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Souls in the Great Machine 45

We've got another science fiction review today, this time of Sean McMullen's Souls in the Great Machine. The book is about a post-apocalyptic future with the re-birth of technology - click below to learn more if you want this book in your stocking this year.
Souls in the Great Machine
author Sean McMullen
pages 448
publisher Tor, 06/1999
rating 8/10
reviewer Sviluppo Lavoro
ISBN 0-312-87055-8
summary The rebirth of technology in a world 2000 years after a global apocalypse and a new dark age.

The Scenario

The novel takes place in Australia about 2000 years in the future, following a great catastrophe (which takes place about 100-200 years from the present). This catastrophe created a period of global drop in temperature known as Greatwinter. There are no electrical devices, due to the presence of orbiting satellites (known as Wanderers) that pass over periodically and EMP the hell out of any device using electricity. Thus, the technology of the civilization is limited to clockwork and human powered machines (there are various religious sanctions against the use of steam power--a leftover fear of global warming and its consequences, which are believed by the people to have caused the eventual Greatwinter). It is the latter category that brings out the most impressive feature of the novel, the Calculor. The main librarian of the city of Rochester creates an analog computer using human prisoners as components. They work together as a giant processor to perform the functions of a computer. In fact, the prisoners are referred to as FUNCTION 9, MULTIPLIER 342, etc. The librarian, Zavora, is using the Calculor to try to predict the coming of a second Greatwinter, which does not appear to have resulted from internal causes on earth but rather an exterior force. The discovery and investigation of this force is quite fascinating. There is also a force on land known as the Call, which lures people to the southeast and eventually into the ocean. This may seem like fantasy fiction, but if you stay with the novel a rational explanation is offered. Although I was turned off by that particular plot device in the beginning, it is a unique idea, especially once it is fully understood. In the meantime, you have plenty of blood and action supplied by a large war and plenty of small duels (the preferred method of justice), and a healthy sprinkling of sex and drinking (mainly supplied by the Han Solo character John Glasken).

What's Bad?

The novel does a poor job of getting you hooked at the beginning. It takes a little while to get to the plot, and itÕs also difficult to see how the novel is going to deal with such issues as nanotechnology and genetic engineering when youÕre wading through pages of medieval technology and society. But there are wonderful rewards for readers who stick with it. Also, I found the dueling to be impractical for continual conflict resolution, as it would end up with a lot of dead people and a few dictators who happened to be good with a pistol. But this isnÕt a particularly enlightened society.

What's Good?

The variety of subjects covered in a novel this size without being an epic. The writing style is excellent, and doesnÕt put you to sleep or give you the whole picture all at once. IÕve never read anything else by him, but apparently heÕs fairly well received in Australia. (Any comments from readers in Oz?) The numerous positive aspects of this novel are covered in more thorough detail in the following paragraph...

So What's In It For Me?

The range of issues is immense. Nanotechnology and genetic engineering are presented not as cure-alls or as the cause of all of the worldÕs problems, but as part of technology as a whole, which can be used for good or evil. There are also ingenious solutions to communication in a non-electronic world, and the use of encryption as part of that communication. The human computer system is an intriguing thought experiment, and I would love to see smaller scale versions tried out in math classrooms and computer science classes. Imagine a lecture on networking in which students carry pieces of paper back and forth and groups of students process the information or send it on to the next group, depending on where that particular packet is needed... But I digress. Something that springs up on you is the excellent treatment of women in the novel. Women hold many important positions in the main civilization featured in the novel, and are the holders of most of the important information. The main character is an incredibly complex woman whose motives are not completely understood until the very end. McMullen manages to accomplish this without putting the women on some sort of goddess-pedestal or making men into unthinking troglodytes. The novel also covers issues of religion, where language and science would go given 2000 years of isolation and no modern technology, and the never-say-never tenacity of the human race to pull itself up through a second Renaissance. It appears as though there will be some other novels to follow this one, so it should be a good series to read.

Purchase this book at fatbrain.

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Souls in the Great Machine

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  • I don't necessarily mean to target this at this particular review, but why do practically all book reviews on /. get 8's? It kind of invalidates the ratings for me as it feels like all of the reviewers are afraid to give anything else. They don't want to praise a book to highly in case there are peeps out there who will rip them to shreds for rating it too high, and they don't want to rate it too low for the same reason. Howabout a couple book ratings for 3 books! I want to know what to avoid as well as what to buy.

