by Don Sakers
One of the most interesting tropes of science fiction doesn’t have a name. Or rather, it has too many names, which makes it hard to talk about as a distinct thing. We’ve used such terms as applied psychometrics, Archmorph, mathematical modeling, mathematical sociology, machine prediction, predictive analysis, psychodynamics, psychohistory, statistical analysis, statistical prediction, universal actuary, and Visualization of the Cosmic All.
To further complicate the matter, real-world science has appropriated some of these terms, even going so far as to completely alter their meanings.
For our purposes here, I’m going to refer to this SF trope as Asimovian psychohistory, thus referencing both its most popular SF manifestation and the author who made it popular.
Call it what you will, Asimovian psychohistory generally involves some kind of scientific/technological method of predicting the future—most often, a statistical prediction of a society or culture’s future. Frequently, this predictive ability is accompanied by some plan or program for influencing the course of that future.
Stories of prediction have been with us as long as the prophets, oracles, and divination practices that occur in just about every human culture. Myths and fantasy stories use the concept frequently. The introduction of science (no matter how pseudo-) or technology brings it into the realm of SF. (This is similar to how we treat time travel: If it’s done by magic or force of will, we’re talking fantasy; if done by machine, it’s SF.)
Early SF tended to rely on the determinism of Newtonian physics—the assumption that knowing the identity, position, and velocity of every particle in a closed system allowed one to predict the subsequent states of that system. As real-life physics progressed, SF switched first to a statistical model based on the chemical behavior of ideal gases, then a quantum model combined with an obligatory mention of chaos theory.
The real fun of Asimovian psychohistory is that it provides an entertaining and dramatic framework for SF to address the age-old question of determinism and free will. Adding a detailed plan, often stretching across multiple generations and centuries, sets the stage for any number of philosophical thought-experiments on the subject . . . or at least provides a source for conflict in the story.
The first big example of Asimovian psychohistory I’ve found came with E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series (commencing with “Galactic Patrol,” serialized in Astounding from September 1937 to February 1938). There, the immensely intelligent Arisians use their brainpower to create a “Visualization of the Cosmic All” that reveals the threat of future domination by the evil Eddorians. So they embark on a million-year plan to defeat the bad guys. One result is the heroic corps of Lensmen.
Robert A. Heinlein’s first published story, “Lifeline” (Astounding, August 1939) introduced a machine that used fourth-dimensional electrical conductivity to predict the date and time of any individual’s death. There was, unfortunately, no grand plan. (In this connection I should mention the 2010 anthology Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die, edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki.)
In the May 1942 Astounding, of course, Isaac Asimov began his tales of the Foundation, in which mathematician Hari Seldon invented psychohistory and began Seldon’s Plan with the goal of replacing the crumbling Galactic Empire with a superior successor. The Foundation series remains the prototype and inspiration of just about all Asimovian psychohistory to follow.
In Katherine MacLean’s 1952 story “The Snowball Effect,” a sociologist demonstrates his mastery of “applied sociology” with a plan that ends with Earth dominated by the Watashaw Ladies Sewing Circle.
Gordon R. Dickson’s Dorsai! (first serialized as “The Genetic General” in Astounding May–July 1959) rings changes on the idea, telling of a would-be tyrant who uses Asimovian psychohistory to plot his conquest of the galaxy. He’s thwarted by the hero, whose special abilities make him an unpredictable statistical anomaly.
The Dune series by Frank Herbert (beginning with “Dune World” in Analog, December 1963–February 1964) introduced a chemical-induced ability to see possible futures, and the generations-long plan of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood to gain control of this ability.
Hilbert Schenck’s 1982 novel A Rose for Armageddon is set in a dystopian near-future in which sociologists and computer scientists struggle to complete a psychohistory program called Archmorph that can compute how to save the world.
In Mike Resnick’s Paradise, 1989, “the sociology of politics” figures heavily in the course of colonization and liberation on the planet Paradise. The AI civilization in Dan Simmons’s Hyperion (1989) and sequels makes highly accurate statistical predictions of the future. And Michael F. Flynn ups the ante in his 1990 novel In the Country of the Blind, with conflicting groups of psychohistorical predictors, each with their own goals.
