Souls in the Great Machine - Sean McMullen
Tor, June 1999, hc, 448pp, $US27.95.
Reviewed by Jonathan Strahan

Sean McMullen's Souls in the Great Machine, a reworking of his earlier small-press novels Voices in the Light and Mirrorsun Rising) is a complex, well-crafted novel filled with action and adventure. It entertains, but it is also a sugarcoated pill that contains a rather dark and bitter centre not easily digested.

Australia in the 40th Century is struggling to emerge from a long dark age brought on by a nuclear winter, and by a group of orbiting satellites left over from a 21st Century war that prevent the use of electricity on any scale. It is an Australia under threat from the Call, a mysterious allure that draws any mammal larger than a cat to its death, and by the possibility of a second Greatwinter.

On to this stage McMullen brings Zarvora Cybelline, Lemorel Meldorellen and John Glasken. Zarvora is a brilliant and ruthless mathematician who builds the Calculor, a computing device built entirely of human "components", to run the great library at Rochester, and to help prevent the second Greatwinter. Lemorel Meldorellen is an equally ruthless woman seeking to advance herself, but who ends up as a rather messianic military leader. Glasken, a womaniser and scoundrel, starts as student, becomes part of Zarvora's Calculor, before becoming a vital part of her military.

There is a marvellous inventiveness which pervades Souls, with an array of body anchors, mercy walls, pedal-shunted wind trains, heliostatic beamflash towers stretched in paralines across the outback, hot-air balloon scoutposts, suburb-sized nation-states, and a match-and-flintlock warfare. But it disguises a world that you wouldn't want to live in, a world where humanity and life have little value. People are routinely dehumanised - those working in the Calculor lose their individual identity and even refer to themselves by component numbers - and enemies are reduced to the simplest of sub-human caricatures. There is also a view pervading the novel that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts", and that the subjugation of the individual for the benefit of the "common good" is worthy. It is a political system that McMullen does little to explain, preferring instead to simply present it as the status quo. It is also a world with an almost Victorian set of sexual mores - for example Lemorel takes revenge on John Glasken, not because of his infidelity or even his deception, but because of his lack of guilt - and an entrenched sense of repression pervades the novel.

Still, McMullen has a wonderful grasp of action and is capable of vastly entertaining sequences. His characters, especially his women, may occasionally be rather one-dimensional, and some of the situations in the novel stretch credulity somewhat, but Souls in the Great Machine is good fun and worth seeking out.

©1999 Jonathan Strahan.
This review originally appeared in Locus.