Machine by Elizabeth Bear

When I chose this book, I only expected a fast-paced story with death-defying feats out in the vastness of the universe. A wild adventure filled with paramedics in space, dangerous artificial intelligences, and mysteries to solve.

Machine offers all that and more. It is a mix of space opera’s desperate rescues in near impossible situations and a philosophical examination of human and other cultures in the past and story present. This gives it both elements of Stardoc by S. L. Viehl and the culture clash found in City of Pearl by Karen Traviss. It’s not a quick read, but I had a lot of fun absorbing the story.

The world building unfolds through interactions between the characters and some flashbacks as well as in explaining the rules to the generation ship humans who left before humanity learned to clean up after itself. The multi-species civilization humans joined while the generation ship slowly moved out among the stars is founded on altruism rather than individualism. The definitions of personhood and value have also shifted in radical ways, especially considering the ship left before first contact.

You might imagine this results in several tense conversations, and there are more levels I will not mention, except to add it’s not a one-sided conversation. The world is complex and fascinating enough to make me want to check out the series it springs from, White Space. I don’t know whether this novel is intended to a standalone companion story with a favorite character for existing fans, a way to introduce new readers to the series, or a little of both, but I enjoyed what I saw. More than just that, though, it left me pondering questions the book raised.

Don’t think it’s all rumination, though. In fact, the characters rarely have time to contemplate everything going on around them. There’s the defrosting humans well past their time, AIs that aren’t as flawless as believed, giant bug monsters who are merely another sapient species, and interdepartmental politics, which only scratches the surface of what you’ll see.

The philosophy comes up within context and supports the growth of the characters rather than slowing the story. The same is true for character backstory and the universe they’re in. The information comes in dribbles at the right time rather than hard to swallow chunks, the sign of a good sociological science fiction work.

If you read yesterday’s post, you already know Dr. Brookllyn Jens, the protagonist, suffers from chronic pain. She uses a non-sapient exoskeleton along with medication to manage her symptoms, but that’s far from a cure or even total relief. She must work through her limitations and rise above the pain. Her portrayal matches my experience while her sophisticated support system enables her to contribute despite her condition.

Llyn is only one of a large, diverse cast, including the ambulance crew, some from the generation ship, and others back at Core General, the hospital. They each have recognizable characteristics having to do with their jobs, species, or attitudes such that I had no trouble keeping them apart whether human people or not, and whether organic or programmed.

Part of tracking the characters, though, comes from a well-seeded plot. I could see how some mysteries were unfolding before the characters did, but there was enough complexity to surprise me with a couple of reveals. What they uncover impacts the characters, especially Llyn, who has to re-examine the assumptions she’s worked under and decide how to react to the new discoveries. This is not a simple whodunit, but instead a nuanced situation where the clear path isn’t clear at all.

The clash between old and modern humans is a perfect example of this nuance. The differences are tackled head on, but in such a way to reveal Llyn’s biases even as she tries to prepare the rescued AI and its crew for current beliefs. While their modern civilization is advanced in many important elements, it’s the flaws that make for a deep description instead of a one-note ideal. Llyn does not always speak from a position of strength, even when she thinks she does.

The relationship between machine sapience and biological sapience is fascinating, especially in regard to treatment. The wounds might be different, but Core General does not distinguish between life began in primordial soup and that sprung from lines of code any more than it discriminates between crystalline methane breathers and organic oxygen breathers.

Ultimately, the story is about space paramedics who uncover mysteries where they expected a routine, if dangerous, search and rescue. The book stays true to this story even with all the soul searching and philosophies both personal and systemic. There’s a lot more meat on these bones than I’d expected, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I signed on for an adventure, and that’s what I got on more levels than expected.

P.S. I received this Advanced Readers’ Copy from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.

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