Have you ever been to the heart of a city and stood in the shadows of the skyscapers? Have you breathed the air of a thousand-million cars, sensed the sheer numbers of humanity milling inside the massive hive-like buildings, unseen and therefore unknowable?

Have you ever been on a suburban thoroughfare, two-laned with rows of identical houses on either side? Have you seen the look-alike children playing timeless games in the street, noticed that every corner looks just like all the others, wondered why every store has the same name as the last?

Have you ever been to a ranch way out in the country, seen the way that the sky is so much bigger than anything on the earth, seen the way that the natural features dwarf anything humanity constructs?

Simply: have you ever realized how very tiny each individual is in context of the rest of the world? Have you ever realized how many lives slip by unnoticed, unrecorded, unimportant in the eyes of all but those who came into direct contact with them?

It's an idea that must have occurred to all of us at some point. Each individual human is only a tiny cog inside a great machine; we are not particularly important, separate, unless we are highly specialized or highly gifted. Our lives are spent fulfilling the purposes of this machine, and most of us can never see the machine as a machine, or even see outside the tiny sector of it that we inhabit.

There are several candidates as to what this machine really is.

A. It is a creation of a god. It is working towards an end that humans cannot understand. Don't worry, once you die, you'll go to heaven and realize that you really are a unique and beautiful snowflake.

B. It is a creation of nature. It is the machinations of evolution, and every single person is only a component working towards a more perfect species. It is a slow process, and one in which the movement of a single individual will never be important.

C. It is the creation of a single man, or perhaps of a small group of people. Here, one person or group controls many others. This is sort of a microcosm of the other two, however, because people are only mortal, and in time they will die and leave the machine without an operator. Perhaps a better word for this is government; again, not a timeless thing, but more long-lasting than a single man. Here, all the people within it are working towards their own separate goals, and each of these goals add up to make a cohesive single goal: maintaining the state.

There are three ways in which people can react to this realization that they are nothing but a tiny component in a universe much greater than themselves:

A.One attempts to somehow transcend that fate, and seeks power in order to overcome reality. If the machine is the state, this person seeks to overthrow existing authority and seize the power for themselves. If the machine is a god or nature, the person seeks to understand what it is.

B.The person sinks back into their life and forgets about it. They lead their lives in a way that makes them happy; they don't care, most of the time, that their lives are pointless on a grand scale. They immerse themselves in the pleasures of an ethereal life. Perhaps they seek religion for comfort.

C.They cannot accept it. They dwell on it. Perhaps they go insane, but probably not; either way, they feel as if their life is pointless.

It's a grim way to look at things, but sometimes it's the only way that I can see. Maybe it's a sign that it isn't true, that I can see that there is a machine, that I can understand the manipulation around me. Maybe it's an overactive imagination, thoughts of something that isn't there, worming their way around my neurons and implanting doubt about existence. Maybe I'm choosing option C....

Souls in the Great Machine is a novel by Sean McMullen about Australia in the 40th century, and I thought that the title was incredibly cool-- and summed it all up-- but its been years since I've read the book, so I can't really write a good review.

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