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|
|summary||The rebirth of technology in a world 2000 years after a global apocalypse and a new dark age.|
The ScenarioThe 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.