Donald Kingsbury’s Psychohistorical Crisis (2001) is essentially an unauthorized allo-sequel [a sequel by a different author] to Asimov’s Foundation series—as they say, the names have been changed to protect the innocent. In this case, Kingsbury contemplates what happens after the grand plan is long completed.
An unusual take of Asimovian psychohistory appears in Mary Gentle’s A Sundial in a Grave: 1610 (2003). In this novel of secret history, a seventeenth-century astrologer uses mathematical techniques invented by Giordano Bruno to predict a worldwide disaster in the twenty-second century, and struggles to manipulate English politics to bring about a future civilization capable of avoiding the menace. Similarly, The Demimonde: Spring by Rod Rees (2012) shows Steampunk psychohistory calculated by Babbage Engines.
Finally, Alastair Reynolds’s House of Suns (2008) involves the Universal Actuary, a machine that can predict the inevitable fall of a given civilization in the galaxy.
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The Complete Psychotechnic League Volume 2
Baen, 306 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $8.99 (e-book)
Series: Complete Psychotechnic League 2
Genre: Asimovian Psychohistory, Psychological/Sociological SF
And then there’s Poul Anderson’s Psychotechnic League stories, in which Asimovian psychohistory plays a significant role.
The Psychotechnic League consists of 22 pieces of short fiction set against a consistent future history background. Most were published between 1949 and 1957 (one last story appeared in 1968). Eight appeared in Astounding/Analog, with the rest in a variety of other venues. Several of the novella-length stories were published in book form. In 1981–2 many were collected in three volumes.
The name “Psychotechnic League” didn’t come from Poul Anderson; it was created by literary critic Sandra Miesel for the Tor collections as a deliberate echo of Anderson’s better-known Polesotechnic League series. It’s an unfortunate choice of terminology, endlessly confusing to readers (and especially librarians) . . . but we’re stuck with it. After 1968, Anderson abandoned the Psychotechnic League stories, because their future history was based on political and philosophical ideas he no longer agreed with.
Following a destructive nuclear war in 1958, the Psychotechnic Institute arose to implement the new predictive science of psychodynamics. Guided by its accurate predictions, the Institute influences politics and society to bring about a world government heavily invested in space travel. Under the Order of Planetary Engineers, a program of terraforming is carried out in the Solar System. Despite psychodynamics, a revolution in 2170 topples the Institute and results in several centuries of Dark Ages. Interestingly, Anderson produced no stories set during the Dark Age period.
In the twenty-seventh century, civilization rises again and discovers interstellar travel. Scattered Earth colonies join together in the Stellar Union, with order enforced by the Coordination Service. Adventures await among the stars.
The first volume (of three) of The Complete Psychotechnic League covered the aftermath of nuclear war and the rise of the Institute. Volume 2 chronicles the Institute at its height and its fall, as well as the first interstellar voyages after the Dark Ages.
The high point of this current volume is the novella The Snows of Ganymede, not seen in print since a 1958 Ace Double edition (it was left out of the Tor edition). It’s classic Poul Anderson, the story of Planetary Engineer Hal Davenant and his team as they deal with the challenge of terraforming Ganymede, hindered by the native population.
Poul Anderson was, in his time, a quintessential Analog writer. Whether you’re already a fan or (re)discovering this master of the field, The Complete Psychotechnic League is worth your attention.
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Welcome to Dystopia
Edited by Gordon Van Gelder
OR Books, 406 pages, $22.00 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $9.99 (e-book)
Genre: Dystopian SF, Original Anthologies
In case you haven’t noticed, dystopian futures are everywhere nowadays. One would think we’d be getting tired of doom and gloom, but you’d be wrong. In bad times, dystopian fiction shows us that it could be worse and that the human will can triumph over adversity; in good times, it reminds us that the good times won’t last. And in all times, good dystopian tales make us think.
