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Vol. 3.7 © 1999 by Ernest Lilley

Focus: Interview & Review
SFRevu Interview: Sean McMullenSouls in the Great Machine / The Centurion's Empire

Contents  Contact  Focus   Bookshelf   Media Art in SF

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top.gif (1909 bytes)If you like Souls in The Great Machine and The Centurion's Empire we suggest:
Lest Darkness Fall
by L. Sprague DeCamp

A Canticle For Leibowitz
by Walter M., Jr Miller

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SFRevu Interview: Sean McMullen

SFRevu: Your new book, Souls in the Great Machine, is actually a rewrite of two books that were published by Aphelion in Australia: Voices in the Light and Mirrorsun Rising. How much survived and how much is new?

Sean McMullen: The raw statistics go as follows: Voices and Mirrorsun were about 235,000 words combined. I stripped out 55,000 words, mainly from Mirrorsun, and added 20,000 new words throughout both books. Because I compressed the text line by line, there are no scenes missing -- they just move faster. The new material includes some things that should have gone into the original books, such as the very, very awkward romance between Zarvora Cybeline and FUNCTION 9, and some scenes from the distant American civilization that is the setting for the sequel, The Miocene Arrow. That one is due out from Tor next June.

SFR: How did you choose a library and a librarian as focus for Souls in the Great Machine?

SM: Years ago, when I was doing postgraduate research, I was working in the huge, rambling, and rather strange State Library of Victoria. At lunchtimes I began reading Mervin Peake's Gormenghast, and with my sort of imagination, it was not hard to pretend that I was actually in Gormenghast. Sure enough I could identify Lord Groan, Flay, Fuchsia, Steerpike, Nanny Slagg, and many others among the staff. The effect was pretty unsettling, actually. I was still singing in bands at that stage, but I also had ideas about trying my hand at writing science fiction. Because the library was too good to waste as a setting, I made a few notes and filed them away. Some years later, when I was developing the human-powered computer, the Calculor, I realized that a huge library's bookstacks, catalogues, and staff could also act as a type of human-powered disk drive. I had also been romantically involved with several women from various libraries by then, so I was pretty well qualified to write about female librarians as administrators and rulers.

SFR: What happens in The Miocene Arrow? Will any characters from Souls be back?

SM: Theresla, Darien, and Glasken are back, and are on a tour of the strange, rich, and wonderful kingdoms of the Rocky Mountains of North America. Theresla and Darien are on a counterintelligence mission, and Glasken is fleeing the constables -- again. The American civilization is stable, prosperous, and relatively advanced when compared to that in Australia. The nobility uses diesel-powered ultralight aircraft to communicate, rule, settle duels, and fight wars. War has become the exclusive preserve of the upper classes, so the riff-raff just have to stand on the ground and watch the wardens and airlords fight highly stylized battles overhead for prearranged settlements. One reader said that the American dominions reminded him a bit of the richness of the Centauri world in Babylon 5, but I did not consciously write them like that. Into all this comes a team of Australian aviad agents, determined to steal American aviation and weapons technology, and in the process they touch off an old-style total war between two American dominions. Theresla and Glasken help end the war and unite the American dominions against the aviad conspirators. Zarvora is back too, even though she has been shot dead before the book begins: you can't expect death to stop someone like Zarvora. The Miocene Arrow has the same type of sweeping vision and vistas as Souls, but the pacing is a bit more intense, and it is not quite as long.

SFR: When can we expect it? Are the Greatwinter stories a trilogy?

SM: The Miocene Arrow is due out in June 2000, also from Tor. As for being a trilogy, in theory The Miocene Arrow is the third of a trilogy, but the first two have become one -- Souls in the Great Machine. Thus I am back to two books, but I have actually planned out a last book in the series -- Cybeline's Eyes -- and written about 10,000 words, but there are a lot of projects banging on the counter for my time. The last novel will be fairly turbulent, but is actually the most optimistic of the three books.

SFR: What are you working on besides the Greatwinter books?

SM: I am close to completing a novel with the working title of Arrowflight. On the surface it looks like fantasy, but the basis of its magic is scientific. The first chapter, "Queen of Soulmates" was published in the anthology Dreaming Down Under last year, and was shortlisted for both the Aurealis and Ditmar awards. All my favorite types of characters are there: a neurotic vampire who practices chivalry, a neurotic priestess who believes in science but practices magic, and so on, and there are some very, very strange machines and technologies. Beyond that I have more ideas than I know what to do with, and have several other novels mapped out. What I need to do soon is have a talk with my agent and editors to establish what to concentrate on next.

