Forward and Backward with the Foundation

OK, what about the other Foundation books?

Well, I just finished all seven of them, and I'm here to say-- man, that's a lot of Foundation books. First, let's take a look at some of the general themes that emerge, then I'll add some comments book by book.

Again, expect mondo spoilers.

Review of Donald Kingsbury's Psychohistorical Crisis

So what about psychohistory?

Let's start by revisiting the question I asked in my first essay: "Does psychohistory work in Asimov's world? Is Seldon's theory correct, and does his plan work, and actually account for the Foundation's success?"

Well, if you've read the books it's hardly worth spending any time on the question. The Seldon Plan is thoroughly undermined by Asimov himself in the sequels. Not only does the Second Foundation freely edit the master's work, but it obviously thinks of itself not as a scientific community but as a ruling class; their self-definition is through power, not knowledge. But their status is moot anyway: they're trumped twice in the course of the two novels, first by Gaia and then by the robots.

As for the prequels, there's no doubt that Asimov didn't intend the sort of wry camouflage of a political movement as a scientific one that I described-- though I think my reading can still be defended. After all, based on what's actually in the novels, what is Seldon's actual achievement? To describe the future course of history? Nonsense; his predictions stay on track for less than three hundred years. The Plan then continues for two hundred years more; but a) it's not Seldon's plan anymore, but the Second Foundation's; and b) it's kept on track not by its predictive accuracy but by the intervention of three superhumanly powerful agencies.

No, Seldon's actual achievement was political: the means out of the swift decline of the Empire, and the establishment of innovative, confident new polities. Whatever exactly Asimov intended, this is what he wrote.

Running a galaxy

The subject of the sequels (Foundation's Edge and Foundation and Earth) turns out to be not psychohistory but statecraft: what an ideal (futuristic) society should be. The alternatives considered are basically-- Curiously, none of the serious candidates maximize individual freedom and responsibility; all of them strongly feature some group of beings that Knows Better and runs things for the rest of us. The rulers may look on their subjects with what they suppose to be benevolence, but they are not asked for their input and are ruthlessly suppressed if they resist.

(Well, that's not true of Gaia for the Gaians; but it's true of Gaia with respect to the rest of the galaxy.)

The basic problem is not so much How do we run a huge galactic society? as How do we do it if we have near-infinite powers of coercion? What values should we instantiate? Can people do anything they want? Can they oppress and exploit each other; can they hurt each other at all, can they sit around doing nothing, can they agitate for a completely different system? How much of our coercion can we use? If we use it, what happens to free will, or to the subjects' very humanity? And what happens to own own, to the rulers'? Who watches over the watchers?

The robots (this insight comes from David Brin) basically follow the example of the Chinese Empire: a benevolent despotism, with outlets for both the democratic and hierarchical impulses, focussing much more on stability than on innovation. After setting up the system, they attempt to limit their interventions to a minimum, but the humans who hear about it tend to feel their overlordship to be oppressive. And that's a typical reaction, especially from Americans: we don't need this sort of utopia. (This is why Jack Williamson's "With Folded Hands" is a horror story.)

The First Foundation has by this time become alarmingly imperial. The Mayor proposes at the start of FE to more or less establish the church of Seldon; she runs roughshod over constitutionality; and she's all too ready to grab the Galaxy, five centuries early, by force. When the original series was written this sort of attitude made a lot of sense to Americans-- why not take over, since we could obviously run things better than foreigners, who were at best benighted primitives, at worst tyrants? But things look different now, so much so that Asimov doesn't even need to spend much time convincing us that the Mayor is proposing to bite off more than she can chew.

The Second Foundation's problem is that of all ideological élites: being by design deeply distinct in character, values, mentality, and powers from the ruled, they cannot possibly be sympathetic rulers. The first series ends with the victory of these psychohistorical Maoists; in the sequels Asimov backs away from this "perpetual living death by calculation." Indeed, the behavior of the Second Foundation's Politburo, I mean Speakers' Table, makes the mentalics' arrogance and unfitness to rule almost comically evident.

