Machine: A White Space Novel (White Space #2) by Elizabeth Bear

Genuinely surprised after reading this to learn that Elizabeth Bear has no military/police background. Or, perhaps, like myself, she spent formative years around military, which would definitely explain the wholly authentic feel she brings to the ex-military protagonist and judiciary command structure of the universe she creates here in Machine which, while the second in a series, can be easily read as a standalone. I’m actually rather also surprised that this is the first thing of hers I’ve ever read, but there are so many books and so little time (and thanks to Saga Press for making sure I had a chance to get to this!)

Anyhoo, Machine is about Dr Brookllyn Jens, a trauma surgeon specializing in search and rescues after a stint in the military that helped her escape her backwater planet, leaving behind an angry wife and a now-distant daughter. Her closest friends are the crew of her ambulance ship, I Race To Seek The Living, or Sally, as the shipmind prefers to be known. When they receive a distress beacon for an ancient vessel that’s traveled way farther than it reasonably should have, coupled with a much more modern courier ship which also seems to be in distress, Dr Jens is the one who leads the rescue mission aboard the Big Rock Candy Mountain. To her dismay, everyone on both the BRCM and the attached I Bring Tidings From Afar is either dead or unconscious, save for Helen, an eager to please but intellectually stunted shipmind who’s been cut off from her own knowledge banks. When a fracture in the BRCM’s hull causes several of the inhabited cryogenic pods within to float loose into space, Dr Jens has little choice but to bring them aboard and ship her new patients — along with Helen, the decoupled Afar and its crew — back to Core General, one of the most important hospital stations in that sector.

On the trip back, Dr Jens discovers that someone sabotaged Sally’s programming, probably while they were still docked earlier at Core General. When weird incidents start taking place at the hospital itself, primarily affecting AIs, Dr Jens becomes involved in investigating not only what happened to the crew of the BRCM and Afar, but also in uncovering a conspiracy that will shake her faith in perhaps the only thing she truly believes in.

First, I have to say that I loved the fact that Dr Jens suffers from chronic, debilitating pain but that medical and social advancements have made it so that this doesn’t hamper her from living the full, productive life she wants to lead. I strained the index finger of my left hand yesterday, probably because it’s cold and I was working tricky passages on my cello, and let me tell you, the thought of a future where I am automatically supported through my (minor, temporary) pain brings joy and warmth to me as I type through the twinges (and don’t even get me started on my arthritic knee.) This management of pain is only one aspect of a gloriously progressive future showcased in the White Space books as being very possible for not only humanity but also its syster species, as members of the Synarche that oversees intergalactic civilization is known. Most of the military sf and even progressive hard sf I’ve encountered to date tends not to be quite so baseline upbeat — I’d argue that Machine is more in line with those subgenres than with the more technologically hand-wavey space operas —  and it was genuinely refreshing to immerse myself in a future that was as optimistic as it was scientifically detailed.

I did think that the book started to falter in the last 20%, as the mystery was unraveled. Oddly, the reveals were done in such a way as to provoke minimum tension, which is great in a real-life situation where the point is to work through the problem to find an equitable solution, but just makes for dull reading for us people at home. I liked that the narrative stayed true to the characters but a little more suspense would have lent the events more gravity — I wanted to feel surprised when conspirators were revealed, and I wanted to feel sad when characters died. Instead, it was all very “then this happened, and then this”, which was quite a letdown after the terrific first 80%.

That said, this was a truly wonderful vision of a future I would definitely want to live in, and am happy to work towards. Machine brings up all sorts of ethical, medical and technological dilemmas, for both humans and other sentient species, and considers, if not outright resolves them, with discernment, empathy and heart.

Machine by Elizabeth Bear comes out today from Saga Press and is available from all good booksellers.

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