Galactic empires, central planning & the technocratic fallacy: An Appreciation of Donald Kingsbury’s Psychohistorical Crisis, the 2002 Prometheus Best Novel winner

Introduction: To highlight the four-decade history of the Prometheus Awards, which the Libertarian Futurist Society began celebrating in 2019, and to make clear what libertarian futurists saw in each of our past winners that made them deserve recognition as pro-freedom sf/fantasy, we’re continuing in 2020 to present a series of weekly Appreciations of Prometheus Award-winners, starting with our first category for Best Novel.

Here’s the latest Appreciation for Donald Kingsbury’s Psychohistorical Crisis, the 2002 Prometheus winner for Best Novel:

By William H. Stoddard and Michael Grossberg
    Donald Kingsbury’s Psychohistorical Crisis, an expansion of the Canadian-American sf writer’s 1995 novella “Historical Crisis,” reimagines and critiques the statist and technocratic assumptions of Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation series.

Set in the 761st century, long after the events of that series, as the galactic empire is failing, the clever, complex and suspenseful 2001 novel offers a perceptive and implicitly libertarian critique of Asimov’s books, especially their determinism and political centralization.

At the center of the vast landscape of the Second Galactic Empire, which has spread to millions of worlds throughout the Milky Way galaxy but without any nonhuman intelligences except for genetically enhanced talking dogs, is a 30-year-old psychohistorian who committed a crime he can’t remember.

As a penalty, he must give up his “fam” or personal familiar, which enhances every part of his daily life in the complex society via a device plugged into his brain.

Kingsbury accomplishes something highly unusual in fiction by conveying dramatically the limits of centralized knowledge, and the impossibility of government central planning, as demonstrated by the Austrian-school economist Ludwig von Mises, while evoking Nobel-Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek’s pivotal insights making an efficacious case for the spontaneous order of the marketplace over State centralization.

Asimov imagined psychohistorians whose new science enabled them to guide a galactic empire – a futuristic update of the similarly utopian and collectivist/elite visions that have led humanity astray from Plato’s The Republic and More’s Utopia to Marx’s pseudo-scientific socialism.

     This brilliant novel explodes the technocratic fallacy that such vastly dispersed knowledge can be centralized or that such control can remain benevolent.

Kingsbury shows a civilization bent on achieving utopia through predictive social science confronted with unmanageable forces as its people seek the power to predict and create their own futures.

Note: Kingsbury also won Prometheus recognition in 2016 when his 1982 novel Courtship Rite was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: A 40thAnniversary Celebration and appreciation of the next novel to be recognized with a Prometheus Award: Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch, the 2003 winner for Best Novel.

* See related introductory essay about the LFS’s 40thanniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

* Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.
Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as vital as political change (and often more fun!) in achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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