SFR: Do you remember where you were when Sputnik went up? What did you think about it?

SM: I was a very small boy, living in a beautiful 1926 art deco house at 39 McLean Avenue, Bentleigh. I remember standing in the back yard, the night after Sputnik went up, watching a point of light moving among the stars. I remember thinking that the sky had changed forever. In retrospect that was quite a profound thought for someone my age.

SFR: Reading your interview in Eidolon (Eidolon 13, July 1993) your comments reminded me of Homer Hickam, who we interviewed last month. Have you read Rocket Boys or seen October Sky? Did you feel a sense of kinship?

SM: Alas, no, and no. I come from a family of Scottish engineers, and one that took its technology very seriously. My only other impression of that night is going back inside and listening to my father and older brothers discussing what that pinpoint of light meant for the future. There I was, wearing short pants and a plastic school tie, but they actually asked me what I thought. That really gave me a sense of kinship with engineering and science, and I took a lot more interest in space exploration after that.

SFR: What kind of rockets did you build? Where did you launch them? What kind of country did you grow up in?

SM: By this time I was a gawky teenager and it was the late 1960s. My biggest rockets were about three feet long, were made of stainless steel, were powered by McMullen's secret formula solid fuel. Some exploded, some flew and exploded, some flew into fences and trees, and some even flew straight up until all the fuel was burned. The last of them had two stages and went up about half a mile. None of the parachutes ever worked, which was bad news when they landed on someone's roof. At first I launched them in a park near home, then moved out to marshlands when the neighbors threatened to call the police. Melbourne had over a million people by then, but it was still a fairly quiet, dull, secure place. I suppose the rockets were as much an attempt to liven the place up as they were scientific experiments.

When you grow up as bored and secure as that you have time to read and dream. The trouble was that when I dreamed, I then got up and had a go at making the dreams real. After reading about how gunpowder ended the age of chivalry I decided to test whether a bullet really could penetrate armor. I mounted a half-inch plumber's pipe on a wooden block, half-filled it with McMullen's secret formula rocket fuel, wadded in a lead fishing sinker, lit the fuse and aimed at a piece of sheet iron backed against 2cm marine plyboard. By the time I had picked myself up and the smoke had cleared, every dog in the neighborhood was having hysterics, and so was my mother. The fishing sinker had passed through the sheet iron, the marine ply, the garbage bin behind them, the garbage, the other side of the garbage bin, a fence pailing, a cabbage in the neighbor's garden, and about two feet of soil.

The thought of what might have happened if the neighbor had been out there doing the weeding did not even bear thinking about, so I decided it was time that I abandoned explosives and rockets while I was still alive and not in jail, and I went on to build my first telescope. My long-suffering parents were obviously pretty enthusiastic about that change in scientific interests as well. The trouble was that I soon graduated to radio astronomy (Melbourne is rather cloudy), incorporated the family television's antenna in my rig, then started a fire in my bedroom when my home-made amplifier shorted out. When I finally moved on to girls and rock bands there were celebrations all over the neighborhood. That included my family, which did not think that the galactic center made particularly good television.

SFR: What was the first SF you read? How did you happen to pick it up?

SM: Before I read any SF I had seen a few SF movies and serials that were so unscientific that I did not really think of them as science fiction. Then I picked up the Classic Comics version of Well's War of the Worlds in the local newsagency. "C" for Classics was next to "D" for Disney, and although I had probably gone there in search of Donald Duck, the powerful, luminescent cover illustration of three Martian fighting machines bearing down on a human artillery crew caught my eye and imagination. I bought it, and the images and story simply blew me away. I went down to the library and borrowed the original book, and it turned out to be even better. It was great adventure, but plausible as well, and the characters were far more tangible than Biggles, Superman, and Bulldog Drummond. Ever since then I have expected the best science fiction to be exciting, plausible, and filled with real people. I make sure that those qualities go into my own fiction too. I actually read a lot of romantic-Victorian novels by authors such as Hardy, Browning, and Austen while at university -- even though I was studying science -- along with epic classics like Gilgamesh, "The Faerie Queene", Balzac, Tales of the Arabian Nights, and a whole range of fairy tales and folklore.

