Souls in The Great Machine – Sean McMullen (1999)
‘A Brilliant and Stunning Saga Begins…
Two millennia from now, there is no more electricity, wind-engines are leading-edge technology, librarians fight duels to settle disputes, steam power is banned by every major religion, and a mysterious siren ‘Call’ lures people to their watery graves. Nevertheless a brilliant and ruthless leader intends to start an improbable war: a war against inconceivably ancient nuclear battlestations orbiting Earth.
However, the greatest threat to humanity is not these ancient weapons but a determined and implacable enemy who has resurrected an obscene and evil concept from the distant past.’
Blurb from the 2002 Tor paperback edition
In McMullen’s future Australia, society has been rebuilt following a nuclear war 2000 years before. Australia has fractured into a jigsaw of independent states, divided by culture and religion. In the library of the University of Libris, the Alexandria of its age, the Highliber Zarvora has re-invented the computer using mathematical human components chained to desks and connected to each other by ropes and pulleys. Entering data into this system is done by way of a harpsichord keyboard.
The world is surrounded by AI guided satellites (strangely, still functional after 2000 years) which are programmed to fire upon any sign of technological activity.
More ominously, the Mirrorsun – a band constructed in orbit around the Earth, is widening itself, in order to cool down a world that is no longer suffering from global warming.
This is the first in a trilogy from McMullen which, although immensely enjoyable, occasionally collapses under the weight of the cast, no mean feat for a novel with not an enormous number of central figures.
The problem seems to be that McMullen does not give equal weight to his characters, and there is a fair amount of jumping about from place to place without the author giving time to establish the characters in a physical context. There is little sense of change of atmosphere between far-flung locations, and a lack of suspense. Also, disappointingly, the first chapter or two contains an infodump overload, telling us more or less what happened over the last two thousand years with emphasis on the last century.
It is interesting that McMullen’s protagonists are a balanced mixture of sexes, although it has to be said that although the women are almost exclusively strong, intelligent and in charge of their own lives, they are, for the most part, busty, leather-clad, gun-toting babes.
There are two characters, Glasken and Lemorel whose story is laced through the novel. Glasken, a rogue and reprobate, dedicated to seducing women, originally has an affair with and betrays Lemorel. Lemorel, a highly trained fighter and Dragon Librarian, takes her revenge. Their destinies hereafter cause them to, in a sense, change position, since Glasken becomes a hero of the War which transpires, while Lemorel, for reasons which are not fully explained, ends up becoming the Supreme Commander of the enemy army.
McMullen did not exploit this dual transformation enough, mainly because, one feels, of the distraction of other characters whose love-lives were equally as complicated, but not as interesting.
Having said that, McMullen scores highly in terms of readability and extrapolated scientific development in a society where steam and electricity are banned.
The Calculor – as the human gestalt computer is named – is the most fascinating aspect of the novel, and even its legal and social implications are handled well. Trains are powered by a combination of wind and leg power.
There is also the phenomenon of the Call; a mental summons which causes all large mammals and humans to lose their will and walk south. In reaction to this Australian society has developed clockwork mechanisms attached to their bodies which, if not reset, are designed to clamp on to a projection, thus keeping the victim from wandering off until the Call has passed.
Interestingly, in a book that was written pre 9/11, we see that McMullen has predicted Moslem sections of Australia, and indeed, one of the minor characters is a Moslem, press-ganged into service within the Calculor. However, although McMullen has introduced the Gentheists, who believe that the Call is the will of God, there seems not to have been any religious evolution or change since the apocalypse, which after 2000 years of isolation and near-barbarism, seems absurd.
As this is the first in a set of three it may be that McMullen may explore the characters further in the sequels which would certainly enhance an enjoyable, yet slightly colourless, tale.