Psychohistorical Crisis
by Donald Kingsbury

Review by
William H. Stoddard

Tor: New York, 2001

512 pages January 2002


Libertarian themes in science fiction often present themselves in a few common forms. Some books show free societies and how they work; some show severely unfree societies that stand as bad examples; some show libertarian heroes contending with the societies now existing or future societies much like them. In Psychohistorical Crisis, we have a less common approach: the deconstruction of an earlier work that embodies non-libertarian themes.

The primary setting of Donald Kingsbury's novel is Splendid Wisdom, capital of a galactic empire of the distant future. Its rulers are psychohistorians, masters of an esoteric mathematical science that enables them to plan for the future of their galactic civilization and realize their plans by making minimal changes in the society around them. In other words, this is the far future of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series (1942-1950), in which the goals of Asimov's psychohistorians have been realized. Kingsbury's story contains enough embedded pointers and jokes to make the commentary on Asimov's series obvious. (There are joking references as well to other figures of science fiction's Golden Age, including a historical figure named Kambal and a Wise Old Man figure in the novel, a dissident psychohistorian, nicknamed The Admiral for his enthusiasm for naval history.)

Asimov's vision was of scientists who would gather together all the significant information about their society, analyze it using the equations of psychohistory, make decisions about it, and guide their society in accordance with those decisions. Asimov specified two preconditions for this to work:

First, since the prototype for psychohistory was the science of statistical mechanics, which analyzed the motion of assemblages of extremely large numbers of molecules (the chemical unit of quantity, the mole, is 602,300,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules — and Asimov was a chemist by training), psychohistory could only be applied to vast numbers of people, such as the population of a galaxy.

Second, the population had to be ignorant of psychohistory's laws; if they tried to apply them in planning their own future, they would disrupt the plans of the Second Foundation's psychohistorians, and in fact would make any sort of planning impossible.

So Asimov's vision required an inner circle of scientific experts making decisions on behalf of and for the benefit of a large general population who could not be permitted to make decisions for themselves, or even to understand the basis on which the decisions were being made for them. In effect, Asimov was describing an idealized form of socialism, in the classic sense of a centrally planned economy.

Kingsbury's novel comments upon that vision, and in fact turns out to be a devastating critique of it. For Kingsbury sees monopolies of knowledge as inherently unstable, compelled to maintain themselves by actively suppressing other potential centers of knowledge, which they can only see as threats. This necessity is the motor that drives Kingsbury's plot. However benevolent the psychohistorians' intentions, he shows us, they can only maintain the exclusive power to carry them out by the increasingly ruthless exercise of that power.

From one angle of vision, Psychohistorical Crisis is also a commentary on 20th Century history. Asimov's story almost perfectly corresponded to the Leninist vision, with dialectical materialism represented as psychohistory, the Party as the psychohistorians, the workers as the galactic mass population, and "democratic centralism" as the application of psychohistory. But the Marxist regime of the Soviet Union and its imitators proved to be not only tyrannical but unstable, thanks to its economic inefficiency compared to a decentralized market economy. Kingsbury clearly finds Russian history fascinating — his last novel, The Moon Goddess and the Son, gave close attention to the Matter of Russia — and a reading of Psychohistorical Crisis as an ironic mirroring of the crisis of Marxism seems plausible.

And what alternative vision does Kingsbury offer, in place of an untenable monopolistic centralism? Perhaps the clearest answer can be seen in a curious episode in the middle of Psychohistorical Crisis, devoted to the archaeology of Earth. Kingsbury describes the spread of units of measurement and a procedure for defining them in Bronze Age trade networks, propelled not by orders from above, but by each merchant, administrator, or temple finding it useful to adopt the same standards as others, and being able to do so by a procedure based on astronomical constants true all over the Earth and on universal laws of physics. This episode envisions the people of the ancient world as early scientists, and ties scientific knowledge and trade firmly together as two decentralized, non-authoritarian institutions.

Implicitly he offers this same decentralization as an alternative model for the application of psychohistory in society and as a solution to his imagined crisis. The implied society is one where everyone has the ability to plan; where everyone's plans include others having the ability to plan; and where the only viable plans are those that everyone involved in them finds compatible with their own goals. As a game theorist, Kingsbury would know of this as competitive equilibrium; it could be thought of as Marx's proposed communist society, where "the free development of all is the condition for the free development of each", and he may have thought of it so; but libertarians will recognize it as a form of their own concept of freedom.


© 2002 William H. Stoddard

First published in Prometheus, Spring 2002
Libertarian Futurist Society

R. W. Franson's review of
"The Mule" by Isaac Asimov
(centerpiece of the Foundation series)

Ed Driscoll's
We are the Psychohistorian Economists
We Have Been Waiting For!

at Pajamas Media

Praise for the command economy
  & social manipulation:
Paul Krugman's
Asimov's Foundation novels grounded my economics
The fantastical tale offers a still-inspiring dream
of a social science that could save civilisation
at The Guardian

More by William H. Stoddard

Coining at Troynovant
quantifying value into commodity;
true coin, false coin, enterprise & economics

LitCrit at Troynovant
critiques in and around literary criticism

Mentality at Troynovant
the mind and mental operation

Philosophy at Troynovant
nature of existence; history of ideas

ReFuture at Troynovant
history of science fiction
& progress of fantasy

Utopia at Troynovant
Utopia in power, or Dystopia


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