SFR: What do you read now?

SM: I sample everything, but concentrate on what takes my fancy. I often single out authors like Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Harlan Ellison, George Orwell, or Neil Gaiman, then read everything by them that can be easily obtained. While I was judging the Young Adult section of the Aurealis Awards I obviously read a lot of books intended for the Australian teenage audience, which started me writing for that market as well. I still read a lot of history, science, legend and folklore as well. Strange, peculiar, eccentric things and people fascinate me, but I prefer weirdness to horror.

It's probably like the inside of my head: rather weird, but not horrifying. Being really short on spare time I try to pick books that are going to be different but entertaining, and they are not easy to select. By the time I get around to reading it is also pretty late, and I am liable to fall asleep with a book that is dull, slow, overwritten, or obscure. It's a while since I have read any fantasy, so Kristen Britain's Green Rider is on the bedside table tonight and I shall start it after finishing this.

SFR: Do you have a synopsized bibliography of your work? Is one available online?

SM: Yes, and no, but I really ought to do something about that. I have been using the Eidolon website as my own default website for years, and while the folks at Eidolon do a good job, I really should set up a site of my own and make a bit more material available. Okay, I promise to work on it. Soon. When I get time. Well, hopefully sooner than that. Know any good website providers?

SFR: Where can we find your work online?

SM: The Eidolon site has a good selection of my stories and articles online, along with an extract from Souls in the Great Machine (www.eidolon.net)

SFR: How can Americans get hold of your earlier works?

SM: Infinitas bookshop in Sydney has stocks of my collection Call to the Edge (infinitas@bigpond.com), and I have had stories in Analog, Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Interzone, if anyone has access to back issues of those. The Best of Interzone features my story "A Ring of Green Fire," which begins "As I was walking through Westbury Forest I met a man with a ring of green fire around his penis ..." In spite of that first line, it's actually about chivalry and good manners. The anthology Centaurus, edited by Hartwell and Broderick, has just been published by Tor, and contains my art deco story "The Dominant Style." That's one of my favorites, and it just missed out on a Ditmar Award -- but was beaten by another of my own stories.

SFR: Although you're well known in Australia, we've only had your books in the US since The Centurion's Empire. You've mentioned that your first published story ("Killer") came out of the stress of working with PDP-11 code as a post-graduate student. How did you come to start writing SF?

SM: Good old "Killer." That was my first published amateur story, and it was published in a student magazine, but it was not my first story. When I was fourteen I wrote a couple of SF stories for school assignments, and all the while I was reading SF voraciously. During fifteen years in bands and the State Opera I wrote short passages of SF from time to time. One night I was visiting a girlfriend, and she loaned me an anthology of Australian SF edited by Ursula Le Guin. I read it the next day, and later told one of my friends, Peter Lamb, "I could write at least as well, and probably better." He replied "Why don't you?" The next week I bought a cheap electric typewriter and began writing Killer -- which was inspired by a nightmare, in turn inspired by an awful post-graduate project in PDP-11 Assembler. Over the next five years I either did very well in -- or won -- nearly every writing competition that I entered, and had several amateur stories published. The trouble was that I was doing a Masters degree part time, starting a difficult new job in satellite tracking, renovating my first house and getting my black belt in karate, so I was not writing as much as I might have. Then I won the writing competition at the 1985 Worldcon and I decided that it was time to take writing SF seriously.

SFR: Who did you sell your first pro story to? Your first novel?

SM: At the 1985 Worldcon in Melbourne I met Philip Gore, the editor of Omega Science Digest. Omega was a sort of Australian version of Omni and I had just won the Worldcon's writing competition with my story "The Deciad." I asked what I had to do to get published in Omega. He replied "Try sending me your story." I sent him two, he bought them both, and I was suddenly $1,000 richer and "pro." The first was "The Pharaoh's Airship," about a kid who builds a spacecraft in his back yard. It later tied for first place in Omega's popularity poll. The second was The "Deciad," which later became the basis of The Centurion's Empire. I then sent The "Colours of the Masters" to Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Ed Ferman bought it. That one reached the preliminary ballot for the Nebulas, and it has had loads of republications. My next story in F&SF won Australia's national SF award, the Ditmar.

