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Daneel declares Psychohistory ... defeated?
on May 10, 2015
Not bad, I became absorbed, felt more like I was reading Asimov than expected. But Seldon evaluates himself as a failure and is constantly moping around and not confident at all. The novel completely overlaps and re-interprets the first of Asimov's series "Foundation," beginning with Gaal Dornick, and repeating some of the courtroom and other conversations, while showing the viewpoint of other characters. But it is also strongly revisionist, changing the action, explaining this by a note in the Encyclopedia that there has been much revision to "accounts" and so no one really knows how long the trial lasted, etc.
One must consider that already, Asimov revised the Foundation and Robot series late in life to make an unintended marriage of them. Janet Asimov, his 2nd wife, apparently managed this series by contracting and influencing 3 separate writers, very unusual, who agreed on a general outline, including first the replacement of the STATISTICAL theory of psychohistory with a CHAOS theory (not the same at all - Asimov had a PhD in chemistry, which is dominated by statistical theories that work reliably). In this novel, much more is revealed about the robots and the plan to Empire insiders and others than would be done in an Asimov novel, and ultimately psychohistory is "swept away." Daneel declares it defeated. Seldon himself says it is "... one more hypothesis, guiding and shaping, but ultimately no more than another illusion among all the illusions of men - and robots."
While some of the specificity of the Seldon Crises (called Cusp Times when they actually involve Seldon) was unbelievable, the overall idea of some kind of statistical channelizing trends in human history, which after all repeats themes and patterns, gnawed at my subconscious throughout my entire adult life, until eventually I discovered a theory of crash rate and wrote a book on the Economic Optimization of Innovation & Risk, suggesting that not just software and spacecraft, but civilizations themselves had predictable crash rates, giving a formula for it, and using the theory to explain anomalous U.S. motorway death rates (as compared to for example Germany). Indeed, this idea cannot be swept away except by those who are determined to stubbornly repeat their misfortunes, and to never have a spacefareing civilization because they cannot adjust their social factors to counter unpleasant, destructive instincts. If you think airplanes can knock over a building, or a 17,000 mile per hour asteroid can extinct the dinosaurs, imagine ramming a 17,000 mile per second starship into a planet.
That said, there are some interesting details. The "Mule" plotline is pushed forward with a weak group, headed by Seldon's granddaughter (by Rayych, not his genetic granddaughter), and two other super-strong mentalic women, one "good" and the other "evil." While the robot good vs. evil factions become almost entirely blurred, with some robots easily switching sides multiple times, the two women are inexplicably polarized.
To continue a proper analysis I must indulge in at least some partial spoilers, so stop here if you cannot stand them.
Seldon realizes his "plan" is vaporware when he is attacked by one of the two women. But truthfully, he was already despondent, and I think this is because the new authors (who obviously collaborated on the 3-volume plot) do not care for "the plan" and feel constrained by it. Asimov enjoyed manipulating cleverly and avoiding violence within the plan, making small adjustments. Bear's preference for sweeping resolutions glowers like a caged animal not quite hidden below the surface of the narrative, finally ripping everything apart at the end, then putting it back together, with psychohistory nothing but an "illusion" temporarily shaping "motivating" events.
Asomiv's (Seldon's) plan was a convincing one. First the preservation of knowledge (the Encyclopedia project), which from the power of knowledge and through the vehicles of first religion during the superstitious times (Asimov was anti-religion) and then trade (a popular notion during the 1950s) re-grows the [an] Empire. Then of course he needs some credible threat, enter the Mule, and the Second Foundation to counter it. But the threats are always dealt with using no force and minimal "adjustment."
Bear uses more memory wipes than Men in Black. It is hard to believe Seldon can think at all his memory has been modified so many times, much less build an accurate model of human behavior. In Asimov's one novel about Seldon (Prelude...) he is portrayed as a dogged investigator, filtering out hidden truth, unafraid and undaunted by seemingly superior adversaries (or friends, if they be such). In my experience, old men of this variety do not become defeated, but continue to swagger and plot and investigate even to their dying breaths. It is in their character. It must have been in Asimov's character, a flawed character by his own admission with his single minded focus on writing over anything else, but Bear is a different man.
Nevertheless I enjoyed the read, but I did not see a full and clear analysis in the other reviews, so I've added my two cents worth.