  • by BWS ( 104239 )
    and what the deal with Õ? I get them in both netscape and IE
  • Most because I filter out the medicore reviews. Since we don't publish a huge amount of reviews, it makes sense to point people to good books. If something is really terrible, we try to point it out.
  • kindof the opposite i suppose, but HAB Theory presents what sounds like very much the same info ... and suggests it's happened before ... excellent read for the subject. by Allan Eckert, circa 1976 ... check out
  • by Effugas ( 2378 ) on Thursday December 09, 1999 @05:13AM (#1472617) Homepage
    I remember when I was growing up, there was a cartoon entitled "Visionaries". Now, like most shows in the early 80's, this was another Toy Advertising Vehicle, this one for stupid little dolls with holograms on their chest. But the show itself had a cool concept--all tech was destroyed, and everybody had to figure out how to survive.

    I, a 10 year old techie at the time, was extraordinarily annoyed that anyone would presume all tech would just *disappear*. I didn't know about EMP yet. Necessity is the mother of horrific inventions, eh? ;-)

    So, here I am a decade later, and I'm reading about a book based on a similar concept as that old show. This time, I know what EMP is...and also know that, if applied on a global scale, repeatedly, at the bare minimum much of the marine population would be disoriented to extinction. Sharks, and many other marine species detect minute variations in the electrical field to find their prey. Intermittent massive pulses of energy would almost certainly blind them, causing some pretty nasty changes to the ecosystem.

    OK, OK, the Greatwinter could be argued to make such minor extinctions irrelevant. But consider--anything that would indescriminately destroy electronics would cause *any* metal to spark--so you'd actually be looking at a pre-medeival society, no?

    I'm actually liking these Slashdot book reviews alot. Makes me realize I need to go read more ;-)

    Yours Truly,

    Dan Kaminsky
    DoxPara Research
  • This definately sounds like a mixture of both..

    Post-Apocalyptic Australia = Mad Max
    Anti-technology religion = Dune (butlerian Jihad)

    ok. Well I guess if I tried I could fix in
    a few more of the dune series, as well as the matrix, farenheit 451, and lemmings the video game.
  • by kootch ( 81702 )
    that's what happens when someone doesn't use an html valid " or '. Basically, the person who wrote the review used a program like MS Office and didn't turn on/off smart quotes. Happens all the time, which is why I write papers in BBedit these days (programs that don't suck).
  • I remember the Visionaries. Yup, little He-Man look alikes who had holograms on their chests and special "magic" machines.. I found it amusing anyway (I think I was like 6 back then, dont laugh). The book sounds intriguing: Looks like its just sold another copy.
  • Mastering Algorithms with Perl - 8/10
    Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace - 10/10
    Perl CD Bookshelf - 8/10
    A Canticle for Leibowitz - 9/10
    Under The Radar - 7/10
    Programming Pearls (Second Edition) - 10/10
    Beginning Linux Programming, 2nd Edition - 8.5/10
    The Unofficial Guide to Lego Mindstorms Robots - 9/10
    Cities in Flight - 8/10
    The Cathedral and the Bazaar - 9/10
    All Tomorrow's Parties - 7/10
    Using Samba - 8/10
    Sandman: The Dream Hunters - 10/10
  • I think we would just go back to the slide rule. Mine works perfectly. Pretty cheap computer, completely debugged, impervious to EMP, fits in your hand. Many of the technological achievements we admire while waiting for our machines to reboot were built using slide rules.

    I haven't zenned out on it yet, but I keep trying :-)
  • The main reason I say this is that Sean is a Awesome person (I've had the pleasure to meet him socially a couple of times) and deserves your interest (and royalties)

    From memory, There are at least 3 other books, either set in the same world, or containing short stories set in that world)

    Anyway check out his home page at
  • by Anonymous Coward
    the title is so similar to a really excellent 1980 book about Data General. it's set in the late 1970's when micro-computers were new. it's a very good story about the engineers as they struggled to create a 32-bit eclipse when other departments were siding with management trying to can the project. very good read.
  • Great book!

    Tracy kidder wrote it right? I read that book
    when I was 8. that's what really got me into computers, because they referred to the engineers/coders as "kids" a lot :)
  • Hmmm. Two post-apocalyptic book reviews on top of one another, just before the end of the milennium. Is /. subtly trying to prepare us for Y2K? Does CmdrTaco Know Something We Don't? :-)
    Be afraid. Be very afriad..

    Your local conspiracy theorist,
  • The book provides good insight into the characteristies (good and bad) that are often associated (rightly so) with librarians. I believe that is why the author's treatment of gender in the characters is even-handed and well done. Like Dune the warring is a tad overdone.
  • Why would this world be limited to a medieval level of technology? Using water and horse power humanity could probably get back to the early industrial revolution without much trouble. Use gas lamps for light like in the 1880s, belt driven machines for manufacturing, etc. Precision parts where going into guns in the early 1820s.