Golan's position on Gaia is weaselly: he think's it's the best solution-- but he doesn't want to be part of it. My own reservations:

I don't think Gaia was intended as Asimov's last word on the subject. The last words of Foundation and Earth suggest two menaces-- extragalactic aliens, and the Solarian, Fallom. The next five centuries, until the 116th Edition of the Encyclopedia Galactica appears in Terminus in 1024 FE, may turn out to be fairly tumultous.

Those damn robots

When I first heard that Asimov had trotted out R. Daneel Olivaw as the éminence positronique of the Galactic Empire, I thought he'd lost his mind.

Of course the robots are entirely alien to the original series. But they are integrated into each of the new books. Asimov has simply reinterpreted what the series is about (more thoroughly than I did in my essay, in fact). Obviously psychohistory as a system interests him much less than it once did; what interests him now is a 20,000-year saga in which robots and humanity are the twin protagonists.

In some ways it comes off an an obsession. Why are robots so important to the old boy? Comfort? The presence of R. Daneel watching over humanity for 20,000 years is oddly close to the idea of God. Is there some idea that, having killed off God, we had better manufacture a new one, so that we can once again relax in the arms of a benevolent, but minimally interfering, protector?

At times I even wondered if there was something sexual about the obsession. I don't mean that Asimov thought about sex with robots-- though what should we make of the fact that Hari Seldon, whom Asimov describes as his alter ego, marries one? I mean that the nature of the obsession has the insistence and opacity of a fetish. If you don't see what I mean, consider the droids in Banks's Culture novels, or Heinlein's Mike, or Gibson's AIs, or Lem's delightful, freewheeling Trurl and Klapaucius: in these you can see the interest in robotic intelligence and its meaning, but without the Nietzschean overtones of Asimov's robots, taking over both the galaxy and the master's opus.

The really odd thing about the robots, however, is not their messianic pretensions or the Three or Four Laws, but their seeming inability to fully understand or emulate human beings. Why are there differences between human and robot mentition? Why can't any particular feature of human intelligence be mastered? The robots can handle such tricky problems as visual and auditory perception, spatial orientation, muscle control, language, and moral judgment. Why should emotion or the "animal" passions be stumbling blocks?

If I were designing a robot I'd give it emotions-- strong internal signals related to basic problems of physical need and relationships-- not least because reason can always run awry. We can talk ourselves into anything; fortunately we have emotions to keep us eating when we're hungry, taking it easy when we feel pain, and keeping the species going, no matter what tomfooleries we believe.

Surely the way we and the robots differ is mostly in what the emotions relate to. They don't have to eat or reproduce, so they don't need hunger or lust. But emotions relating to relationships and danger would still be useful. Others might be modified: they don't need the ambition and envy that derive from our animal heritage, but as servants they need a strong sense of hierarchy.

Asimov-- engagingly-- doesn't make all his robots purely logical beings. His finest creation along these lines is Dors Venabili, who unlike Daneel has passions and angers, laughs, learns to love. (All three B's felt the fascination of the character in their additions to the series.) She goes a long way to making robots seem like a reasonable part of the Foundation universe.

Not quite far enough, perhaps. They've earned their place in the Late Imperial atmosphere; but what do they bring to the Foundation story itself? They're basically one more group of hidden superhuman controllers in a universe which, like the Marvel Multiverse, has managed to accumulate an embarrassing surplus of them.

For me, ultimately, they don't have enough of the sense of wonder about them. For tales of far futurity, Cordwainer Smith or Olaf Stapledon are far more evocative.


Prelude to Foundation (GE 12020)

Actually the third of Asimov's new Foundation books; and the best of them-- the best written, the most filled with action and invention. It enriches the series immensely to get to know its central figure better-- and to get the grand tour of Trantor. It becomes that rarity in sf, a planet with more than one culture on it.

The first section also treats what surprisingly little sf is about: the process of academic discovery-- library searches, conferences, the legal status of universities, the frustrations of blocked research, of venturing outside one's field. (We'll return to this with Benford.) This concern is not kept up, as the adventure elements take over; but the McGuffin that Hari and Dors are after remains charmingly academic: a good test case.