This current anthology, edited by the indefatigable Gordon Van Gelder, leans toward the literary strain of SF. There are no less than 45 original stories by 46 authors, including such familiar names as Ron Goulart, Eileen Gunn, Janis Ian, Barry N. Malzberg, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Robert Reed, Geoff Ryman, Harry Turtledove, and Jane Yolen. The variety is incredible: there are wars, disasters both natural and artificial, economic collapse, and invasion, as well as more personal stories of oppression and struggle. As you might expect, a number of stories are rooted in current-day politics. Some are humorous, ranging from ironic chuckle to actual belly laugh; some are terrifying; not a few bring tears to the eyes. All of them leave the reader with new ideas to ponder.
Be sure not to miss Janis Ian’s “His Sweat Like Stars on the Rio Grande,” which posits a biological solution to the immigration question, or Ron Goulart’s tongue-in-cheek “The Amazing Transformation of the White House Dog,” in which a cheeky and intelligent robot dog is adopted by a less-than-astute United States president.
One word of advice: it’s probably best not to go through this whole anthology in one sitting. Better to space the stories out, with maybe a break for some other reading in between. Otherwise, you may find the later stories losing some of their punch.
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Altered Seasons: Monsoonrise
Secant, 374 pages, $15.95 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $5.99 (e-book)
Series: Altered Seasons 1
Genre: Ecological/Environmental SF
Stories of global warming and climate change are so ubiquitous today that publishers speak of a new category called “climate fiction”—or “cli-fi” for short. In science fiction, tales of rising sea level go back at least to J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World, published in 1962. (Yes, as usual, the real world lags about 40–60 years behind SF.) In the past decade, our field has been flooded (sorry!) with novels and stories addressing the matter. As is often the case, some of these have been worth more attention than others.
Here’s one you might accidentally overlook.
Altered Seasons: Monsoonrise is the first of a series of near-future novels that, like good science fiction does, examines rising sea levels from a number of different perspectives, following through on some unexpected implications of the theme. And it does so by telling the stories of five very different people and the changes that climate change induces in their lives.
It all starts when ice disappears from the Arctic Ocean. After a few weeks, changes in salinity and global currents wreak tremendous changes in the Northern Hemisphere.
With her family’s coastal home damaged by storm and doomed by rising seas, engineer Isabel Bradshaw seeks a place of security in an altered world. Governor Carrie Camberg thinks she’s the one to get a staggering nation back on its feet, if chaotic politics will give her the chance. Walt Yuschak, talk-show host, is passionate about freedom—but in this new world of perpetual crisis, what does freedom even mean? And President Henry Pratt is just trying to keep his administration going.
Paul Briggs, author of two YA SF books, Locksmith’s Closet and Locksmith’s Journeys, does a fine job of interleaving the stories of these five characters and their struggles to meet their goals in a world whose rules are changing rapidly. It’s the kind of meaty book that keeps coming back to you for weeks after you’ve finished reading. While Altered Seasons: Monsoonrise comes to a satisfactory conclusion, there are other books coming in the series.
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Edited by Tony Daniel and Christopher Ruocchio
Baen, 328 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $8.99 (e-book)
Genre: Military SF, Original Anthologies
The subtitle of Star Destroyers is “Big Ships Blowing Things Up,” and honestly, is any further description necessary?
Oh, all right. Fifteen stories by sixteen authors. The roster includes many of Baen’s regular authors, which means some of the most prolific military SF writers in the business. Among them are David Drake, Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, Susan R. Matthews, Jody Lynn Nye, Mark L. Van Name, Steve White, and Michael Z. Williamson.
Given all this, you’d probably expect some tight, action-filled space opera stories of giant space battles . . . and there’s some of that. But there are also espionage stories, rescue missions, political conflicts, alternate histories, even a few humorous tales. As with any theme anthology, each author took the premise in a different direction . . . if I had to identify one common feature to all the stories, it would be that they’re all fun.
Take David Drake’s “Superweapon,” in which two interstellar empires struggle to take control of an ancient alien warship that could change the balance of power all by itself. “The Stars Are Silent” by Gray Rinehart deals with the psychological impact of interstellar war and faster-than-light travel. In Jody Lynn Nye’s “A Helping Hand,” an honest-to-goodness ballistic missile submarine becomes a spaceship and is sent behind enemy lines on a rescue mission. Dava Bara’s “Icebreaker” finds a futuristic icebreaker ship doing battle with a Chinese submarine on the surface of Europa. And Brendan DuBois gives us “A Tale of the Great Trek War Aboard the Starship Persistence,” a comedy of errors about a literal war between Port and Starboard on the titular vessel.
