Saturday, 7 August 2004

Sean McMullen: Souls in the Great Machine (1999)

Edition: Tor, 2000
Review number: 1257

There are plenty of post-apocalyptic novels, and plenty of science fiction about computers, but Souls in the Great Machine is the first story I have read which combines the two. Set about seventeen hundred years from now, following a nuclear winter, Souls in the Great Machine is about the effects of the development of a new form of a religiously proscribed machine, the computer. Because electronic equipment has become unusable (due to still functioning military satellites which destroy any detected electrical circuits), the components are men and women who perform the operations basic to the electronic computer of today by hand. The machine is slow compared to one using microchip technology, but powerful enough to bring prominence to the small state in which it is secretly constructed.

Souls in the Great Machine builds on well worn science fiction ideas in an original manner, and by centring on the Calculor itself becomes fascinating (at least for the first two thirds; the last two hundred pages of this novel, describing desert warfare, is more commonplace and not so interesting). The scenario is influenced by writers like Neal Stephenson and Bruce Sterling - despite the massive differences in the technology depicted, the closest novels in tone to Souls in the Great Machine that I can think of are The Diamond Age and The Difference Engine - as well as post apocalyptic novels, particularly A Canticle for Leibowitz, which also deals with the relationship between technology and religion. The desert warfare could come from Dune (which also, of course, has a religious prohibition on the development of computing machines), or a number of fantasy novels and the use of railways is (perhaps more superficially) like Pavane or Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Out of such influences, McMullen has forged a novel distinctively his own.

Souls in the Great Machine has flaws; as mentioned, it tails off in its final third; and it is also lacking in characterisation. It is as though the nature and effects of the Calculor are not just the main interest of the novel, but so much its focus that everything else not directly related to the topic is underwritten. For a genre novel, it is dense and that makes it a slow read, and the effect of the poor end segment is to make the reader wonder whether the effort has been worth it. I would say that for the earlier parts of Souls in the Great Machine, the whole is just worth it; enough for me to look out for his other books, some of which are also set in the same world.

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