Note: I make an effort not to include any spoilers in my essay, but you may extrapolate some possibilities from how the main character manages her condition. Please take this into account before deciding to read further.
I have been struggling with how to put my thoughts together on Machine by Elizabeth Bear. The book is fascinating, no question, but I reacted on two levels and trying to blend them ended up with a confusing mess. So, I decided to approach each in turn, starting with my personal reaction today and giving my reader reaction tomorrow. The first one has to do with representing a character type rarely given the front page in the protagonist, Dr. Brookllyn Jens, who suffers from severe chronic pain.
Llyn’s condition cannot be traced to a source or cause. It is incurable. Her only treatment is symptom management, something their advanced world is better at, but still not perfect. She doesn’t have to work to survive since their civilization provides a basic income to all members, but she’s driven to prove she can still contribute. Llyn succeeds as a functioning member of society through the use of two main assists. Her first tool is part of the social order for every citizen while the second specifically addresses her structural weaknesses through a computerized exoskeleton.
The first, called a fox, offers chemicals to balance the brain based on constant monitoring of her physiological responses. This enables her to power through her condition sometimes, but still requires the same balance between coherency and freedom from pain that our less advanced treatments do. Throughout the story, we get to see Llyn’s choices and their consequences while she actively manages her state as best as she can given the circumstances.
The exoskeleton (exo)…well, it is pretty darn perfect. Like the fox, the device monitors her condition, but in this case, it provides physical rather than chemical support. The exo doesn’t replace her own muscles as far as I can tell, and she doesn’t suffer from the atrophy braces often cause. The exo adds whatever force necessary to bring her movements up to normal (or sometimes better than normal) abilities. With the severity of her condition, she is often in the position of choosing between movement and cognition, something the exo and fox help with.
The combination of these devices frees her higher functions. All her energy isn’t drained while performing routine tasks thanks to the exo and the fox reduces her pain to within tolerance levels. The last is an important aspect of the character. Lynn must tolerate or fight through the physiological and mental aspects every single day. There is no easy out. The costs of her choices are shown both in the immediate and over the long term, something I rarely see in fiction. I like how her condition and its limitations aren’t brushed aside by fancy tech fixes.
I’ve mentioned Ehlers Danlos on my blog a time or two, and you may have met my walking support, Grover, pictured above. Few understand the cost using Grover exacts on my ability to think, and now speak, clearly, though. I don’t have anything like an exo, though early versions exist. While Grover supports me and makes walking possible, there’s a lot of planning and deliberate motion involved, leaving me with barely enough energy to function.
This portrayal of suffering from a condition so similar to mine is powerful, especially considering how isolating such a disability can be. It also speaks to something you’ll find in many who suffer from debilitating chronic pain. Given the tools to allow her to function, Llyn chooses to act rather than taking her allotment and lying around all day doing nothing. Many, if not most, chronic pain sufferers I’ve met are the same. We often push through pain that would make someone not accustomed to it crumble just to maintain the semblance of a normal life.
Llyn does not make all the same choices I do, even for something she considers universal like pain making people grumpy. Most of the time my pain level makes me more cheerful and hyper to the point of annoying others until I, like Llyn, run out of energy and crash. Still, so much is eerily familiar. Llyn’s tools may be better, but a condition without a cure, and a treatment that helps, but not enough, is all too close to my reality. Just one more example of why the “characters like me” movement is so important.
It’s an interesting choice and a difficult one to have a compromised character as the lead. Thanks in part to the tools Llyn has available, I don’t believe it will be hard for people without a chronic condition to identify with her. However, someone who can empathize with her pain struggles may find them much more than one obstacle like any other that Llyn must overcome.
I saw in this portrayal a future where I could write an essay like this without becoming dizzy and worsening my migraine. My review didn’t post last week in part because it took me days to complete. I’ve gone from 3-day novels to 6-day essays (though not every week luckily), from 4-mile walks to needing Grover to get down the street to my mailbox and sometimes around the house. Examples like Llyn, even fictional, offer hope and potential methods to restore our abilities and provide a better balance of pain to coherent time.
Science often draws inspiration from science fiction. I hope this clear statement of the struggles we face inspires someone capable of building these tools who will make them available to those in need. Even if the design exists, if it’s too expensive, there might as well not be an exo or fox at all. I’d be happy to volunteer as a crash test dummy for an exo. I tend to fold instead of breaking bones, at least.
P.S. I received this book from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review. The traditional review will post tomorrow, so don’t forget to come back.