Saturday, November 29, 2008

Just when you think the steam punk subgenre of SF has had its last say, along comes a new piece that forces you to reevaluate what's gone before.

There is a sense in which steam punk is a rebellion. It rebels against our modern understanding of the universe, with its relativity, its quantum mechanics, and its literally unknowable nature. It looks for a simpler, cleaner understanding of our world, one where each event can be understood as a consequence of prior actions. Where writers like Benford, Brin, and Rucker revel in the sometimes sublimely ridiculous possibilities of our reality, steam punk yearns for Newton and his clock work universe.

At least that's how it seems, sometimes.

Australian writer Sean McMullen is, it seems, perfectly comfortable with modern physics. Although Souls in the Great Machine takes place in a world 2000 years in the future where electronics are not used, there is a perfectly modern reason for it. Some passages in the story had me giggling to myself (at the thought of taking recalcitrant components of a computer out to shoot them, although in the story itself it was not terribly funny). Mostly the story had me staying up way past my bedtime to read just a few more pages before going to sleep.

There are three or four significant characters around whom the story revolves. It isn't always clear who the good guys are in the story, as there is plenty of moral ambiguity to go around. However, McMullen isn't about to force any of these characters into a set role, and consequently the story has an ultimately satisfying ending.

If the reader notices occasional parallels to current events, it doesn't seem to be intended as some kind of allegory. It's not as if people have changed much in the past 2000 years, and it's unlikely we'll change all that much in the next 2000 years.

Highly recommended.


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