Like it says, big ships blowing things up. What’s not to like?
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Frankenstein in Baghdad
Penguin, 281 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $11.99 (e-book)
Genre: SF Horror
Here’s something different.
Let me confess at the outset that it might be something of a stretch to classify this book as science fiction. Depending upon your feelings about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, you might see it as fantasy or straight horror. Maybe you think it should fall under the umbrella of magical realism. I’m not going to argue or justify. It’s a good book, and it has an undeniable connection to our field. Maybe we could call it, as the kids say today, “SF adjacent.”
It’s 2005, in the middle of the U. S. occupation of Iraq, and Hadi is a resident of Baghdad. In the surreal, bombed-out landscape of the city, Hadi hangs out at a local cafe with a crowd that considers him an oddball.
There’s craziness aplenty in the zone of perpetual war, and maybe some of it touches Hadi. He starts to collect human body parts, stitching them together into a macabre semblance of a body. When his grisly display is complete, he intends to force the government to recognize that these anonymous pieces are real people, who deserve the honor of a real burial.
Then Hadi’s makeshift corpse vanishes one night. Soon, a wave of uncanny murders begins—and Hadi realizes that the culprit is the monster that he somehow created. It seems to have a taste for human flesh, and Baghdad becomes its hunting ground.
At first the victims are all guilty of one or another manner of wrongdoing—but then the innocent begin to fall. And those who go after the beast are slain.
Echoing the insanity of everyday life in Baghdad, the book lurches between sheer terror and dark humor, as events move to a shattering conclusion.
There’s an awful lot going on in this book. Is Hadi’s monster a metaphor for modern Iraq, a country stitched together from many disparate parts, occasionally erupting into horror? Is Hadi insane, or is he a normal young person in an insane situation? With all the opposing forces focused on the city, where are the real monsters?
A powerful, meaningful book that raises questions without giving easy answers.
* * *
Vintage 161 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $11.99 (e-book)
Genre: Short Fiction Collections
Karen Tidbeck made a splash with last year’s Amatka (reviewed in the July/August issue). Now Vintage Books is reissuing her short story collection Jagganath, which previously appeared in a 2012 limited edition from Cheeky Frawg Books.
One of the most important things SF can do is to look at familiar worlds from a skewed perspective that makes the commonplace extraordinary and the usually invisible blindingly inescapable. That’s what Karen Tidbeck does in these thirteen exquisite, delicious tales.
Tidbeck’s language is a joy to read: it’s almost a character in each story itself. And she’s not pretentious or overly literary—it’s more a case of the perfect words, perfectly arranged to create the world of each tale. I don’t think you’ll find yourself stopping to read selected passages aloud; the language isn’t that obtrusive.
What about the individual stories? At first blush they seem absurd, but they’re all grounded in compelling characters who somehow make the craziness seem normal. Babies made in tin cans. Three aunts who eat everything in sight in an attempt to grow as large as possible. Creatures in a universe without time, contaminated by human concepts. A switchboard operator with a trunk line to Hell. Life aboard an interstellar ark named Mother. A man in love with an airship.
Like such authors as Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, Octavia Butler, and Ursula K. LeGuin, Karen Tidbeck is a talent that transcends our field. One of those rare authors who speaks equally well to the purest of literary aficionados and the most devoted of SF readers.
Give Jagannath a try. You won’t regret it.
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Tell the Machine Goodnight
Riverhead, 304 pages, $25.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $12.99 (e-book)
Genre: Psychological/Sociological SF, Satire SF
In LitCrit circles it’s customary to divide satire into two types, Horatian and Juvenalian (named after the Classical-era writers Horace and Juvenal). While both types use humor to comment on societies, Horatian satire is gentle and playful, while Juvenalian satire is more sarcastic, biting, even mean.
Tell the Machine Goodnight is definitely Horatian. Instead of attacking its targets, it makes amiable fun of them. And what are those targets? The tech industry, the culture of feel-good happiness, and certain pop culture icons.
