My life in outer space

McMullen – Sean

Interzone #248 – Andy Cox (Ed.) (2013)

Interzone 248

Ad Astra – Carole Johnstone
The Hareton K-12 County School and Adult Extension – James Van Pelt
Dark Gardens – Greg Kurzawa
Il Teatro Oscuro – Ken Altabef
Technarion – Sean McMullen

A very interesting collection of tales in this issue which push the boundaries of what the average reader would consider to be SF. I have always avoided trying to establish a definition, and although established names within the genre have put forward definitions in the past, there always seem to be works which fall outside the parameters.
I’m happy to consider it as a broad church with a fluid remit. It’s a lot easier to say what isn’t SF, and I have labelled some works as such in the past.
Luckily I have no such problems here. Interzone continues to publish excellent work from new – and not so new – writers which are engrossing and thought provoking.
A few of these stories have ambiguous and unresolved endings, something I find refreshing. There’s also a strong poetic element to some of them, such as the pieces by Van Pelt and Altabef which take us into the realm of the surreal and inexplicable.
The magazine also features an interview with Christopher Priest as part of Interzone’s review of ‘The Adjacent’.

Ad Astra – Carole Johnstone

In a future where space flights are sponsored by media companies and reality stars, a married couple are sent on a mission beyond Pluto. This is a first person narrative told by the wife whose mental integrity is slowly crumbling.

The Hareton K-12 County School and Adult Extension – James Van Pelt

An American School built in the mid Twentieth Century acquires so many various extensions, annexes, basements and sub basements that it grows into a Gormenghast-esque world of its own in which reality becomes somewhat fluid. Beautifully written. Quite fascinating.

Dark Gardens – Greg Kurzawa

A man buys a house after the previous owner, an unsuccessful magician, disappeared. The house contains all his equipment and some notebooks and videotapes. In the basement he discovers something that looks like a submarine hatch which leads to a dark waterworld filled with houses and their eerie mannequin occupants.
A very compelling story, haunting and disturbing.

Il Teatro Oscuro – Ken Altabef

A very short piece set in a dystopian future which begins with an old man – sitting in a condemned opera house – recreating a lost opera and the opera house by means of some ingenious opera glasses. Poetic, atmospheric and evocative.

Technarion – Sean McMullen

An interesting steampunk piece from McMullen about the development of a computer in 1875, the consequences of which are far reaching.

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Souls in The Great Machine – Sean McMullen (1999)

Souls in the Great Machine (Greatwinter Trilogy, #1)

‘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.