Souls in the Great Machine, Sean McMullen

Tor, 1999, 448 pages, C$21.95 tpb, ISBN 0-312-87256-9

As someone who provides technical support for libraries, I don’t have to be told about the awesome powers wielded by librarians. Sean McMullen may have dedicated my copy of Souls in the Great Machine with “watch out for strange librarians”, but that’s more of a reminder than a revelation.

Today, librarians may be cataloguing pieces of dead trees, but in two thousand years, who knows? In McMullen’s imagined future, librarians are the undisputed masters of high technology in a world where anything more advanced than steam power is strictly forbidden. Arguments about how to run the library are settled through pistol duels, city-states dominate the political landscape and humans are regularly harvested away through an irresistible “Call”.

Even though I many not be a big fan of post-apocalyptic futures, SF with epic fantasy trappings or massive trilogies, McMullen’s novel is strong enough, despite a few annoying writing flaws, to overcome most of my prejudices. For one thing, it’s SF that understand and espouses SF’s basic ideals. For another, it’s got enough sweep and scope to fulfil even the most demanding SF readers.

It’s not your typical post-apocalyptic future, for instance, given how it sets its narrative at a point where humanity is once again starting to look forward. As the novel begins, ambitious chief librarian Zarvora Cybeline is single-handedly revitalizing the Great Library of Rochester and putting the finishing touches to the Calculator, a Babbage Engine made to work using enslaved human components. What follows is an information revolution, a war, a re-discovery of this future age’s underpinnings and a revolt against what could charitably be described as gods of an ancient age. Fun stuff, well-told through a cast of delightful characters. Three strong female protagonists share the spotlight of this novel, through epic adventures filled with large-scale spectacles and intimate moments.

I could spend paragraphs describing McMullen’s constant stream of ideas, from human-powered computers to indirect space warfare. But that would spoil some of the book’s appeal while selling short its considerable reading pleasure. SF fans looking for a gigantic helping of ideas will be well-served by this book. Simply put, Souls in the Great Machine is a compelling read even at 448 pages, packed as it is with grand characters, great moments, compelling ideas and the comfortable sweep of an big, big story. McMullen’s writing is clear and clean, with occasional flashes of humour. (I was quite fond of the quote “Seneschal, allow [this character] to be harmed, and I will do something so pointlessly hideous that you will die as much from disbelief as pain.” [P.308])

There are, unfortunately, problems with this book that prevent it from being a complete success. McMullen, though gifted, is not a polished writer, and so Souls in the Great Machine is still rife with inconsistent viewpoints (sometimes switching in the middle of a section) and rough development. Months, sometimes years pass between chapters and sections, and better control over the pacing of the book could have done much to smooth over some of the book’s most jarring moments. McMullen writes fantastic characters filled with both good and evil, but in two specific cases, I found the abrupt transition of some characters to the dark side to be unconvincing and, ultimately, harmful to my appreciation of the novel. Some plot threads end spectacularly while others simply peter out. The “Call”’s explanation is lame. Several annoying coincidences abound, including “chance” meetings between our main cast of characters over and over again. A more experienced writer (and a stricter editor) could have fixed those problems. In the meantime, the impression remains of a great novel fighting its way out of imperfect writing. Frustrating, especially given how enjoyable is the rest of the novel. Curiously enough, this book may have been better with an added fifty pages’ worth of smoother storytelling.

But even so, Souls in the Great Machine achieves most of its goal as a solid and intelligent Science Fiction novel. Though not billed as such, this is the first volume of a series, and it ends on a high note that makes a sequel both superfluous and intriguing. I’m already on board for The Miocene Arrow (which feels like a sideshow more than a straight-up sequel) and you can be sure that I’m keenly interested in what McMullen thinks about next.

Furthermore, it goes without saying that I remain on my guard regarding strange librarians.

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