In near future San Francisco, the tech industry’s latest hit is Apricity, a device that analyzes an individual’s psychology and circumstances and then computes advice for achieving personal happiness. Sometimes the advice is simple and intuitive, like eating more of a specific food or seeking out a specific type of entertainment. Sometimes it’s baffling, as when it tells one character to cut off their right index finger. Whatever the advice, in the long run it seems to work; the subject gets happier.
Pearl, a happiness technician who works with Apricity, has one big challenge standing in the way of her own ultimate contentment: her teenage son Rhett, a misfit who wants the freedom to be unhappy.
Calla Pax is a Hollywood star whose life of fame has turned her into a hermit, unable to feel any connection with the rest of the human race. What can a machine like Apricity do for her?
Valeria is a woman haunted by a secret from her past, one that makes her believe she doesn’t deserve happiness. Is Apricity the answer to her problems, or a curse that will make them worse?
Author Katie Williams follows these characters through a world and society feeling the influence of Apricity, and gives the reader plenty to consider about the nature of true happiness, and the process of pursuing it.
* * *
Denver Moon: The Minds of Mars
Warren Hammond & Joshua Viola
Hex, 264 pages, $18.99 (hardcover) $12.99 (trade paperback)
Kindle: $4.99 (e-book)
Series: Denver Moon 1
Genre: Adventure SF, Mars, SF Mystery
Earth is dying, the Moon is a failed colony, and Mars hasn’t turned out the way everyone planned. The stalled terraforming project won’t show results for centuries. Criminals are everywhere, so it’s not safe to be out at night. Anybody who can afford to leave has departed.
Denver Moon is a private investigator in Mars City, barely scraping by, when she takes on a case investigating a rash of violent crimes connected to so-called red fever: a disease that turns its victims into savage killers. In the course of her investigation, Denver comes across a long-lost message from her deceased grandfather, Tatsuo Moon—one of Mars City’s cofounders.
With the help of her AI implant named Smith and an android called Nigel, Denver goes in search of more information about her grandfather, who died twenty years ago. She discovers that Tatsuo didn’t die a natural death . . . and his apparent murder had something to do with the red fever.
Opposing Denver is Cole Hennessy, leader of the powerful Church of Mars and an old friend of Tatsuo’s. Everywhere she turns, the Church is in her way. And time is running out for her to find out the link between red fever, Tatsuo’s death, and the Church’s secret agenda.
Denver Moon is at once an old-school private eye in the Raymond Chandler mode, and a modern SF hero at home with advanced technology. The story’s a page-turner, the setting is well detailed, and the action is nonstop.
If you like Denver Moon, you’ll also want to look for the three-part comic book companion under the title Denver Moon. Ask at your local comic shop or look online for that one.
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The Bend at the End of the Road
Barry N. Malzberg
Fantastic Books, 162 pages, $13.99 (trade paperback)
Barry N. Malzberg is an institution in the world of science fiction. From the beginning of his career in 1867, he has been a fixture in the field, producing nearly one hundred books and four hundred shorter pieces. He won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 1973, and has often been nominated for Hugo and Nebula Awards.
If his track record in SF isn’t enough, he’s also a prolific commentator on the field itself, having published two previous collections of essays about SF: The Engines of Night (1982) and Breakfast in the Ruins (2007). The Bend at the End of the Road collects 44 essays from 2007 to 2017.
These essays range from literary criticism to politics to observations about SF fandom to the history of science fiction. Most are just a few pages long. Like most of Malzberg’s writing, some of these will leave you exasperated, happy, angry, wistful, and unsatisfied. Malzberg pulls no punches and bears no fools; even when you disagree with him, you have to admit that he knows his stuff. (Fair warning: if you don’t disagree with him at some point, you need help.)
If you care about science fiction or just want a peek behind the curtains, this is the book for you.
And now, just as predicted and according to plan, I’m out of space. See you next time.
Don Sakers is the author of Dance for the Ivory Madonna, the Rule of Five serial at http://rule-of-5.com, and A Cosmos of Many Mansions, a collection based on previous columns. For more information, visit www.scatteredworlds.com.
Copyright © 2018 Don Sakers