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Souls in the Great Machine by Sean McMullen

Souls in the Great Machine (1999)

by Sean McMullen

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"If you like unusual SF, you should definitely pick up Sean McMullen's Greatwinter trilogy of novels, starting with the first book Souls in the Great Machine. It's set in Australia (the middle book is set in North America) and it revolves around a post-apocalyptic society built slowly and realistically from the ashes of our own. You've got a kind of clock-punk level of technology in which fueled engines are religiously proscribed, yet society gets on at a pretty high level using workarounds like human- and wind-powered trains, long-distance communication via light signalling, and all the clockwork you can get your hands on. The main piece of technology around which the plot revolves is a human-(prisoner-)powered calculator, but the clockwork and trains play a huge part too.

The female characters aren't just "strong", they're actually real, genuine people - although the setting acknowledges gender inequality, many if not most of the movers and shakers in the story are believable women with authority, intelligence, and cunning. Male characters are similarly fleshed out, and gender (as well as cultural and romantic) conflict plays a part in the plot, but it's not heavy-handed or annoying, although some of the characters themselves certainly are (in ways that make them readably human).

The whole shebang is really well-grounded in Australian (and then North American) geography and culture, so non-Aussie readers would do well to have a map at hand while reading to get the full effect. In the second book, the North Americans fight their wars via duel-by-champion in wood-and-cloth airplanes, and that just racks up eleventy-million awesome points in itself. Saying too much about the third book would be spoilerish, but needless to say the tech is even cooler.

The main appeal, though, is that it's got dueling librarians. Like with flintlock pistols. And they do firing squads sometimes. And that is basically the most awesome thing ever."
  wealhtheowwylfing | Feb 29, 2016 |
I decided to read this book with my fiance after reading some awesome reviews. We gave it 100 pages but it wasn't doing anything for either one of us. None of the characters stuck out and the ideas were strange but not necessarily interesting. It's a huge book and I think there's another book after it so we didn't want to waste months reading it and then be left with a cliffhanger. ( )
  ragwaine | Sep 24, 2015 |
A great concept with fascinating speculations about the future of mankind two thousand years from now. The book dragged quite a bit from the middle onward unfortunately. Train aficionados will be riveted. A map of the future Australia would have helped quite a bit in following the course of disputes among the various factions, but this was not provided. I was left with the feeling that this book could have been so much more if it was just executed a bit differently. There is potential here for certain but not enough for me to continue the series. ( )
  bsima | Mar 2, 2013 |
Souls in the Great Machine by Sean McMullen opens with a telescope aimed at the moon by an ambitious girl, Zarvora, and ends with Zarvora at the top of the most powerful alliance on the Australian continent. She grew up in a strictly mechanically powered society. The nations of Earth went to nuclear war two thousand years earlier over attempts to protect the planet against cataclysmic climate changes. Electricity was killed off by automated EMP-capable satellites on orbit. Steam power is forbidden for religious reasons. Complicating life is the Call – a mysterious phenomenon that makes every mammal larger than a sheep immediately head out to the coast, mindlessly traversing through all landscapes regardless of obstacles, heedless even to life-threatening danger, and finally throwing themselves into the churning waters.
The plot covers Zarvora’s efforts to gain enough political control to research and develop the first abacus-powered (read: human-powered) computer, and subsequently revive electrically powered – albeit truck-sized – radios and computers. Zarvora’s ultimate goal is to establish contact with the EMP satellites and persuade their artificial intelligences to stop their EMP fire so that she can build an actual, electric computer.
It is refreshing to read a story placed in Australia. The ideas developed in the book are also intriguing – how do you organize a society without either steam or electric power? The concept of duels as a way of solving arguments within corporate structure is interesting, although not unique (Richard K. Morgan’s Market Forces comes to mind). However, the book would have benefited from more careful editing – we run into ambiguous sentences more than once – and richer characterizations. Zarvora’s obsession drives her: she doesn’t care who gets trampled underfoot or enslaved in her abacus computer, as long as her plans are progressing. Everyone else comes with the charisma of a chess pawn, which is a real shame considering the richness of ethnicities and cultures in the world. The action is also railroaded to a particular direction more than once. This book is best for big picture-loving sci-fi fans.
EJ 11/2012
  PeskyLibrary | Nov 15, 2012 |
I was tempted to give this novel five stars, but it doesn't quite match the perfection of Patrick Tilley's Mission or Robert Reed's Marrow.

McMullen strikes the perfect balance between science fiction and clockpunk in his Greatwinter trilogy. It's truly remarkable; the setting is sometime after a WWIII-ish apocalypse and technology has regressed to strictly mechanical levels. This builds a palpable steampunk quality into the everyday life of the characters while the ancient yet far-advanced technology helps drive the plot forward, satisfying my science fiction cravings. The characters are lovable as well as well-spoken and the Siren call that plagues the surviving members of humanity lends an intriguing level of mystery to the plot without being too fantastic.

I'll probably reread this book and increase its rating at some point. It's that good. ( )
  TheDavisChanger | Dec 22, 2010 |
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The girl moved with the calm confidence of a thief who knew that she would not be disturbed.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0765344572, Mass Market Paperback)

In 40th-century Australia, Zarvora Cybeline discovers the world is threatened by destruction from the sky--yet the planet doesn't have enough technology even to build a steam engine. To save civilization, Zarvora must recover lost 21st-century technology. But technology is proscribed, and the dangers from the sky are joined by enemies in the sea, and even among her own ranks. Zarvora embarks on a bold and ruthless plan to save a world no one else believes is in danger.

Souls in the Great Machine is a big book at 450 pages. Stuffed fuller than a Thanksgiving turkey with great storylines, characters, and concepts, it's got thrilling action, hair's-breadth escapes, tyranny, treachery, villainy, heroism, duels, riots, war, love, hate, obsession, powerful women, mad monks, a returning ice age, a lost race, rediscovered civilizations, invasions, executions, high-tech, steampunk tech, a computer with human components, and numerous subplots. In short, Souls in the Great Machine is huge; it is epic--but it is not sprawling. In the hands of most authors, this complex and ambitious SF novel would be a trilogy. And while Souls may occasionally move a little too fast, the plot never drags and the reader's interest never flags. If you're looking for a sense of wonder, for adventure that respects your intelligence, for an enormously fun read--look no further than Souls in the Great Machine. --Cynthia Ward

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:34 -0400)

The great Calculor of Libris was forced to watch as Overmayor Zarvora had four of its components lined up against a wall and shot for negligence. Thereafter, its calculations were free from errors, and that was just as well - for only this strangest of calculating machines and its two thousand enslaved components could save the world from a new ice age. In Sean McMullen's glittering, dynamic, and exotic world two millennia from now, there is no more electricity, wind engines are leading-edge technology, librarians fight duels to settle disputes, steam power is banned by every major religion, and a mysterious siren "Call" lures people to their death. Nevertheless, the brilliant and ruthless Zarvora intends to start a war in space against inconceivably ancient nuclear battle stations. Unbeknownst to Zarvora, however, the greatest threat to humanity is neither a machine nor a force but her demented and implacable enemy Lemorel, who has resurrected an obscene and evil concept from the distant past: Total War.… (more)

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