    Besides, does anyone here think that a church prohibition would stop steam power? I mean really? It seems to be really stopping premarital sex.

    Also, why would a computer use humans as components? Why not build a mechanical calculator? The technology does not require electricity and would be more dependable and repeatable.

    Lastly, what is stopping humanity from shooting down the Wanderers or at least avoiding them? You can build a rocket without electricity, or a very large cannon (Saddam Hussein was going to try this incidentally). They've got the calculations for targetting. Simply activate a small electrical power system (or better yet several small ones in a pattern), wait until it gets killed, and repeat. Soon you'll roughly know the Wanderers orbits using some basic math you can do by hand. You will then know how to avoid the EMP sweeps and can use electricity all you want as long as you do it at the right times.

  • Wait-- both Dune and MAd Max were original. This is, unfortunately, cliched. Besides, the point of DUNE was to create an intricate study into alternate universe creation, and mad max was pretty much in it for the action. This story calls on a tired theme (end of civ.) with a slight varience. But how is a human computer different from hive mentality in an important sense? This topic is aplying it to humans though, and the ramifications, so there is a some redeeming insights. I can only think of about two actual hive mentality sci-fi books. This theme is becoming more and more commen though(Fight Club, American Beuty) so maybe the hive mentality is becoming reality.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    What prevents the inhabitants of this world to build large enclosed metal rooms, shielding the electronics from the effects of EMP?

    Would`nt military bunkers which are already protected from such forces guard against the loss of technology?

    Further, since the satelites blast the heck out of any electronics, once the buildings are shielded, could`nt the EMP itself be harnessed as a source of energy for the protected electronics? You can harness lightning, why not an EMP burst?

    I hate the idea of all technology disapearing, don`t see the "wanderers" satelites as being able to eliminate ALL possibilities.

    Heck, worse comes to worse, I`d start developing an organic or chemical based computer. ;)

    PS. I HATED that cartoon. It had a good idea, but why, oh why, did they have all that machinery in still working condition and not have the slightest curriosity on HOW it worked. Was like, boom, world gone. Now you`re not allowed to use that fully fueled car or plane behind you.

    PPS. Why`d the world end in Visionaries? What was it`s apocalipse?
  • by Thagg ( 9904 ) <> on Thursday December 09, 1999 @07:14AM (#1472639) Journal
    The reviewer's (and author's) ideas about using arrays of people as a computer has been done, during the Manhattan Project.

    The astonishing Richard Feynman had at his disposal a hundred or so people with early mechanical calculators. He would arrange them in a room so that each could perform part of a computation, and hand the intermediate results off to other people.

    This is clearly what we would call 'programming' today. He claims in 'Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman' that this was much more efficient than the alternative, which was to have each of the people, in parallel, performing many different steps of the calculation.


  • I was kind of enjoying the fight club movie
    for a while.. until I saw arlington road last night.. not much difference except brad pit without a shirt again.

    Dune was great.. I'm very happy with humanity that Frank herbert's son cowrote house atreides, and is going to come out with a few more books to complete the series & explain the butlerian jihad.. (ok now I remember why I never went to class in high school.. well half the reason. I'm recompiling the other)

    I've given up on any new books.. going back
    and reading the great books from before that i've missed, or rereading them (catch 22, 1984, slaughterhouse 5, burmese days, space oddyssey series)... because as with anything else in the '90s.. it's not new.
  • Last year Robert Silverberg published The Alien Years [] with a similar subplot.
    Aliens zapped the planet with EMP rendering all electricity driven devices inoperable and plunging us into medieval times.
  • The reviewer mentions that he'd like to see experiments with human
    computers like the calculor.

    It turns out that, they used something similar to the calculor during
    the Manhattan project. A room full of people with mechanical
    calculators working on the same problem. They passed partial results
    to each other on pieces of paper according to a sort of program.

