SOULMINDER (7 out of 10) – Written by Timothy Zahn, published by Open Road Media, Releases September 23, 2014.
Timothy Zahn is a well-known science fiction writer, probably most renowned for his 1990s revitalization of Star Wars with the Thrawn Trilogy (Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command). But if you only know him from his Star Wars books you really owe it to yourself to explore his more expansive library.
Soulminder is a bit hard to categorize. It’s certainly near future science fiction, but it’s also philosophical, political, religious, and even a bit absurd. The story is a little disjointed, which is to be expected considering it was originally published serially. The concept is intriguing and leads to interesting events, though it also has troubling flaws in its logic.
When his son is killed in an accident, Soulminder’s protagonist, Adrian Sommer, devotes his life to what he considers a life-saving technology. Basically, he believes he has isolated the human soul and can trap it, a la Ghostbusters, when it leaves a wounded body. Ideally, modern scientific advances can heal the body which can then be reimplanted with its soul. While Sommer’s intentions are noble, we all know that technology belongs to the world, not just its creator. Conflicts arise in the form of criminals stealing younger, healthier bodies; religious issues are clearly apparent; government intervention, foreign and domestic, happens quickly; class discrepancies appear; and the most arrogant consider this their chance at immortality. These are all interesting topics, ready-made for plot devices.
These separated plots are certainly what made the story work well when it was originally published serially in Analog magazine. Unfortunately, it works less well in a unified publication as a novel. Each chapter is, essentially, a short story put together in a larger universe. Adrian Sommer and his invention exist in every chapter, but not all of them feature him as the main protagonist. This unique form of storytelling works well to make the story take place over several decades. However, tonal shifts in each chapter mean the novel as a whole doesn’t flow as well as it could. Also, jumping ahead several years at a time means you see character growth in chunks, often as a result of things happening “off screen” rather than gradually as you would expect to see over time.
While the flow may be jarring, it’s worth it to experience a universe where the soul is a fact and it can be saved in a virtual jar while doctors heal an injured body. As with most science fiction, or any fiction at all really, you first have to be willing to accept the plot device despite its foreignness or essential absurdity. Just let yourself believe this is possible, and enjoy the questions it will raise. One of the first conflicts to occur after the invention of Soulminder involves a televangelist, as you’d expect. Sommer may have proven the soul exists, but that doesn’t mean the Godmongers are okay with him trapping one and reinstalling it in a body that was declared legally dead. This early chapter is one of the highlights, lightly poking fun at a wide range of public personality types. From there things get darker, heavier. These later, more grim chapters also raise questions of effect.
Sadly, those questions are often more interesting but receive less answer. The answers provided also break the suspension of disbelief if you think about it too much. For example, how much of You is in your brain and how much is in your soul. Would basic personality traits transfer? What about knowledge? Physical ability? Questions like these are addressed in the story, but it feels like Zahn knew they were too complicated to explain without stopping the story altogether. There are also a few points where his answer in one area doesn’t always correlate with a later effect. There is something to be said for turning off your brain and enjoying the ride, but that’s not something that should ever be said about philosophical science fiction. Making you think is part of its job. The trick with Soulminder is finding the balance. Read it, enjoy the crazy trains of thought you’ll board, but when your brain starts to break the fiction, just back off and enjoy the ride.
In the end, Soulminder is not perfect. Perfection is rare though and Soulminder is enjoyable, thought-provoking, disturbing at times, and it will make you think. And that’s a very good thing indeed. Timothy Zahn’s Soulminder will be available in novel (e or tree) format September 23, 2014. Look for it at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or local bookstores.