Asimov sticks with the absurdly low 40 billion population figure, but he does make Trantor more believable here-- if not the Emperor, who's every ermine-clad advisor-dependent monarch we've ever known.

Sf writers still make little attempt to understand linguistics. There's a discussion of different words used for air-jets on different planets, for instance, but why would the process stop there? Why wouldn't it continue till every planet had its own language(s)? The mere fact of empire wouldn't stop this process; it hasn't stopped China from fragmenting into different languages, in a fraction of the time-extent of the Galactic Empire.

Asimov's model is presumably the linguistic unity of the U.S: different planets have regionalisms and accents, but not separate languages. But the U.S. was settled only a few centuries ago; the Galaxy has been peopled for 20,000 years-- time for Indo-European to break up into languages as diverse as English, Albanian, and Hindi-- twice.

Would galactic unity do it? Hardly; the cultural and political unity of China hasn't prevented it from fragmenting into different languages, in just a couple of milennia. How about modern communication? But modern communication doesn't prevent linguistic change: Americans don't speak with British accents now that we can hear the Beatles and Monty Python. Accents are levelled by mixing at close quarters, in schools or barracks; and there is not enough of this at the galactic level to hinder linguistic change.

The spaceport deals with the problem of regionalisms with ideographs, which seems rather naive: do they think ideographs never change? Or that there are no cultural issues involved with ideographs? For instance, the ideograph for an air-jet is a pair of wings; what about planets that have no birds? For that matter, what about other forms of air travel? (Seldon also mistakes the ideograph for an upside-down W; but surely our alphabet hasn't survived for all that time!)

Asimov introduces races here, or rather posits that "Westerners", "Easterners" and "Southerners" have maintained themselves as races for 12,000 years of galactic history, and even retained typical names-- the Easterners have distinctly Chinese names, not even as worn-down as the "Western" names are. Now how can that be?

I had to check, but Asimov does change some things-- all for the better, so far as I'm concerned. In the 1949 story, Trantor's actual surface is said to be completely lifeless; here it's covered by thin soil, enough to support trees in the spaces between domes. The earlier book also has Trantor entirely dependent on other planets for food; in PTF it's done with yeast and other 'microfood'. As well, the entire atmosphere has subtly changed: Trantor used to be an aristocracy dominated by large "families" and almost entirely devoted to imperial administration; now it's a much more complex entity of 800 diverse sectors, an empire of worlds all to itself. And Trantor is no longer precisely at the galactic center, since there's a massive black hole there.

Asimov seems to be (overly) interested in transportation. He lovingly describes how you get from Point A to Point B. You'd never guess he was a biochemist; you'd have thought his day job was transportation engineer.

The revelation that Chetter Hummin is the same as Eto Demerzel is an effective plot point (I didn't anticipate it, though I was convinced Hummin was not a journalist), but it does leave the main plot as an oddity-- a virtual plot. Half the dangers turn out to be artificial: Demerzel was really just arranging a suitable Grand Tour for this promising young academic.

The great narrative challenge in sf is to manufacture suspense and adventure in worlds which are completely malleable to the author's will and where, therefore, obstacles and adventures may seem completely manufactured. In bad sf this manifests itself as dangers that are dangerous only because the characters tell us so. (If you haven't completely blocked out Star Trek V, remember the energy barrier-- a pointless detour in an already absurd plot.) In good sf the rules of the world are communicated early enough that the dangers feel real and the limitations of the characters' resources are predictable.

Asimov's puzzle here was to manufacture intrigue out of nothing, like quantum fluctuations in the vacuum. We already had "Seldon vs. the mandarins" in the original story; what can be added to that? And what plausible enemies can exist in the calm center of Imperial rule, especially since we know that the Empire doesn't fall for centuries? His solution-- the multiculturalism of Trantor itself-- is clever. Demerzel's fraud undermines it a bit, but only in retrospect.

Forward the Foundation (GE 12028, 12038, 12048, 12058)

Working out his theory, Seldon turns out to have two types of 'unfair' advantages: access to the eternal robots; and mentalics. Both derail psychohistory, though Asimov never seems to recognize this (Bear and Brin do). (It doesn't seem to occur to anyone that Seldon himself derails psychohistory.)

