Review: Soulminder

In Soulminder (Timothy Zahn; Open Road Integrated Media), an invented device called a “soul trap” can capture the personality and memories of a dying human in a form that can be restored into the person’s brain if the physical damage that killed them can be repaired. While the device is initially conceived as a device to save the lives of trauma patients and people undergoing dangerous surgery, the fun doesn’t really start until the discovery that under some circimstances the device can be used to body-swap.

While not one of the groundbreaking stars of SF, Timothy Zahn has produced solid and interesting work in the past. I quite enjoyed the four-book series that began with Night Train to Rigel. His earlier, related Blackcollar and Cobra sequences were not bad either. Zahn is intelligent and careful with his worldbuilding; though I don’t read Star Wars tie-ins, my impression from what I see on the shelves is that he’s writing the best of them these days.

This could have been a step up – a fine example of the kind of near-future extrapolative SF that changes just one thing and explores the consequences in a rigorous way. Alas, Soulminder reads like it was phoned in while the author was having a bad day. There are clever bits, but it’s a sour little grind of a book which illustrates the fact that, while characterization is not tremendously important in idea-as-hero SF, the author at least has to write characters you don’t actively dislike.

Everybody is brooding and angry and obsessive all the time, the protagonist’s backstory is purest melodrama, the one competent man is unpleasantly arrogant, and various mildly clashing idealisms seem curdled and unengaging. The resulting mess is not really redeemed by clever plotting, in part because it reads like a fixup collection of short-story-length episodes rather than an integrated novel.

I can’t recommend this book. There isn’t enough fun here.


  1. I am wondering if this may be due to the fact that Darth Mickey and Darth Lucas conspired to basically destroy what was among his best work (as someone who did read his Star Wars tie ins, I can safely acknowledge that they are significantly better than most SW licensed material and dareIsayit way better than Lucas’s own work in the prequels

  2. Not only was Zahn’s work better than most of the rest of the printed SW stuff, the worldbuilding influenced the rest of the series enough to significantly improve it.

  3. @ESR:

    What do you mean by “the best of them *these days*.”? (emphasis mine)

    While I’ve personally never read any of his work (never got around to it as a kid, not so interested now), the Star Wars tie-ins that Zahn is best known for were written back in the early 90’s, back when the whole “Expanded Universe” was just getting started (there had been a few tie-ins before the 90’s, but most of the stuff outside the movies has been done since 1990). Zahn wrote some of the early, defining works (outside of the movies), for the Star Wars setting.

    1. >What do you mean by “the best of them *these days*.”? (emphasis mine)

      Alan Dean Foster did some good work early on. I was recalling Splinter of the Mind’s Eye; now, researching, I’m reminded that he ghostwrote Lucas’s novelization of the original film and in so doing created much of what later became Star Wars canon.

  4. He’s written some very good clever standalone books. I remember (fuzzily, since I read them 25+ years ago) enjoying _A Coming of Age_, _Spinneret_, and _Triplet_ quite a bit.

    _ACoA_ is a very clever social setup. Purists might call it fantasy rather than SF since Telekinesis is involved, but the social framework is very well thought out.

  5. Actually, Zahn is still writing Cobra books. He did a “Cobra War” trilogy, and is now doing a Cobra Slave trilogy (second book due next year). I’ve read them all, with enjoyment. He expands on the original Cobra trilogy in entertaining and even thought-provoking ways. It’s not the greatest series out there, but it’s good stuff.

    BTW Eric, if you are still looking for things to review, I suggest Dave Freer’s recent books.

  6. There are 5 books in the quadrail series. The most recent, Judgement at Proteus, came out in 2012. Thought I’d mention it in case you had assumed the series was over before then.

  7. IIRC, this is actually expanded from a short story (or maybe more than one) that was published in Analog, I think.

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