Timothy Zahn is the king of well crafted scifi thrillers, specializing in space opera. But in Soulminder he outdoes himself twice.
The premise – Dr. Adrian Sommers looses his five year old son in a car accident. For years he lapses into obsession, convinced that with the right technique his son’s body could have been healed. Finally he perfects the Soulminder, a device to that hangs on to the human soul long enough to let modern medicine repair the body intended to host it so the soul can be returned. A new medical procedure capable of saving thousands of lives has been created. And with it comes problems. So very, very many problems. The first comes when a man who’s soul is in a Soulminder is declared dead and malicious parties try to have the body cremated. And the cases only get more bizarre from there.
Zahn is always at his best when there’s scheming and clever tricks to be played and the concept of the Soulminder gives him an incredible new set of gambits to make. Soulminder is episodic, with each chapter covering a new problem Soulminder causes Dr. Sommers, his clients and frequently, the legal systems of the countries where Soulminder Inc. is operating. While the ideas are interesting and each new problem is handled in a clever way, many of the problems Zahn presents us with are frankly disturbing, not only in what they do to the people trapped in them but how realistic they sound. If a Soulminder trap were to be created in the modern day, these are exactly the kinds of things we could probably expect to happen as a result.
On the other hand, Zahn also approaches this new technology with a clear understanding of the need for moral oversight. In fact, the second chapter of the book deals extensively with how religious leaders and other sources of moral oversight might react to something like Soulminder and, in a refreshing change from the way such figures are normally treated in scifi, even Sommers’ most strident critics are treated fairly and respectfully, with the understanding that they are also doing their best to deal fairly with strange, new technologies. In fact, for the fairness and clear understanding Zahn shows to his religious characters alone this book is a stand-out among scifi today and worth your reading.
Sommers tries his best to ethically use his technology but ultimately others have to be involved and the problems just keep multiplying. That leads to his ultimate solution which, while interesting, does disturb me to a certain degree. I’m not sure if Zahn was trying to make a point with it or not, and I don’t think there really was a better solution for the problems Sommers faced, but I have to admit on reflection it’s uncomfortably close to an endorsement of suicide. I don’t think that’s what Zahn meant by it, I may just be overanalyzing it and in the context of Soulminder, a technology that’s more fantasy than true prediction of the future in my opinion, it may be the only right solution. It’s the only thing keeping me from recommending this book to anyone and everyone who loves good thrillers.
But still, that small caveat aside, it’s a good book. If you don’t mind reading about the darker things man can do with technology and trying to work out whether the solutions we find to those problems are correct, Soulminder is the book for you.