It's easy to convincingly show that Dors--or Hari--is a fighting wiz; it's much harder to show (rather than just tell us) that Hari is a mathematical genius. It seems something of a missed opportunity: the real interest is in how psychohistory was worked out-- not, robots help us, how it was funded.

Where this becomes a problem is in the Wanda story, where Seldon reestablishes his project via mentalic manipulation. No one questions the morality of this, much less the desirability of a future in which mentalics enjoy an invisible overlordship over human beings. When exactly did psychohistory move from unproved speculation which might be completely wrong, to something that really works, and which therefore might make some of these strong moral claims?

And even if it is true, are there no limits to what can be done in its name? (We don't react too kindly to claims that Christians can do anything they like to pagans/natives who don't know the Lord, or Communists to those who are "opposing the direction of history".)

Why are Raych and his family killed? It advances absolutely nothing in the plot. It's rather as if, having written the little shocker in the Encyclopedia fragment about Wanda being orphaned, Asimov feels compelled to make it happen.

I kept waiting for the segué to the very first Foundation story, and it never comes. It's implied in the Wanda story, but it feels like there's a section missing. In the Wanda story, after all, there are no more than 32 scholars left; in "The Psychohistorians", set nine years later, Seldon's followers and their dependents number 100,000. Isn't that a bit more than a difference in scale?

Another thing that doesn't quite match up: the near-complete sense of anarchy depicted here-- dome lights failing, social movements causing widescale sabotage, thugs wandering unchecked through the streets, insurrections in the provinces. You don't see any of this when Gaal Dornick arrives on Trantor, nine years later.

Since the original series Asimov seems to have developed a fascination with thuggery. This was evident enough in PTF, but in FTF Seldon has at least three run-ins with thugs, two of which lead to trials. I don't recall anything like this in the first series; it really makes one wonder if, in the interregnum, Asimov got mugged.

Foundation's Edge (FE 498)

Both Golan and Gendibal basically make my point: what we might call the naïve view of psychohistory, that Seldon brilliantly anticipated everything, is impossible--and that in a mere five centuries, you'd get so much random variation from the Plan that it'd be almost useless.

The 2nd Foundation has a very human reaction to the existence of the "Anti-Mules": they don't like it! They don't like the idea that they are being used simply to provide the unified political system which another party will take over for its purposes. Naturally they do not ask how they themselves might appear to outsiders, nor whether there's something suspect about the whole system! Fortunately Asimov is backing away from the whole Second Foundation thing here.

The new ship is nice, though the Improbability Drive (to say nothing of bistromathics) could still blow it out of the water. I also like the way it subtly threatens the 2nd Foundationers' control.

Janov Pelorat is one of Asimov's better creations--delightful in his nerdiness, a wonderful contrast to the annoying old-time Seldonists like Salvor Hardin and Ducem Barr.

FE is a lot like both stories in Second Foundation... basically, one big festival of paranoia, punctuated by emotional confrontations in which one position after another is elucidated, proven, and discarded. Too much like, really. For the third time in the series the rustic, inconsequential character turns out to be a super-powerful telepath, and for the second time the lesser Foundation(s) forget all about their controllers at the end.

Since we know the 2nd Foundation is based on Trantor, Golan is wasting our time with yet another contrived explanation of "Star's End". (I think it would be pretty amusing if there turned out to be something physically across the Galaxy from Terminus.)

Foundation and Earth (FE 498)

A much more satisfying book than FE--more varied, more action-oriented, with genuinely new ideas, yet united into a thematic whole. And Asimov doesn't (as I feared) just repeat the previous books--find Big Power, Big Power turns out to be there all along, Big Power wins and erases all traces of its presence, Seldon Plan continues.

There's times when it drags, though. The endless maneuvering as they approach planets, for instance--too Star Trek. I mean, buy some better scanners, man.

The problem with Bliss's papers makes no sense if, as we're told, Gaia has agents across the galaxy. They'd have solved this problem long ago.