Novels ... were not quite so easy. I finished the first cut of Voices in the Light in 1986, sent it to various Australian and US publishers, got "positive rejections", and also got all sorts of contradictory advice from editors, authors, critics and agents over the next few years. After revising it several times, I split off a few individual chapters and sold them as short stories. About then my friend Peter McNamara of the small press Aphelion Publications came to Melbourne on business, and stayed overnight in my spare room. He asked to see my latest stories as bedtime reading, and the next morning he came out to breakfast and announced that he wanted to publish a collection of my work. That collection, "Call to the Edge", was a success, so Peter asked for a novel. Voices in the Light came out a year later. Several years after that a mainstream publisher's rep. came up to me at a party and said, "What a pity you did not send Voices in the Light to us first." I replied "I did," and one of those particularly awkward silences followed.

Australian commercial publishers do not have much expertise with adult SF, so anything new and different worries them -- and my work is certainly new and different. Small press editors tend to be a lot better read, though, and of course in the US you have commercial publishers that specialize in SF. Getting a major US firm to read an unsolicited manuscript by an unknown author is not easy when you live in Australia, however, so I sneaked into print through a local small press, built up a name, then tried the US market again and this time I sold. Thus far I have since had universally good reviews in the US, and the amazon.com sales rating for The Centurion's Empire is supposed to have peaked at 98 briefly, so Americans seem to be like my work.

SFR: When did you become involved in Australian fandom?

SM: Just after my first amateur story was published. I saw a notice about a local SF convention in a Melbourne bookshop, and I decided to go along. My unashamed intention was to learn how and where SF authors got published, and so I sat in on the How to Get Published panel, talked with Joe Haldeman (who was GoH), and took lots of notes. Meanwhile my girlfriend of the time was out among the fans, learning what they got up to at cons and other gatherings. She had a background in costuming, so we spent the next few years attending occasional conventions and going in masquerades. After we split up I tended to just hang around the authors and listen to what they said about markets and editors, then I became a published author myself.

In the late 1980s I assembled what was then the most detailed computerized bibliography of Australian SF, did some statistical analysis, then wrote a series of what turned out to be groundbreaking articles on Australian SF's history and achievements. These earned me several critical awards, and a whole lot of invitations to speak at conventions, writers' groups, universities and such. This has been my main contact with Australian fandom. Last month Greenwood published Strange Constellations: A History of Australian Science Fiction, which I wrote with Russell Blackford and Van Ikin, but I have been trying to concentrate on my own fiction for the past five years and Strange Constellations will probably be my last major work about Australian SF.

SFR: Do you know when Australian fandom got going?

SM: Letters from Australian fans can be found in Gernsback's magazines of the early 1930s, but they only seem to have become really active during World War II. I've seen a couple of fanzines from the early 1940s, and although they are somewhat primitive in production standards, the writing is fairly erudite and perceptive. This is in contrast to the Australian professional SF of the time, which was protected from all overseas competition by wartime trade embargoes and promptly went braindead. One of the more gross novels was about a mad scientist who did a brain transplant with a pocketknife -- sort of early Cyberpunk without the cyber. Australian national conventions began in the early 50s, Clarke, Heinlein and others visited Australia, Norma Hemming wrote our first stage SF productions in the late 50s, the fans inaugurated the Australian National SF Award, (the Ditmar) in 1969, and the first Australian Worldcon happened in 1975. I was lead singer in a band at the time, however, and did not know that SF cons or fans even existed until the 1980s.

SFR: The Centurion's Empire centers around suspended animation developed in Roman times using insect fluids and glacial ice crypts. Souls in the Great Machine features an entire civilization complete with computer but without electricity. Both are very credible and carefully conceived. How did you come to be interested in effecting modern technology with alternative methodology? Did you ever read Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague De Camp?

SM: I can see my copy of Lest Darkness Fall from where I am sitting. It's a great idea, saving the Roman Empire from Decline and Fall, but I was already well on the way to that sort of thing by the time I read it. I discovered Sprague De Camp's work in the early 1980s and read a couple of dozen of his books in about a year. I finally met him in 1987.

Getting back to your first question, alternative methodology has always been with us. People forget that the first manned flight took place in France in 1783, and that the first human artifact in space was a German V2 rocket in 1942. People think that my beamflash towers in Voices in the Light are a great innovation, but similar signal towers were used both Napoleon and his British opponents around 200 years ago. The electric telegraph was not a new concept in communication, it was an improvement on that earlier system.