  • Well, i havent read the book so i can't say what their actual level of technology is but..
    Water power is covered under medieval technology, they used water-powered mills quite alot. Same for horses (although given 2000 years of winter i'd be surprised if any horses were still around). Natural gas-burning lamps wouldnt work well because 1) you need to get the stuff and that sort of drilling requires higher technology than would be available and 2) you need to pressurize it in a tank to be released via a valve for the lamp, which again requires technology that wouldnt be around (not to mention the ability to machine an air-tight tank to put the gas in).
    As for the religious prohibition thing, in a pre-industrial society religion carries alot more weight. How much depends on a number of things. If this religion is, as it sounds, based around the prevention of another apocalypse, most people would probably willingly support it. If they've re-invented the process of creating cheap paper and the printing press then there'd be wider access to information and religion would lose power, if not then religious leaders would hold sway in information distribution. If the largest portion of the population believes in the god or gods worshipped then they'll probably abide by the prohibition whether they agree with the church's ideaology or not, on the off chance that the church may have gotten it right and they'd be smited.
    As for shooting down or avoiding a satellite using pre-industrial technology... i dont see it happening. Those satellites would be, at least, in LEO which would require a missile (or cannonball) moving at mach 25 (escape velocity) to hit them. They'd have to predict orbits very precisely since you have to account for the fact that the projectile takes time to reach the satellite and moving at escape velocity it would not be affected by the earth's gravitation pull and so wouldnt actually go 'straight' up relative to the firer. Then there's making sure you actually destroy the satellite.. if you're trying to hit a small satellite with a solid projectile without targeting computers or self-propulsion (solid propellants take a good bit of engineering and chemical knowledge) in the right spot to destroy it from about 400 miles away... well, good luck. So you'd need to build a fuse that'd burn for the entire flight and explode when it reaches an unknown altitude (and wouldnt go out when it leaves the oxygenated portion of the atmosphere.. requiring an oxyidzer which couldnt be produced by a pre-industrial civilization). It just wouldnt work.. yes, they could probably build little rockets using gun powder, but they'd be horribly innacurate at more than short ranges and would have No hope of hitting something 400 miles up.
  • I haven't read the book... so this is just a guess.

    If the inhabitants have lost all tech and are building back up from scratch they wouldn't know about EMP or satellites or anything else that we take for granted.

    All they would know is that soon after they build something using this "electricity", it fizzles out and stops working. They may attribute it to evil spirits or assume that they built it wrong in the first place. They probably have never thought about satellites programmed to keep them in a low-tech state. Therefore, no way to know how to prevent it (unless they stumble upon it by accident).

    [obvious plug]
    Reminds me of the setup for David Weber's "Heirs of Empire". Nothing better than a "super-advanced world loses all tech" story. I got the first of his books just a few months ago and now I have 11. Go figure.
    [end obvious plug]
  • This is exactly what I thought of when I saw the headline. Wonderful book -- I just, coincidentally, reread it last week. One of the better nonfiction books I've read in quite a while.

    ISBN: 0-679-60261-5

    The discussion of the technology is likely to be of interest to almost any /. reader, but what really stands out is the depth of character narration, and the humanity it brings to the story.

    Soul Of A New Machine. []

  • Yup. As I recall, the legendary Richard Feynman was in charge of that team. In the nine months before he took control of them, they had completed three problems; in the three months afterwards, they completed nine problems. Says something about the effects of Feynman's phenomenal brain power.
  • Since it was brought up, thought I'd share CT's response to my question about Y2k when he was on efnet for the Linuxpower radio show.

    {CmdrTaco}spot4: Fuck Y2k. Keep a few hundred bucks in cash and some canned food just in case, but in 2 days it'll be life as usual.

    Does CT know more than he wants to share? Only Nitrozac knows... bwahaa... ok. I'm done now.

  • If you placed your electronics inside a Faraday cage, they would be invulnerable to EMP. A Faraday cage is basically a box (or a room if you're thinking big) which has an electrical conductor completely surrounding it.

    Even with medieval technlogy this would not be too hard to build, and once you had the orbits of the Wanderers figured out you would know when the box / room had to be closed up. Figuring the orbits would be easy as there is no way the satellites could carry enough reaction mass to still be manuevering millenia later.

  • As far as I remember about this one, before richard took over they would wait until each calculation was finished before beginning another. Richard pointed out that they could begin another problem before the previous one was completed and pipeline the calculations behind eachother

    This led to one incident when some very important calcuation needed to be done, and the powers that be said to richard basically, "seeing as you have four problems going simultaneously, please put them all on hold and do this important one instead of all of them, we expect it to be finished at one forth of the speed of all those other calculations that you are doing", and were a bit horrified to find out that there was no way to achieve this speed, they had begun to rely on the "extra speed" of the system, which of course had not become inherently faster

    You really should pick up one of richards books, he has some hilarious material on lock picking and breaking during the Manhatten project, mostly social engineering, but great stuff. A wonderful character.


  • And how does one get a dense cloud of gravel into orbit without modern rocketry?

Nobody said computers were going to be polite.