RogerBW's Blog

Souls in the Great Machine, Sean McMullen 08 May 2015

1999 SF. More than a thousand years after Greatwinter destroyed civilisation, new cultures have grown up in what was once Australia. But what is the secret at the heart of the Library?

This is a long book, over 200,000 words, because it's a fixup of McMullen's first two novels: Voices in the Light and Mirrorsun Rising (published in 1994 and 1995, but only in Australia). The join is fairly obvious, with a sudden multi-year gap in the narrative, and the mood of the second book is significantly grimmer.

But the real appeal for me was the setup of the world. We're rapidly introduced to the "beam-flash" heliograph network, the Call that sweeps across the land and causes humans (and most of the larger mammals) to walk mindlessly towards the sea, the wind-trains and galley-trains that traverse the paraline rails, and whatever it is that causes anything electrical to melt as soon as it's turned on. And, of course, the great Calculor itself, an arithmetical engine built from individual human components.

Things do get a bit fuzzy: the operations of the machine seem entirely beyond the capacities of a few hundred people performing basic arithmetic, even if they are using mechanical computing devices. But the point is the idea of the thing, not the hard numbers, and that's just something one has to accept to enjoy the book.

"Just what can one use a huge capacity for arithmetic to do? One of the few surviving fragments from before Greatwinter mentions that calculating machines were used for everything from guiding ships to toasting bread. Most edutors would tell you that the writer was constructing some sort of allegory, but after spending a year in here I'm not so sure anymore."

There's a huge cast too, and it's sometimes a little hard to keep track of them - Zarvora the Highliber, builder of the Calculor; Lemorel the new librarian, rapidly promoted in Zarvora's service; and many other librarians, barbarians, and others in between, who turn up in various intertwining roles as the story progresses. (One person in particular seemed to be a faithful servant of the Highliber, only to turn up suddenly as the head of a group of nomads waging total war against her, with no apparent reason for the change of attitude. Maybe I was too stupid to see it.) Two people ride off into the desert to search for a third… and the next time we hear of them, it's five years later, and one is a warlord and the other a monk. It's all rather bitty at times.

"I am surrounded by lunatics, madmen, and fanatical engineers."

It's great to see that there are plenty of strong female characters, but there's a bit too much description of their breasts, and all of them seem to be far too easily distracted by a pretty man. The casually larcenous and philandering male bimbo never graduated beyond "annoying", for me, but it seemed clear that by the end of the book my sympathies were meant to be with him.

"Seneschal, allow (X) to be harmed, and I will do something so pointlessly hideous that you will die as much from disbelief as pain. I am insane, Fras Seneschal. Never forget that!

The Calculor is the principal focus of the earlier parts of the book, and when the narrative moves away from it to the massive war, I found my interest slackening: yes, warfare is very nasty, we get it. The Highliber's plots to stave off a second Greatwinter were far more interesting, but got increasingly short shrift.

In all, a very frustrating book, but the excellent exploration of ideas carried me over the rough patches in character and plot. Recommended by Steve VanDevender. Followed by The Miocene Arrow.

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