The first interplanetary/interstellar probe was not Lunik or Pioneer, but an American manhole cover blown out of an access shaft at greater than the escape velocity of the solar system during one of the Project Thunderwell nuclear tests in 1958. Still, a partly melted, radioactive manhole cover is more likely to produce laughter than pride among taxpayers as an ambassador for humanity in general and America in particular, so I suppose you can forgive the US military for saying "Okay guys, let's just leave that one out of the press release."

Even more fascinating are the inventions that went unused. The Roman Empire's corn ships could have made the voyage to America long before the Viking longboats or the Santa Maria. The Romans also had printing presses for their maps, the Greeks had steam engines and clockwork, and the Chinese were experimenting with manned, rocket powered flight before most Europeans had even heard of rockets. Suppose that the first Chinese pilot had not been blown to sashimi, but had landed alive and more or less intact? That would have been the first heavier-than-air flight. I suppose what I am saying is that alternative methodology always has been with us, and is still with us now, but we often choose to ignore things that we have not been taught to recognize as important. In my future worlds I merely do what humans have always done: innovate, using the materials and technologies to hand.

SFR: Listening to Australians it often seems that you're colonists on a planet full of weird lifeforms, an inhuman environment, and even inscrutable aliens. Do you ever feel like that? Does SF ever seem tame compared to your world?

SM: Well, yes, yes, yes, yes, and maybe. The trouble is that you have to come in from outside to recognize Australia's weirdness. Environmentally the living is not easy in Australia, and the Aborigines' isolation let them develop a culture and technology that was so alien to the first European colonists that they assumed they were degenerate. It is only recently that anthropologists have conceded that the Aboriginals were not degenerate, but superbly adapted to a very strange and harsh environment. Actually some Aboriginal tribes were not fully nomadic, and had stone buildings and ceremonial stone circles aligned with true north.

Europeans are only now learning to appreciate Australia's original environment and inhabitants, but at least it's happening at all. Americans sometimes say that visiting Australia is like going to another planet, where the tourist facilities are great, there are no major predators, and the locals speak English. Even the dinosaurs dug up here have huge eyes and other sub-polar adaptations, as the continent was down near the South Pole during the Cretaceous.

I suppose the trick with living in Australia and writing SF is to learn to look at something commonplace and see it as incredible, like a flying possum the size of your thumb, a roadside outcrop of rocks 4,200 million years old, or the cannon from which the first shot of World War I was fired (it is about an hour's drive from where I live, and it was fired at a fleeing German cargo ship). I learned to do that after my first trip to Europe, which was just before I began writing SF. When I arrived in England and Scotland I felt as if I was visiting home, even though I had been born in Australia. When I arrived home from London I felt like a migrant, seeing Australia for the first time -- or maybe an astronaut, arriving on a new world.

The other factor is that Australia is a pretty peaceful place with an incredible diversity of people from other countries. Visiting parts of Melbourne is like visiting Babylon 5, when you consider the sheer diversity of cultures co-existing in it.

SFR: What would you like to do that you haven't done yet?

SM: I would like to get into scriptwriting. I have been writing experimental scripts for some time, and I now follow Michael Crichton's lead and structure my works to adapt easily to screen treatment. Australia has quite an active SF movie and television industry (the next two Star Wars movies are to be shot in Sydney), but locally funded shows are heavily weighted towards Young Adult audiences. My problem is that I have made my name in adult SF. Although I have had several successful Young Adult stories published, people think of me as an author for adults. Still, I have a script treatment ready for the Hundred Years War part of The Centurion's Empire if I can interest some producer, and I can substitute Dream Hacker if the script has to be Young Adult. That last-named story is about to be published in the US as part of the Spinouts series, by the way. As I tell aspiring authors, you have to send your work out if you want to sell it, so I am applying that advice to myself regarding scripts.

SFR: What do you feel most strongly about?

SM: Progress. The word has had a bad press lately, because we tend to concentrate on what is going badly around us, rather than to celebrate what we have that is good. In a sense this is good, because dissatisfaction is what leads to improvement, but we should never forget that although we might have problems with wealth distribution, the second half of this century has been the best and safest ever to live in. Science fiction is all about progress in its various forms, and I think we has a duty to remind people about the distinction between progress and change in 1999.

