Timothy Zahn’s Soulminder isn’t just a novel written across four decades – although that alone does make it a bit of an oddity – it also takes place across numerous eras, from the advent of the Soulminder technology through its societal normalization and beyond. Moreover, it’s a work with a keen eye on both the past and the present. Here are four ways in which Soulminder, a slice of near-future sci-fi, reflects on both the then and the now.
Only in America: At the heart of Soulminder is the tale of a man and his invention. Adrian Sommer channels the grief he feels over the loss of his young son into the drive to succeed, to achieve the impossible. In that way the novel itself hearkens back to our classic national ethos, the American Dream. James Truslow Adams characterized it as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.” And what could be a richer, fuller life than one extended to its very end with health and overall wellness? What greater achievement is there than the mastery of time and even death itself?
It’s Alive!: Yet despite his noble intentions Dr. Sommer’s creation also enables mankind to extend its darkest inclinations – to kill with impunity, to torture without end. Soulminder is a technological miracle on par with Frankenstein’s monster, and just like that legendary creature it becomes almost impossible to separate it from the man that gave it life.
The Search for Justice: Later in the novel, the Soulminder becomes a legal equalizer, an ultimate tool for justice that literally allows the dead to speak on the witness stand. After reading the book I found it hard to look a paper or glance at the evening news without wondering what such fantastical device would mean for our modern judicial system. Even more than an instrument of justice, the Soulminder is an instrument of unquestionable truth, and thus represents a peculiar shade of contemporary wish fulfillment.
Poisonous Rhetoric: Similarly, the Soulminder also becomes an easy talking point for those that both despise and covet its power. Polarizing figures from within government, the clergy and all other seats of power bend the promise of this technology to their own selfish ends with little regard for what the device can, should or could accomplish. In a time when being loud trumps being right, it’s easy to see uncomfortable shades of our current socio-political machine in Zahn’s narrative.