Friday, December 9, 2011

Book Reviews: Let's Pretend We Can Keep This Short, Shall We? Part I

Next Tuesday, I make my annual pilgrimage back to the land of snow and horizon. So at the moment, I'm busy with finishing all the little things that need to be done before I leave. Student papers, essays... and of course, the public library books that must be returned before I depart. Thus, I've finished four lingering books in the last 24 hours, and while I could do a long full-length review of any of the four, I thought that something more abridged may be more appropriate. I think I'll divide them into four parts and release them over the next few days.
As a bonus aside, I've been thinking about the value of literature and videogames and media as such, and added a subtitle to the blog as a result. Let me know your thoughts.
Let us begin.

Psychohistorical Crisis by Donald Kingsbury. One of Issac Asimov's more enduring ideas was the Foundation series, a number of books based on a simple premise: while you can't predict what any individual human can do, you can, mathematically, determine what the human race as a whole will do. And if you know that, then you'll be able to alter the course to the outcome you find most beneficial. The Foundation books themselves depict the first few centuries, with humanity slowly falling under the pyschohistorians' control; Kingsbury's book imagines what happens (without ever explicitly referring to the Foundation books) a few millenia later, with the larger galaxy at peace. He also adds a number of other "future" elements, but the most interesting one is probably the fam: every adult human in the future has a fam, an electronic device that hooks directly into their head, connecting them to intergalactic databanks, aiding in their mental processing and memory storage. It's a logical extension of our current devices, and works well in the context.

The details of the plot are actually quite simple: an up-and-coming psychohistorian realizes that the rules of psychohistory are wrong, and that they're heading for an unmitigated disaster. He is regarded as dangerous for these views, and has his fam removed as a result. The story's structure is rather odd--we get the scene I've described rather immediately, but most of the book is spent on the protagonist's childhood and upbringing, so that by the time we actually reach the "now" point, there's so little of the book left that it feels both rushed and dragged out, and neither in a good way. The strength of the book is its ideas. First, there's something amusingly "meta" about the plot, in that it's a new set of eyes finding a flaw in a plot that's been accepted as a matter of fact for years. And psychohistory is a concept that's always struck at the root of what it means to be human. Do we have free will? How much do our actions matter? If the course of history can be mapped out, where do we fit on the map? We may be able to move freely through and in a system, ala de Certeau, but if we're always trapped in the system, is there any freedom at all? The book doesn't answer these issues definitively (and it is far, far too long) but it raises them in provocative ways.

Later Days.

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