McMullen, Sean. 1999. Souls in the Great Machine. New York: Tor.

Reviewed 28 March 2000

Souls in the Great Machine (cover)

Conan the Librarian. Really. In this book, the librarians really do take over the world. Although overdue books don't figure much, there are plenty of other death penalties for conduct offensive to librarians, who are graded as "Dragons."

Echoing more than a little of Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s unsurpassed postapocalyptic A Canticle for Leibowitz 5 stars (5 stars), Souls reflects a great deal of thought about how human institutions recover from disaster. It is set in a barely recognizeable Australia of 2,000 years from now, in the aftermath of the Greatwinter. Ironically, the climate appears to be more related to global warming, but the book integrates such misdirection into its fabric with considerable subtlety. Nations have given way to citystates, with conflict usually seething just below the surface of open warfare. Usually.

In an echo of contemporary changes in librarianship, the first major character we meet is Lemorel, a mathematician on her way to Rochester, site of the most prominent Great Library (Libris) on the continent. Highliber Zarvora is steadily replacing "traditional" librarians, who would happily argue over minute details of book cataloging for weeks, with mathematicians working on a secret project: a computer. But this is a computer with a difference, for, as the book slowly makes clear, electronics and electrical power are as much anathema as combustion power (steam or otherwise). The computer itself is a clever invention, and its pitfalls have been carefully thought through.

From this point on, Souls creates a whirlwind of technological change and Luddites, politics and religion, loyalty and betrayal, war and ——— more war. It is an intricate structure—perhaps too intricate for some tastes—that never quite disintegrates, despite several threats to do so (the most prominent of which I'll just call "Moby's Vengeance" to avoid giving away too much). What is most interesting, though—despite plenty of other interesting aspects—is the superb range of distrustfulness in the character development. The sympathetic characters become obsessed maniacs, while the dissipated become flawed heroes. All of this leads one into further wanderings down the halls of one's education. Understanding the references (and purposeful misreferences) adds spice, but is far from necessary to enjoy this novel.

The weakest aspect of Souls is the actual prose. The text too often felt somewhat underwritten, calling not so much for purple prose as more-than-pedestrian majesty. It is almost painfully "correct" in style, and would not be out of place in a relatively highbrow newspaper, such as The Times (London) used to be pre-Murdoch. However, this is a minor weakness. Unlike so many overwritten, overblown pieces in college literary magazines written by artistes of dubious taste and excessive egos—you know, the ones who wrote the poems appreciated by only their own clique, went on to get MFAs, and now either continue to survive on Daddy's money or work as baggers at Safeway while still churning out crap pretentious enough to gag Andy Warhol—Souls lives on its content. The words exist only to carry along the characters and ideas—itself a delicious irony for a book revolving around librarians more comfortable as duellists than manning the children's reference desk.

Overall rating: 4 stars
Whether Souls draws consciously on A Canticle for Leibowitz or not, it certainly lives in the same tradition: one that questions means, ends, and everything in between in a society on the brink of rediscovering its technological past—and in danger of making the same errors. Highly recommended. Not a martini for that quick cocktail-party buzz, but a fine single-malt scotch to be savored of an evening. Unfortunately, it is much too difficult a book to get much, if any, award recognition.

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