I’ve read a lot of Timothy Zahn’s work over the years and most of the time I have a pretty good idea about what he’s going to bring to the table. I received a request to review Soulminder directly from the publisher and given that Zahn is one of my all-time favorite authors, of course I jumped at the chance. It’s always great to see what kind of new idea he’s putting onto the page for his readers.
This time around Zahn is delving into the world of what happens when a person dies and their soul leaves their body. Is that soul a tangible thing? Can it be captured and held for some amount of time? If it can be captured, could something then be done to repair the body it came from so it can be returned and let a person continue their life? If so, what kind of impact does that have on society when suddenly terminal illness, terrible accidents, and death are no longer necessarily the end of the line?
Adrian Sommer and Jessica Sands have managed to invent a machine that allows them to recognize and trap a soul when it attempts to leave a person’s body at the time of death. In doing so they open up a world of possibility regarding what the soul actually is and what sort of systems and policies should be wrapped around the use of their new Soulminder machine. Should it be available to everyone? Is it even morally acceptable to trap a soul and then force feed it back into a repaired body? Does the ability to do what the Soulminder machine does change how people view religion in some fashion?
Sommer is driven by the death of his son and never wanting another mother or father to have to sit and watch their child die in a car accident from injuries that are easily repaired as long as medical assistance can be reached. Jessica Sands is motivated by the idea that continued advancements of the Soulminder technology could perhaps bring about the ability for humans to be immortal. From the very beginning these differing motivations begin to drive a wedge between the two parties and they spend a lot of time involved in things that check and balance each other.
Over the course of the book the reader gets to see the Soulminder technology from its inception, to widespread national use, to abuse by criminals, all the way to government corruption using it as a way to enforce slavery on their citizens. The impact and consequences of capturing souls and placing them back into repaired bodies are widespread and impressive across the board.
This book has much more of a political thriller or espionage feel to it than most science fiction books do, but it delves enough into the technology and science behind the Soulminder machine to keep it firmly within its genre. I admit that the book was nothing like what I was expecting, but at the same time it was exactly what it needed to be in the end. A book that kept me on my toes and seemed very grounded in how cause and effect of such a machine would actually play out.
Wrapping these kind of themes and questions nicely inside of a compelling science fiction story isn’t the easiest thing to do, but Zahn manages to provide just enough plot to keep the reader engaged while still keeping the focus very much on the issue at hand. If someone is looking for rip-roaring science fiction action this probably isn’t the book for them, but I would still encourage everyone to give it a chance. Sometimes it does a person good to read a book in their favorite genre that spends more time making them think about what their own choices would be in certain circumstances than it does blowing up spaceships or exploring new worlds.