HB Piper's Terran Future History, though a case could be made that perhaps they either have been surpassed by a newer, better Merlin, or they are a power behind the throne, staying in the shadows, acting as advisors to the emperor.

Rick said...

It's an interesting measure of how long ago the Foundation Trilogy was written that computers played absolutely no role in psychohistorical modeling, not even for sheer number crunching. There were fancy equivalents of overhead projectors, but the whole thing was much like someone once described Russian science: really brilliant guys equipped with a chalkboard.

Merlin may have been quietly disappeared to keep Piper out of a jam. Or rather a sort of inverse jam - like the Trek transporter room, reliable prediction saves characters by killing plots.

Anonymous said...

"Most human beings for a few thousand years were peasants, something rapidly ceasing to be the case."

I'm not sure that's true. The vast majority of the Chinese don't own anything beyond disposable consumer goods, and in India the new industrial workers are in the same boat. Slavery and sharecropping is alive and well in Africa and Latin America (Although both areas show some promise). As for North America and Europe, does the phrase 'wage slave' make you laugh or make you uncomfortable? And my Essex kin are definitely peasants in every sense of the word, even if they do rent better homes and spend credit at better shops than their Medieval ancestors.

Back to the original point of the thread - Given that I'm in my mid-thirties and spent my adolescence in the Absurdist Period* of the Cold War, I'm probably too set in modern SF to recognize which tropes are worn out. Most of the tropes I think are old are from the Golden or Silver Ages of SF. We'd be better off asking someone born in the '90s or after 9/11 what they thought was past its prime.

* When people stopped taking global nuclear annihilation seriously and started writing cheezy pop tunes and B-movies about it.


Rick said...

Ian - True that even in developed countries most people have fairly precarious lives, and about half the world is still effectively in the agrarian age - much of rural China and India, and the poorer countries.

But even in the Third World urban populations are vastly larger than in the premodern past, both relatively and absolutely. I suspect that this will mean a different political dynamic. The stereotypes of 'long suffering peasants' versus 'urban mob' are themselves products of the agrarian age, so that may not be much guidance. Still, a different political dynamic may play out in postindustrial societies than in the familiar premodern templates.

For what it is worth, since 1945 states have been more at risk from internal upheaval than from foreign threats. Which leads me to wonder whether 'WW II in space,' let alone 'Roman Empire in space' are not anachronistic in fairly basic ways.

Anonymous said...

Historically most regions (Nation-states, city-states, what have you) have faced greater risk from internal unrest than external invasion. The West's current low levels of internal political seem to be an aberration. A post on another thread (Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic) pointed out that the 18th and 19th Century US saw levels of mob violence and assassination that made the riots of the '60s look like peaceful love-ins. And Victorian England only looks peaceful from a safe and far vantage point.

Here's a thought - People born after the fall of the Berlin Wall don't understand the mindset of people who remember the Cold War. Not the terror of annihilation or the sense of absurd futility of the whole MAD concept... They get the ideas in the abstract, but don't really feel and understand the idea.

On the other hand, they do understand that things are slipping out of the control of the old elites and old institutions. That post-WW2 governments and strategies can't really deal with post-9/11 reality.

In time we'll have new elites and new governments fully capable of dealing with these new realities. But for what will feel like a very long time our institutions will simply not be dealing with reality. And the result will be a period of fear, confusion, and possibly chaos.

During that period - And probably afterwards - the Cold War will be remembered as a Golden Age of peace and stability.


Anonymous said...

"And the result will be a period of fear, confusion, and possibly chaos.
During that period - And probably afterwards - the Cold War will be remembered as a Golden Age of peace and stability."

Ok, that is a truely frighening thought...a period of potential civilization-ending threat of nuclear warefare seeming (in contrast) a "Golden Age" as compared to a coming age of political/military/financial chaos. Now, that is possible new trope...calm and stable stretches of history punctuated by occational bouts of utter terror and uncertanty...

Rick said...

I'm old enough to remember the 'first' Cold War, which in a weird psychological sense ended with 'Dr. Strangelove.' After that came, I guess, what Ian calls the 'absurdist' period - a nice name; I've also seen 'baroque period' used in much this sense.

The nuclear age has brought (for me) a new appreciation of corrupt governments - elites dedicated to their own wealth and pleasures are less disposed to blow those things up along with the rest of the world. Flip side is making religious fundamentalism even scarier than before; nothing is more alarming than nukes in the hands of people who might actively believe they'll go to heaven.

I've been reading Coates regularly of late, but missed that post or comment. But indeed there is nothing new about internal threats to elites. Ibn-Khaldun (sp?), in the 14th century, was the first historian Arnold Toynbee mentions as having ventured general laws a la psychohistory, and he argued for something analogous Ken Burnside's 3Gen rule. In the Muslim world of his time, emirate dynasties typically lasted three generations before being overthrown.

Perhaps one of the future recurrent patterns will be alternate cycles of theoretical cataclysm with day by day stability, a la the Cold War, and periods when MAD is not a factor because polities are far more concerned with constant internal turmoil.

JimBaerg said...

As long as we are talking about 'laws of history' I should mention another book I recently read.

"Never at War: Why Democracies Will Not Fight One Another", by Spencer R. Weart

The 1st Chapter is available here:

The idea is also discussed with further links here:

Weart went to considerable effort to identify the limits to the 'democratic peace' & what are the crucial factors by investigating cases where regimes with some of characteristics of democracies did confront one another militarily.

It's well worth reading.

Given the massive destructiveness of modern weapons, I think the real future will have something like a democratic peace or a world bombed back to pre-industrial conditions. This doesn't leave much room for the space warfare that authors like to include in many stories.

Weart also notes that republics but autocracies form long lasting leagues. All this suggests the possibility of a future that is not 'interesting' in the alleged Chinese curse sense, & so actually rather nice to live in.

The 'Commonality' in Poul Anderson's story _Starfog_ is the sort of loose space federation that seems plausible. BTW this story is set well after the fall of the Terran Empire in his Technic League future history.

Rick said...

I haven't read that book, but I've read some other books and articles on the 'democratic peace' argument. As I recall, in terms of the actual evidence it is on rather shaky ground in ancient Greece, but holds up rather well in the modern era.

The 'theoretical' argument I saw was also intriguing. In disputes between democracies, the leaderships on both sides are responsive to the same generally nonviolent politics by which they rose to power at home, and so on a fundamental level speak a language the other can understand.

Beyond that, I agree that all out war between postindustrial societies ends with both parties no longer postindustrial. In spite of my cheerfully posting about space warfare, I suspect that war will go the way of dueling once multishot firearms were available. It became simply too dangerous, even as a means of culling excess aristocrats.

Jim Baerg said...

Judging by Weart's book the shakiness of the evidence for ancient greece is simply that we don't have good records of the details of government for every minor polis.

Weart also finds that oligarchic republics keep peace with each other, but oligarchies & democracies fight each other. So his book has all sorts of interesting information about medieval Swiss cantons & the Hansseatic league.

Something that struck me was that the (pre-modern) historical evidence was almost all from Western civilization. One of the few exceptions was the Iroquois confederacy.

Rick said...

True that there were something like 700 poleis, 'city states' in classical Greece, of which we have significant information about a handful.

Also worth noting the ideological alignment; democracies generally with Athens, oligarchies with Sparta - with both great powers not at all hesitant about putting muscle behind friendly factions elsewhere.

I would guess that oligarchic republics keep mutual peace for the same reason that democracies do: The oligarchic senates find it easy and natural to deal with each other by the same mechanisms they apply to their internal deliberations. Whereas oligarchies and democracies, dealing with each other, have somewhat different internal systems, and perhaps also a sort of 'right/left' mutual suspicion.

Republics, at least in the written record, are a distinctly Western phenomenon. So are city states, and the first could be a special case of the second, since in premodern times nearly all republics were city states. I've read suggestions of nascent city states elsewhere, and my guess is that they were favored in the West by geography. Europe is basically a big peninsula with a bunch of secondary peninsulas and islands, making conquest and empire formation difficult.

None of which explains either the Iroquois or the Roman Empire! But alternatively the examples are mainly Western because this work has been done mostly by people working in a Western tradition of political philosophy and history. I have only vaguest knowledge of premodern India, for example, or how its history and thought relates to the striking robustness of democracy in modern India.

Damien Sullivan said...

I've seen claims of Greek attestations to possible Indian democracy-republics, largely on a military basis. Amartya Sen might have something to say about that too. (_The Argumentative Indian_)