Tag Archives: Sean McMullen

Eyes of the Calculator, Sean McMullen

Tor, 2001, 589 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34512-9

There’s a good reason why I try to read volumes of a trilogy one after another: Wait more than a month between volumes and the characters fade away: It’s possible to spending more time catching up than actually enjoying the latest instalment. Due to a variety of factors (including temporary blindness), I ended up waiting seven months between the second and third tomes of Sean McMullen’s “Greatwinter Trilogy”, and the gap did nothing to improve my experience of the series.

Eyes of the Calculator begins soon after The Miocene Arrow, but returns to Australica after the extended North American trip of the second volume. The atmosphere is correspondingly closer to the first Souls in the Great Machine, although with the inclusion of a few American characters. The final instalment begins as The Call, which had enslaved humans for generations, is shut down. (Given that this was one of the lamest elements of the series, its absence is not missed.) Freed from the constraints of the Call, humanity starts spreading once more, leaving the Aviads without natural protection…

Readers of the first two volumes of the trilogy already suspect what is to follow: Romantic high adventure in a neo-medieval setting, with plenty of romantic heroism and triumphant moments. And indeed, Eyes of the Calculator more or less delivers the good. McMullen is clearly having a lot of fun here, and it’s a treat to see him get back to a familiar setting, bringing along a trio of strong female characters, a return to Rochester’s Great Library, another look at cool ideas such as the human-powered calculator and the consequences of the first two volumes.

It’s very familiar and, in fact, perhaps too familiar. The number of new ideas here falls almost to zero as McMullen continues to play along with known elements and very hastily brings everything to a conclusion of sorts. There is a sense that this is a comfort novel: a last hurrah, but not a significant step forward. Even the characters are eerily familiar, through no coincidence. McMullen takes a number of risks, most notably by making a heel out of one of the second volume’s heroes, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that this isn’t all that new, especially given the originality of the first and, to a lesser extent, the second volume. Not everything works out: As in the first volume, there are a number of suspicious betrayals, and the material about the Gentheist is never as interesting as it could have been.

Thankfully, McMullen has grown as an author and so the writing in Eyes of the Calculator is noticeably smoother than in the previous volumes. Tonal shifts are less jarring; dialogue is snappier; scenes are tighter. Perhaps too tight, as it’s not uncommon to read along and suddenly have to back-track, abruptly suspicious that Something Important has just happened in a very short amount of prose. There is still an unpolished quality to McMullen’s prose that keeps his fiction from achieving its full potential. The first hundred pages of this novel, for instance, take an awful lot of time to cohere in a compelling whole. (It certainly didn’t help, to echo what was written above, that I paused for so long between the second and third novel.)

But when it does, when McMullen hits his groove, the novel truly works. Despite the nasty edge to some of McMullen’s imagined world (he never lets you forget that these are much less enlightened times, or that commoners are cannon fodder), he has a knack for unbelievably strong-willed characters, compelling adventure and triumphant moments. His characters alone, in all of their lusty vitality, are a pleasure to follow. This is high adventure in a good classical vein; too bad it has to work in fits and starts.

Overall, the Greatwinter Trilogy of which this is the conclusion has more good moments than bad, but there’s no escaping the sense that the memory of the trilogy will end up being better than the actually messy reality of its prose. It didn’t need to be so long, nor so scatter-shot: an author with a bit more structural ruthlessness could have made a classic series out of those elements; as it stands, it’ll have to settle for something akin to mere goodness. Which, mind you, is still quite respectable.

The Miocene Arrow, Sean McMullen

Tor, 2000, 416 pages, C$21.95 tpb, ISBN 0-312-87547-9

Awww, crap.

It’s like being at the premiere for the sequel to a much-beloved movie of yours. The entire cast and crew of the original film is back; the trailers looked fantastic; the premise sounds interesting; early word hasn’t been awful. And then, as the movie unfold, you realize that even if it’s not too bad -and may even be more polished than its predecessor- it’s nowhere near as much fun as the first in the series.

Welcome to Sean McMullen’s The Miocene Arrow, second volume in the Greatwinter Trilogy and sequel to the very interesting Souls in the Great Machine. Once more, we’re two thousand years into the future, following humanity as it finally breaks out of its post-apocalyptic stupor. The first volume introduced us to a strange new Australia, filled with pre-steam engine ingeniousness, human-powered computers, vast networks of communication lighthouses and an irresistible “Call” driving humans to perdition.

This sequel recognizably takes place twenty years later in the same universe. The Call is still a major factor, but the setting is very different: We suddenly find ourselves in North America, where feudal empires have become the dominant form of government. Thanks to diesel-driven engines, small airplanes are instruments of war and prestige; the aristocracy is dominated by “airlords” and hereditary guilds. The feel is different from the first volume, as McMullen quickly plunges us in palace intrigue, warring kingdoms, ill-fated love and all that good stuff.

It doesn’t take much time to tie the novel back to the first volume: Some characters return, though carrying dark hints of what happened since the first volume and what is likely to happen next. What are they doing so far from Australica? To answer the question is to reveal the meaning of the title, and spoil away part of the book.

The one thing worth noting about The Miocene Arrow is that it’s much more technically successful than its prequel. I wrote that Souls in the Great Machine often felt like a great book fighting its way out of inexperienced writing; this one feels a lot more confident, a lot more controlled. The scenes are constructed with more skill, the breaks between scenes aren’t as jarring and the characters’ motivation are generally more believable than they’d been in the prequel. Sadly, if the writing is less intrusive, the story itself isn’t overly interesting.

Oh, there’s combat, there’s action, there’s romance and there are neat inventions here and there, but nothing with the vertiginous sweep of a librarian-driven war, or the heady thrill of reading about a human-powered computer in meticulous detail. The airships are neat, the train-powered Internet has potential, but McMullen is a great deal more conventional in The Miocene Arrow, and if the result is smoother, it’s also blander.

Things also take a long time to advance, and if the last hundred pages finally attain a good rhythm (the resolution of the romance is especially satisfying, though in typically sadistic fashion, it takes several deaths and the casual demonstration of life-and-death elite power to get there), the novel feels far too long for what it’s trying to say. I wasn’t completely satisfied by the links to the first volume: In a few sentences, most of the great characters and accomplishments of Souls in the Great Machine are discarded, maybe in anticipation of a third novel or maybe not.

I concluded my review of Souls in the Great Machine by saying that a sequel was both superfluous and intriguing. At this point, I’m tempted to stick with “superfluous”; I’ll let you know of my final verdict once I’m done with Eyes of the Calculator, the third and final volume of the series.

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.