Another thing we see for the second time: an extremely cold woman comes on to the hero unexpectedly. Sometimes you shouldn't read four books in a row by the same author.

And this being the fourth new Foundation novel, I was prepared, or resigned, to encounter old R. Daneel here. I wouldn't have thought Asimov could seamlessly integrate a series about robots with a series about a robotless galactic empire. But he does it by, in effect, making the very robotlessness of the empire the puzzle to be solved and the key to the galaxy's development.

It's remarkable how thoroughly Asimov has undermined Seldon by the end of the book. About the only consideration of the old boy here is the references to the Seldon Plan as the First Foundation's superstition, and discussion of his basic errors. The 2nd Foundation-- the folks who think they're following Seldon-- are basically nowhere at this point.

Why bother destroying knowledge of Earth? Since Gaia is their creation, why can't the robots just post Gaian sentinels outside the solar system and deflect the few intruders who may show up? Besides, if you're hiding at a landmark, why insist on trying to hide the landmark? Why not move to a less conspicuous property? Aurora's available.

Besides, imagine the immensity of the task of removing all references to Earth in all the cities of 25 million worlds-- every volume, every film, every secret scripture, every Geo article, every trivia game-- every medium ever invented in 20,000 years-- to say nothing of all the volumes that have been lost, or misfiled, or are somebody's favorite reading matter.

Gregory Benford: Foundation's Fear (GE 12028)

What's initially noticeable is that Benford is a better writer than Asimov. You actually notice the words sometimes. Hari is written to be somewhat witty and actually comes across that way. And there's more of an attempt to delineate characters by how they talk. (Yugo talks like a Dahlite, for instance; Asimov only had two modes, pseudo-street-talk and standard.) And above all Benford's Trantor seems a more complicated and more real place.

The best part of the book is the details on psychohistory-- how it works, what problems come up, what its inspirations are, what they publish, how it was tested (the only possible way: by running it against the past). This is what was missing from Asimov's prequels, except in the early pages of PTF.

Indeed, psychohistory is triumphant here-- triumphant over free will. Benford makes it seem so reasonable... just a matter of hard work and good data. (He can't resist the temptation to make it much more solid here than it was in Asimov's chronology-- in FTF psychohistory is still vaporware at this point.)

Benford also covers, much better than Asimov, the sexual byplay between Hari and Dors. Although I still have questions here. How much does Dors weigh, for instance?

The sims of Joan of Arc and of Voltaire strike me as a big mistake. They really add nothing to the story of psychohistory; they're not that interesting to listen to; they tie the far future too closely to our own era; and actual information about pre-spaceflight Earth just shouldn't be available. And I can't quite believe that Trantor's cyberspace is so comically undefended.

The aliens are not much of a presence, but the idea involved-- what the robots did, or commited, to prepare for the advance of humanity-- is an impressive addition to the series.

The tiktoks feel too damn much like robots. Asimov's idea surely wasn't that the galaxy has robots, only under a different name. If they can talk to you in Galactic they're robots.

Benford, much more than Asimov, likes little sf words. Seldon doesn't wear shoes, but padshoes. No drugs; stims. No glasses or contacts; eye-adds. But Asimov did much more of this himself in the new books. I suspect it's a trend to a greater awareness of multiple cultures. In the old days sf was generally just Americana projected futureward. You can hardly get away with such naïveté these days.

Greg Bear: Foundation and Chaos (GE 12067)

It's rather fun to see bits of "The Psychohistorians", but as part of a much more detailed narrative-- one in which Linge Chen and others are known entities-- and in which various interpositions can subtly or grossly affect the meaning of events. Such as a complete recantation of psychohistory on Hari's part!

And yet the book sputters out, somehow. Some of the central characters-- Sinter, Klia, Vara Liso-- don't ever come together. We're told so early that Sinter is a fool, his plotting anticipated by Chen, that we never really believe his menace; and Liso is explained only too late. And what use is it for Trema to lose his positronic inhibitions if he doesn't use his new freedom to do something really menacing?