Change is the buzzword, but change is not progress. I can buy an identical house to my current one just up the road, sell my current house, thoroughly disrupt my family for a couple of months while we move, and be $50,000 poorer in terms of stamp duty, taxes, agents' fees, lawyers' fees and removalists' charges at the end of the exercise. That is change. Humanity can ship all its worst polluting industries to the moon and just export the finished products, leaving the Earth as one vast, clean wilderness park and residential suburb. That is progress. Science Fiction should expose the "merchants of change for its own sake" as people who profit at our expense while giving us nothing of value. As humans we should work for progress and demand it from others, thereby truly advancing our civilization. That is actually the philosophical foundation of Souls in the Great Machine, if you stop and think about it. I might dress my serious messages up in entertainment, adventure, and romance, but the messages are always there.

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souls.jpg (13855 bytes) Souls in the Great Machine by Sean McMullen
Hardcover - 432 pages 5th edition (June 1999) Tor Books; ISBN: 0312870558

Review by Ernest Lilley

Two thousand years from now, after Greatwinter nearly wiped humanity off the face of the Earth, a strange and clever civilization flourishes down under. Of course, Australia has always seemed a bit strange from my vantage point in New Jersey, but this is really different. Wind and steam engines power trains across the barren Australian country, questions of honor are settled by duels with flintlocks, and a municipal librarian is about to make the Library of Rochester the most powerful organization in the world.

In this future not an electro-machine is stirring, not even a mouse, all because killer satellites linger in orbit long after their masters have rotted in their graves. Anyone who makes the mistake of playing with electricity finds their efforts targeted by orbital plasma cannons watching vigilantly from the heavens. Despite this, the centerpiece of the Library is a computer. A computer made of human components, in which criminals and kidnapped citizens labor as "functions," taking and passing the inputs and outputs from their cubicles. High Librarian Zarova Cybeline has constructed this great machine under the pretext of civic management, and indeed, the windtrains do run on time. The real job of the computer is to help resurrect pre-Greatwinter technology to halt the spread of the ring around the Earth being woven by the nanomachines left from before the fall of our civilization. It is also the city's greatest secret.

Zarova has her minions scouring the countryside for anyone with mathematical ability. The "components" are prisoners or the odd shepherd that no one is bound to miss. Young Lemorel Mildrellen comes freely to accept a position in the ranks of the library, having burned her bridges behind her in a melee of duels of honor -- perfectly legal, possibly moral, but nothing you'd want to have to keep looking over shoulder after.

A rising star in the library, she is the perfect lover for young Johnny Glasken, a flamboyant chemistry student finishing up his degree. Johnny has brains, talent, is a fine specimen of manhood, and possesses an unusual capacity for the enjoyment of the fairer sex. This trait marks him throughout his adventures, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. When Lemorel finds out she is not the sole object of his affections, it sparks a fury that will change the face of the continent.

Sean McMullen has welded two earlier works together in this tale (see interview). The pieces sometimes threaten to overflow the book's pages. In addition to the threat of the return of Greatwinter, there is a mysterious call that sweeps over the land, a silent summons that causes all who hear it to walk into the desert to some unknown fate. A combination of architecture, customs, and devices has evolved to keep the population from disappearing into the maw of this psychic summons. A few passages hint at societies in other parts of the world, and foreshadow the next book, The Miocene Arrow.

As the computer grows, so does Rochester, and soon the balance of power that has existed for millennia is unsettled, resulting in a war unlike any seen since the fall of civilization. Using the great computer to design battle strategies, Zarova is able to fight larger forces with crushing results. Ironically, a number of elements in this book are echoed in Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson's recent work in which much of the story revolves around the development of mathematics, computers, and intelligence during WWII.

Sean McMullen has a passion for using alternate technologies, a tremendous talent for storytelling, and considerable experience with librarians. All of which results in a thoughtful and entertaining story by one of Australia's brightest stars.

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centurion's empire.jpg (21731 bytes) The Centurion's Empire by Sean McMullen
Mass Market Paperback - 416 pages (May 1999) Tor Books; ISBN: 0812564758
Review by Ernest Lilley (this review originally appeared in SFRevu 2.9)

"Can you hear me, Celcinius?" she asked. His lips moved a little but he made no sound. "It is the 824th year of the founding of Rome, my great lord, and you have been asleep two hundred and seventeen years."
"Rome?" wheezed Celcinius faintly.
"Rome is now the greatest power on earth," said Regulus over Doria's shoulder.
"Temporian rule is still firm." - The Centurion's Empire

Vitellan doesn't mind the cold, it's better for sleeping the centuries away.

