An intriguing premise…
New-to-me author Timothy Zahn is a prolific writer and a Hugo Award winner for his novella Cascade Point. So his new novel seemed like a good choice for this week’s…
Soulminder by Timothy Zahn
When Dr Adrian Sommer loses his young son in a vehicle accident, he dedicates his life to finding a way to prevent such unnecessary deaths in the future. In partnership with Dr Jessica Sands, he develops the Soulminder machine which can trap the life force or “soul” at what would normally be the point of death. This enables the soul to be held in a form of limbo while the doctors put the patient’s body to rights, and then to be returned to it. At first the machine is seen as a marvellous invention, equivalent to keeping someone on life support. But gradually all sorts of moral questions come to the surface as people and governments begin to abuse the technology. As the head of the organisation, Dr Sommer also becomes its moral conscience, trying to ensure that his invention is used only for good.
Although this is a novel, with an overall story arc, it has something of the feel of a collection of short stories all set within the same society over a period of a couple of decades. There are a few recurring characters, but many others who only appear in one or two chapters. Once the basic premise of the Soulminder society is set up, each chapter takes a look at one or two of the ways the machine can be used or abused. That makes it sound very dry, but the moral questions are embedded into interesting and inventive stories, which keeps it all very readable. The quality of the writing is good and the main characters are likeable. The characterisation is not particularly in-depth – we really only get to know them in terms of their involvement with the Soulminder project, and learn next to nothing about their personal lives. I found this made it difficult to feel any real emotional involvement in what happened to them.
Assuming the reader can accept the premise of a soul being something that could be ‘captured’, the questions Zahn raises are interesting ones, and on the whole fairly credible. For example, he looks at how rich people might be able to achieve a form of immortality by transferring their souls into the bodies of poor people who can’t afford to be in the Soulminder programme. In another chapter he considers how the machine could be used as a method of torture. I felt, though, that he completely underplayed the reaction of humanity in general, and religion in particular, to having absolute proof of the existence of a soul which exists even when separated from the body, hence implying some form of afterlife. I couldn’t help but wonder if this discovery might actually have the effect of making people more willing to die rather than less, and I felt the casual acceptance of all the religious people in the book to the trapping of souls was frankly incredible.
Otherwise, though, I found it an intriguing premise – perhaps a bit too full of moral ‘messages’, at the expense sometimes of a feeling of credibility in the reactions of the characters, but well-written and enjoyable overall.
Little Green Men rating:
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Open Road.