– By Jacob Foxx –
Soul Continuum is the second book in an ambitious and thought-provoking series that challenges readers with some heavy metaphysical questions. Perhaps best classified as hard science fiction, it covers several scientific disciplines and theories including computer science, quantum physics, multiverse theory, teleportation, re-spawning, and neuroscience. At the same time, West-Bulford does not bore you to death with technical details or esoteric theories. There is a compelling story as well that will keep you hooked to the end.
Salem Ben has spent eons searching for the truth about the afterlife. He is the last of a civilization that rose from humanity to become immortal and nearly omnipotent. His home is the soul consortium, a vast planet-sized space station floating beyond the edge of the known universe, safe from the violence of the big crunch (the end of the universe) and the eventual big bang. The lives of every person who has ever lived is recorded and can be experienced directly in a simulator called the WOOM. Salem spends his time reliving one recorded life after another, with only an AI named Qod to accompany him. During this long, dull existence he comes across an anomaly in the consortium archives: a mysterious specter named Keitus Vieta. It is an old man who seems to possess unnatural power, infecting the recorded lives, something that should be impossible.
After facing Keitus Vieta in the first novel, a new threat appears in Soul Continuum. The new threat has damaged the universe including the soul consortium and even threatens the life of Salem Ben himself. The new menace, known as Jagannath, seems to be ripping through the fabric of space and time while also having some mysterious connection to Keitus Vieta. Through reliving the most unusual lives in the consortium archives, Salem Ben must learn the nature of the Jagannath in order to stop it.
As you can tell, Soul Continuum is a heavy read. It is a challenge even for hardcore science nerds like myself. As the mystery of the Jagannath unfolds there are some moments where nothing is clear. It was somewhat frustrating in the middle of the book but things become much clearer towards the end. The structure of the novel helps alleviate some the frustration. The struggle to save the consortium is the broader story arc but within it are the four individual lives Salem Ben experiences to learn the truth. The four lives are from four entirely different time periods and involve four entirely different people. In a way, the novel is like four short stories linked together.
The prose is very strong and flows well, even as Salem inhabits four entirely different people from four entirely different eras. The author demonstrates impressive range and descriptive power moving from settings like ancient Babylon to an intergalactic arkship. While the characters within each simulated life are compelling, the core protagonist Salem is not a particularly dynamic character, more of a stoic rationalist. This makes for some pretty dry dialogue between him and Qod, but the topics of conversation are very fascinating.
Salem Ben is essentially cheating death, utilizing technology to keep his body and mind alive for billions of years. The soul consortium represents humanity’s attempt to escape the basic laws of the universe. Some would consider this the ultimate achievement of any being but as you read the series, you see it is an empty triumph. In the end, all of Salem’s people voluntarily chose to die rather than live a meaningless, omnipotent life. Salem, even as an immortal being, is capable of dying and is terrified of it. Instead, he would rather live countless lives in search of an answer his people never found. Even a God feels fear.
There is also a cost to the cheating. Keitus Vieta is the first anomaly in the system after billions of years but his existence is interconnected with the existence of the soul consortium itself. He doesn’t simply appear out of the ether. It is like the universe is trying to re-balance the equation after watching as a vast structure escaped its grasp. Now the Jagannath appears, causing fractures in space-time, fusing different universes, threatening to reorder all creation. The mystery is why it seems that after billions of years of perfect predictability, that reality is suddenly going haywire.
All of this is possible thanks to the Codex, a sort of computer program of infinite prophecies that predicts with perfect precision, all events that are to come, down to the subatomic level. Many people of faith would strongly object that such a thing is possible. Only God knows and would never allow his creations access to such knowledge. Some gnostics and atheists also doubt something of such scale could ever be constructed. There may be no way around Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle, the name for the fundamental limit on our ability to accurate observe, detect, and predict events. Perhaps Salem Ben and Qod were never meant to have such power and knowledge.
The ending is pretty satisfying but leaves a few questions unanswered. A third novel in the series is soon to come. For a second novel, Soul Continuum is an excellent piece of the overall series but definitely too complicated to stand on its own. Readers need to start with Soul Consortium and prepare to use their brains while reading. Believe me it is worth it in the end. I am eager for the third novel.