The Centurion's Empire bills him as Rome's second human powered time machine in Sean McMullen's mixture of Secret History and Cyberpunk, and he accomplishes it all with enviable flair.

Vitellan Basilica's father was a Roman Centurion about the time Christ was causing a stir amongst the Jews. He instructed his son to avoid the military and to follow Christ. Without rancor, neither admonishment took very well. At the story's outset young Vitellan is shipwrecked while on his first voyage. "Legions dangerous, he said. Join a ship, he said. Safe, safe…he said." Only his body's native resistance to cold sustains him through the days he spends lashed to a spar in the bitter cold sea.

Shortly after being cast back from the sea, he joins the Roman Army and comes to the attention of the Temporians, a secret society of immortals. Not the unlikely immortals that never age, but a well thought out scheme of cryo-suspension using glacial crypts and a serum distilled from the juices of certain insects that live at sub freezing temperatures. When need arises some are chosen to thaw and wake to influence society and add a few of each era's best and brightest to their numbers.

Unfortunately just before his induction into the society, thieves break into the hidden mountain hold with the result that the society and its secrets are denied Vitellan. Ultimately he stumbles upon a physician with access to half the secret of frozen sleep and as he is nursing a grudge against a faithless fiancée he elects to jump forward beyond her time. Unable to resist the opportunity to throw revenge back in her face he pops out a few decades hence to bed her daughter, with results so disastrous that he winds up hunted for nearly a thousand years.

Vitellan organizes his own cult of sorts around himself to maintain his frozen body through its voyage and in doing so he becomes a sort of human fire extinguisher - kept under a seal and only broken out when times threaten the village around his crypt. The right Roman Centurion, it turns out, is more than a match for the disorganized forces of the centuries after Rome's fall.

Waking in 872 AD, he leads his villagers against the Danes, and again in the 1300s against the Jacques in Northern France. Whenever in these dark times he wakes and walks among his oath-bound friends he is a force for the preservation of order, a believer in nobility, and a champion of the civilization that died with Rome. Through these times he seems almost a traveler from some enlightened future, and his legend grows even as he is forgotten in slumber.

And then for something completely different, the traveler wakes in 2028, amazed at the painlessness of revival, stunned by the world outside, and stalked by killers who know exactly who he is and are sworn to his death.

Suddenly The Centurion's Empire switches from an engaging epic of early warfare and honor to a compelling work of Cyberpunk three decades hence as Vitellan is a man lost in the post millennial world. Surrounded by high tech assassins and uncertain allies, can he survive a future he could never have imagined? 

Time travel, both the sleep-your-way-to-the-future and the jump-back-to-the-past variety have long delighted in Imperial Rome as a setting. For a look at someone going the other way, try Sprauge DeCamp's Lest Darkness Fall. The immortals story is pretty classic fare as well, and in fact, the Wandering Jew is a Roman soldier himself. So Vitellan is in good company.

Time travel fiction often asks, if we sleep, jump, or drive into the future, what will we do for a living? The answer is rarely to cash in on our investments, given that everyone pretty much agrees that no one will stand for all that money sitting around doing nothing. It's usually, do what you did before, and hope that it's so archaic or creative that it sells like hotcakes. Vitellan's trade is war, Roman style, and when he awakens first into the middle ages and then later into our near future, he finds it a handy profession to know. Courage, discipline, and the desire to see more futures down the line serve him well against religious armies and cyber-asassins alike. Though admittedly the dark ages were easier to adapt too.

I especially liked the attention that the author paid to the technology of cryo-suspension. With the single addition of his elixir, he fulfills the "one impossible idea" premise of SF and works everything convincingly around it. I also liked the notion that such a traveler might not be in the best of health after being frozen and revived a few times.

Sean McMullen is best known for his "Medieval Cyberpunk" novel, Voices in the Night, and is a three time winner of the AUSTRALIAN SCIENCE FICTION AWARD.

The Centurion's Empire spans centuries and genres with equal aplomb. Vitellan is a character well worth following, either into battle or through the aeons!

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