The resurrection of Dors doesn't accomplish much. She does blunt Vara's attack-- but not by much, and we expect much more from the return of this wonderful character.

Worse yet, Seldon's recantation doesn't hold up. If it was despair over his Plan being hijacked by others (as it ultimately will be), it would make more sense. Instead, it's basically a foreshadowing of the Mule: Seldon realizes that a great tyrannical mutant mentalic would defeat his Plan. But did he really think there was nothing in the universe he hadn't taken into account? And had he not covered such contingencies by creating the 2nd Foundation?

Indeed, if Benford is the apostle of psychohistory, Bear is the heretic. But Bear doesn't manage to detail the collapse of Seldon's vision as well as Benford depicts its rise. It's not that interesting if psychohistory fails because of some new element; what would be really interesting is an intellectual attack on it-- a demonstration that it's incomplete or incorrect.

Is it really creditable, now, that Linge Chen is really taken in by the Encyclopedia Project, as in "The Psychohistorians"? Asimov's book, to say nothing of Benford's, makes it clear that several Emperors were quite familiar with what psychohistory was, were indeed patrons of the project. The CPS, unless it was made up of idiots-- and Chen is always described as competent-- could not possibly have been unaware of this. I suppose the only interpretation that makes sense is Machiavellian: remove anyone with a following from the political stage before they can become a problem.

David Brin: Foundation's Triumph

I read this in manuscript-- David Brin saw my page on psychohistory, and asked if I wanted to review the book. I wish I could say that he wisely followed my sage advice. In fact it looks like he made very few changes, except verbal improvements. He did correct a few errors that I'd noticed. (One of them was giving the wrong population for Trantor-- he had 100 billion, now corrected to the traditional, if oddly low, 40 billion. Brin actually offers an explanation for the low density: much of Trantor is made up of archives, only lightly paved over!)

On the whole, I'd say it's the most Asimovian of the new books. It's much like Foundation and Earth, in fact-- breathless cross-galactic rides punctuating endless, earnest discussions of galactic policy.

Benford, by contrast, is better at showing human touches (his characters had time for e-mail and sex) and adding new aspects of galactic culture.

The focus of this book is the chaos disease, which I think is an invention of the three B's. In effect they've set themselves to address a few perceived problems in Asimov's galaxy: why there are no aliens; why the empire lasts so long; why a renaissance can't avert Seldon's prophesied dark age. It turns out that humans have taken a turn for the worse since our day. They're a bit dim, and if they get brighter, their brains overheat.

Everyone and their brother, and every robot and its clone, has a solution to this problem. Seldon mostly trusts in his friend R. Daneel, which leads him to what seem some rather shocking and even reactionary decisions. Some of the more attractive and interesting proposals come from the extremists: the Ktlinans, intoxicated with their own renaissance, who express a punk-like philosophy of unfettered personal development; and a robotic sect which takes the radical view that humans ought to be consulted about their own future.

Ultimately the Asimov-And-Friends Universe turns out to be a slightly nicer version of "With Folded Hands"-- one where the robots don't micromanage... they're more deist. Daneel's unfailing politeness only underscores the increasing creepiness of the robots' role... though some of the ugliest episodes, such as the wave of terraforming/alien extermination, are assigned to other robot factions. (That's a bit of a copout; it's basically the same morality that justifies the appalling destruction of humanity's archives.)

It's not that Brin doesn't express any antipathy for the various would-be overlords. No one here, for instance, not even Seldon, expresses any sympathy for the totalitarian Second Foundation. And, ultimately, he suggests that humanity finds a way to defuse Daneel's final brain wave, Gaia. But this sort of First Foundation jingoism is ultimately just sentimentality... especially since we still don't know how the arrogant Foundation of Mayor Banno turned into something that could incorporate (and not be incorporated by) Gaia. (And I'd really like to know how the Second Foundation falls!)

As a vision of far futurity, I prefer Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep. His galaxy is largely static, but his individual races are ceaselessly changing.

