by Timothy Zahn
Adrian Sommer hasn't been the same since the car crash that destroyed his family. Ever since, he has been obsessed with a single project: the creation of a device that he calls "Soulminder." Sommer believes in the soul as a single, indivisible entity that is expelled from the body during death. If the soul can be trapped and held, then perhaps it can be safely preserved while a body is healed. Then those impossible, untimely deaths--like the death of a child after a car accident--can be staved off a little longer.
Sommer is convinced that Kirlian photography--what he terms "Mullner traces" after James Mullner--can be used to attract and capture the soul. With the help of the engineer Jessica Sands, Sommer creates his device, which in turn leads to the creation of a (for-profit) company, Soulminder. But the rather simple-minded and idealistic Sommer has no premonitions of where his invention will lead, from body-switching serial killers to witnesses who can speak in court about their own murders, to recreational body-visits and more. Soulminder is less a novel than a series of short-stories connected by a single premise. It starts with the creation of the device and then begins to explore the use--and misuse--of a device that holds within it the absolute power over life and death.
Soulminder is an enjoyable read, but I think I ended up with more questions about the assumptions of the story than the dilemmas that Zahn poses. Zahn's definition of the soul is never made clear, but it seems to include most aspects of personality and all memories other than muscle memory. If so, then where does the hippocampus or subcortex or the rest of the cortex fit in? In addition, there is the complexity of when the soul is released. The story seems to conflate physical trauma with brain death: as far as I can tell, the soul flees whenever the body dies, which means that for various bodyswitching tasks, the Soulminder techs damage the body to the point of death over and over. Where does braindeath or PVS fit into this? And if the Soulminder techs are indeed damaging the body so that the soul will flee, what happens with all the cumulative harm they do? I really wish that Zahn had explored these issues.(show spoiler)
The picaresque structure of the book means that most of the cast changes each chapter. However, rather surprisingly, it was the main characters that felt particularly flat to me. Jessica Sands acts as the perfect foil for the protagonist Sommer, and basically exists to suggest the ideas and beliefs that Sommer finds morally abhorrent. Sommer, on the other hand, seems to act as the mouthpiece for the author, but unfortunately, I found our opinionated, self-righteous moral arbiter rather tiresome. While I found myself constantly disagreeing with Sommer, the story itself seemed to treat everything he did as ethical, even when the same actions are considered unacceptable when performed by others.(show spoiler)
My favourite character was the cynical security advisor, who managed to combine an interesting mixture of jaded practicality and idealism.
Soulminder's entire premise is an exploration of the grey areas and slippery slopes of the technology, and I think Zahn has a lot of interesting and thoughtful points. At the same time, the use of Sommer as the mouthpiece of morality limited my patience with the plot. I think my biggest disagreement with Sommer is a belief that is never really challenged within the story: that Soulminder's monopoly over the technology is not only possible, but is somehow the best of all alternatives. Sommer and Sands "want to maintain control over how our invention is used," and the threat of governmental control is treated as the self-explanatory ultimate evil.
Because I totally trust a monopolistic, for-profit company more than the government.
(And no, that doesn't imply that I trust the government.)
The assumption seems to be that the "best" outcome is for our righteous and moral hero to have absolute power, and that governmental control, even through legislative limits, is the greatest of all evils. To do Soulminder justice, it does indeed struggle sporadically with this issue, but only through the protagonist's self-doubts about whether "absolute power corrupts absolutely." The scenario doesn't even strike me as particularly likely, as I can't imagine such an explosive technology would remain monopolistic for long, and competition would have made moot many of the issues that Zahn presents. For me, I think this book turned out to be a better argument for Ramez Naam's outlook than Naam's own: such technology should be extended to as many people as possible, for it is at its most terrifying when it is concentrated.
At the same time, Zahn's vision is thoughtful and acute. He challenges beliefs without ever quite stepping into dogmatism. Despite certain issues with his perspective, I think the book got me thinking about some of the complexities he describes, and the ways that an apparently benign technology can be twisted and perverted into a terrible and absolute power over life and death.
Rating: somewhere between a 3 and a 3.5; I can't decide. ~3.25, maybe?
~~I received this ebook through NetGalley from the publisher, Open Road Integrated Media, in exchange for my honest review. ~~