Souls in the Great Machine, a Book Review
The book “Souls in the Great Machine” by Sean Mcmullen is unusual in several regards. First, the first book of the Greatwinter Trilogy is set in Australia. Secondly, it is set long after an epic disaster that nearly wiped out civilization, though remnants of our civilization suppress many technological developments over a thousand years later. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this book set in a post-apocalyptic world facing a new possible apocalypse?
Pros in Favor of Souls in the Great Machine
I enjoy post-apocalyptic science fiction, and this one featured a civilization that cannot use large combustion engines and much of what we consider the foundation of technology. The shift of railroads from steam engines to human powered systems is logical. Wind power is abundant. The use of solar signaling is reasonable, when phone lines and the internet fall apart.
This book features numerous strong women in leading roles, such as several librarians in a society where libraries are the repositories of knowledge to a female religious leader. Extra points for a book that has as one of the pivotal characters a deaf woman in a high administrative position.
The economics of this world are hinted at but realistic. In a world where steam engines and electricity aren't an option, human labor commands a premium - and slavery becomes economical again.
Points Against Souls in the Great Machine
This book’s plot relies on coincidences like chance encounters of a dozen different characters to relay critical information or save the day. The biggest flaw of “Souls in the Great Machine” is the incredible number of Deus Ex Machina that occur throughout the book, not just a twist ending that solves one of the problems characters have.
Too many characters have established personalities and then make major decisions on whim. “He jilted me? I, a strong woman, will abandon my high status position in society and join the enemy that oppresses women but they won’t oppress me because I’m so strong! And I’ll lead the enemy in war against my former people because the man I loved but now hate is in the army of my prior nation!”
This book doesn’t fall into the trap of the phonetic dialect to indicate that someone is from a different civilization or era; it does however use a number of made up terms that distract and detract from the story. “We want a son, you’re genetically compatible, I signed up for a genototem so we can …”
If civilization has had to rebuild from its fall and a long global ice age, it is reasonable that information has been lost. One major plot of this book is the construction of a human powered computer, the “Great Machine”, before they can finally build smaller electrically powered ones not destroyed by orbital satellites.
The book’s efforts to have so many plots from barbarian invasion from the north to solving the mystery of the disc on the sun and “The Call” to efforts to recreate computers to personal vendettas to searches for why some are immune to the “Call” causes the plot to drag in many places, while causing the plot to seem disjointed as the author seeks to connect every plot and character in some way.
The nano-machines responsible for the growing sun-shield as a threat to the Earth is an interesting threat for people to try to cope with. The idea that this man-made machine not only responding to a call from Earth but saving someone because it has empathy with an endangered person crying for help is a flaw. It is an artificial intelligence, not a lonely person.
Observations about Souls in the Great Machine
The cause of the waves of psychic pull that literally pull people to the sea to die, known as “The Call”, are discovered in this book; if you have trouble suspending disbelief with this book, don’t read the second one. How you ended up with a call to the sea pulling most of the population to its deaths and then repeating every few days across the whole planet is fully revealed in the second book, and if this one requires suspending disbelief, the second book in the Greatwinter Trilogy breaks it and sends it into free-fall.
Likewise, the second book reveals why any large combustion engine or unshielded electrical generator is destroyed; that a crazy military scheme leaves future generations to suffer is utterly trope.
The reason why some people are immune to the “Call” is revealed to be due to a last ditch genetic engineering effort. The genetic source is interesting and hinted at throughout the book. The only flaw in the author’s premise is that the genetics of it fit whatever fits the story requires, not actual genetic inheritance as a dominant trait, recessive trait or matrilineally inherited one. Need a human character to discover they are part of the immune group? It is recessive and inherited without their knowledge. Need a human who can add to the new species gene pool? Oh, he’s human, but any kid he fathers will be immune because (insert new word here because it is sci-fi).
If you want to read good post-apocalyptic science fiction, “Souls in the Great Machine” is at best two stars out of five unless you like pulp fiction.
Quality books dealing with the apocalypse and immediate aftermath are “Lucifer’s Hammer”, “The White Plague” and “World War Z”. For an ultra-long term view after the fall of our civilization and the rise of the next (or not), read books like “Galapagos” by Vonnegut, “Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction”, or 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed”.