Some random comments:

Donald Kingsbury: Psychohistorical Crisis

With apologies to the three B's and Asimov, this unauthorized book is the best psychohistory story past the original trilogy... perhaps because it's the only one that's really about psychohistory. The other books are all about galactic management and robots and politics and Hari Seldon, but they're almost united in rejecting psychohistory itself. Not one of them takes the Second Foundation seriously.

Kingsbury's book throws out almost everything in the other sequels, including Asimov's. Conceptually, it takes up where the trilogy leaves off: with the triumph of the psychohistorians. It begins in the year 2722 of the Foundation Era, 1600 years after the establishment of the Second Empire, and it deals with the major unanswered question of the series: How do we get rid of these guys?

The Second Foundation, after all, is one of the creepiest cabals in s.f., and our own psychohistorical insight is that such an unelected, unanswerable elite is always bad news. No matter how good the intentions, it's precisely the gulf established between the unwashed masses and We Who Know Better that corrupts absolutely. And the Second Foundation's power is absolute in an unprecedented way: they can reach into your brain and remove the dissent.

Now, Kingsbury throws out the telepathy, which was about half the creepiness of the Second Foundation. His version of the Mule, Cloun-the-Stubborn, made use of a 'tuned probe', a device that allowed the external manipulation of emotion; this has developed into a 'personal familiar' or fam-- an auxiliary brain, which has transformed society and human cognition.

His hero, Eron Osa (and isn't that a wonderfully Asimovian name?), has in fact landed into a serious predicament: his fam has been tried and convicted of treason against the psychohistorians-- and destroyed. In this future, so much of a man's memories and abilities depend on the fam that it's not even necessary to execute the man himself; he can be left alone as a mental cripple, less than a child, who doesn't even understand what his crime was.

This is a delightful setup and a clever mystery, and I fairly devoured the book. More than ever, it makes it clear that tossing the robots into the Foundation universe was a grave mistake. You get used to them... but the particular interest of the original trilogy-- the tension between psychohistory and history-- is entirely lost. The story becomes chronicles of the struggles between multiple hyperpotent entities-- in other words, space opera.

There's no robots here, except for some parody references (e.g. an ancient megalomaniac robot called "Danny-Boy"). On the other hand, arguably Kingsbury's vision is how robotics will really develop. S.f. robots never really made much sense: do we really need nonspecialized, man-shaped, man-capable machines? What for? For almost any purpose, machines can be more efficient and powerful when specialized (and usually, much bigger or much smaller than humans); and if A.I. is achievable, why stop at the human level-- why not create monster machines a thousand times smarter, like Iain Banks's Minds? Kingsbury in effect takes the admirable qualities of a computer-- quickness, storage capacity, rationality, the ability to create and manipulate mental aids-- and makes them directly available to the human brain.

(Note: Stop reading here if you don't want spoilers.)

After finishing the book-- though not before-- it bugged me that its structural promise was unmet. The mystery should have been explored, fumblingly, by Osa, a defective detective; instead it's explained through flashbacks, and Osa has to do very little except act confused. Others solve his problem for him.

The resolution to the psychohistorical crisis itself, by contrast, is masterfully handled. The problem of the psychohistorians is addressed on its own terms. Why are they given absolute power? Because, according to the Founder, psychohistory can't handle a universe with psychohistory in it. Kingsbury's solution is logical: Osa invents new mathematics that do allow psychohistory to handle itself. The result is that psychohistory can be normalized: it doesn't disappear, but it becomes an ordinary part of the world. It can be democratized; ordinary humans can be given back their autonomy. And this is true to how science really develops. We're told at first that the new teaching can only be understood by a handful of people in the world; a half century later it's taught in high schools.

One can still ask, is something like psychohistory even possible? I've argued that really Hari Seldon did very badly: psychohistory failed to predict two galaxy-upending, psychohistory-derailing developments within three centuries that depended on individuals: the Mule, and himself. Kingsbury has scaled back psychohistory's pretensions-- no predictions about individuals, such as Asimov freely indulged-- but I'm not really convinced that mass statistics are enough. History isn't really like thermodynamics, where individual molecules can be ignored; it's more like quantum mechanics, where most phenomena can be explained by aggregates, but an ineradicably individual event can have important consequences.

A few minor points: