Donald Kingsbury has been publishing SF for half a century! And yet prolificacy is not his hallmark; it took him 30 years to release his first novel, 1982's Courtship Rite, and Psychohistorical Crisis is his first novel in 13 years and only his third overall. L. E. Modesitt, Jr. has more books than that hit the racks in six months.
Psychohistorical Crisis, which first saw print as a novella, is an extremely demanding but stimulating and mature novel that Kingsbury wrote in response to Isaac Asimov's classic Foundation trilogy. Asimov's epic was predicated on a concept he called psychohistory, founded by the iconic Hari Seldon. Psychohistory is a mathematical principle that, in the context of Asimov's Galactic Empire milieu, enables its practitioners to predict trends in human culture and civilization and thus plan the most beneficial futures for humanity accordingly. Though inapplicable in predicting the behaviors of individuals, psychohistory is useful in dealing with galaxy-spanning populations of humans numbering in the multi-quadrillions.
Set nearly 80,000 years in the future, the novel follows the stories of an ensemble of colorful and richly drawn characters (though few are women) who live in the height of the Second Empire, when 28 million systems are governed from the Pscholars' homeworld of Splendid Wisdom. Eron Osa is a young and brash psychohistorian who, for some mysterious crime, is sentenced to having his "fam"—a device worn by almost all Empire citizens that enhances one's mental faculties—destroyed. To be famless is tantamount to a death sentence; it makes day-to-day living in the Second Empire difficult, and mastery of the advanced mathematics of psychohistory impossible.
After introducing Osa immediately following his sentence, the story jumps back about 20 years, to when Osa was a boy of twelve. Here we meet the other characters who will shape Osa's life. Osa, the black sheep son of a high official on the world of Agander, is tutored by the mathematician Murek Kapor. Kapor is really the bogus identity of Hiranimus Scogil, an operative of the Smythosians, a renegade group of psychohistorians who deplore the secrecy and elitism of the Pscholars. Scogil, impressed by young Osa's latent mathematical skills, devises a plan to take the impetuous young lad offworld to be trained in a prestigious university specializing in advanced math. Scogil's idea is to condition the boy so as to rise within the ranks of the Pscholars, then betray their secrets. But doing so will require an illicit upgrade to the boy's fam, a risky procedure. After the upgrade takes, Scogil unceremoniously dumps Osa in a college on the planet of Faraway, where Osa runs into one Hyperlord Kikaju Jama.
Jama is a collector of ancient antiques who has come upon an artifact that reveals the location of a planet called Zurnl. This is said to be the world on which fifty psychohistorians were deliberately martyred by the Pscholars in order to gain a strategic advantage in a conflict between themselves and Faraway, whose rise to economic prominence played a part in a past psychohistorical crisis, where crucial trends were inaccurately predicted. Zurnl, whose location has been long suppressed, is said to hold the Martyr's Cache, the records of psychohistorical knowledge kept by the martyred men, the very secrets the Pscholars protect so fanatically. Scogil, who is getting help in his long-range plans through the grandfather of Nemia, his betrothed, forms a tentative alliance with Jama and they venture to Zurnl, where the Martyr's Cache is recovered and indeed contains the stores of knowledge Scogil had hoped for. Just how dangerous is this?
Psychohistorical Crisis should not be read as any sort of direct sequel to Asimov's saga, like the "official" sequel trilogy a couple of years back that was tag-teamed by Benford, Bear and Brin. It is Kingsbury's take on Asimov's themes; Foundation done his way. The results are a remarkable success. I'm truly surprised it didn't make the preliminary Nebula ballot. Though the book can often be frustratingly technical and expository, mostly it is vibrant, well-paced, and full of wit. Kingsbury pays a respectful homage to Asimov while occasionally lightening the mood with nicely placed spoofery (including one hilarious parody of the Three Laws of Robotics).
The characters are extraordinarily fleshed out for such a sprawling work of philosophical and mathematical hard SF. Kingsbury's dialogue is marvelous, conveying a sense of the literary and aristocratic while managing, somehow, not to take itself half that seriously. A seemingly inexhaustible supply of details adds to the richness of Kingsbury's galactic epic. The asteroid deflection business run by one of the wealthiest families in the empire; the eerie and romantic myths of humanity's lost past, and the genuinely funny myths about life on ancient Earth (here called Rith) passed down over 80 millennia. Kingsbury has accomplished something quite impressive. He's invented a believable galactic empire, one that seems like a real place full of people, and not a bloated space opera cliché. (For one thing, there are no aliens.)
Sure, the book has its draggy bits, but the wealth of Kingsbury's ideas and the wonderful imagination with which he has told his story will, I think, be met with great esteem by serious readers tired of all the same old junk and looking for something fresh. The sprawling plot, with all of its intricacies, means that you'll probably be finding yourself backtracking a bit, re-reading a certain chapter in order to pick up details you missed the first time. (My synopsis has barely scratched the surface in terms of characters and events; most writers don't pack this much information into entire trilogies.) Folks in the mood for a light read will be turned off by that sort of thing, I know, but for readers who crave detail and a wealth of imagination and craft, Psychohistorical Crisis offers the sort of reading experience all too rare today. The Good Doctor would be proud. He might even be envious.