Review: Machine – Elizabeth Bear

Review: Machine – Elizabeth BearMachine
by Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Gallery / Saga Press
Publication Date: October 6, 2020
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 496
Source: NetGalley

I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

My rating: One StarOne StarOne Star

In this compelling and addictive novel set in the same universe as the critically acclaimed White Space series and perfect for fans of Karen Traviss and Ada Hoffman, a space station begins to unravel when a routine search and rescue mission returns after going dangerously awry.

Meet Doctor Jens.

She hasn’t had a decent cup of coffee in fifteen years. Her workday begins when she jumps out of perfectly good space ships and continues with developing treatments for sick alien species she’s never seen before. She loves her life. Even without the coffee.

But Dr. Jens is about to discover an astonishing mystery: two ships, one ancient and one new, locked in a deadly embrace. The crew is suffering from an unknown ailment and the shipmind is trapped in an inadequate body, much of her memory pared away.

Unfortunately, Dr. Jens can’t resist a mystery and she begins doing some digging. She has no idea that she’s about to discover horrifying and life-changing truths.

Written in Elizabeth Bear’s signature “rollicking, suspenseful, and sentimental” (Publishers Weekly) style, Machine is a fresh and electrifying space opera that you won’t be able to put down.

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Content warnings: View Spoiler »

While this is the second in the series, it could easily be read as a standalone. There are some cameos, small and large, from previous characters, but no prior knowledge of them or the plot of the previous book is necessary.

“What was there to get scared of? There’s just a job to do.” I wrapped my hands around the mug. The heat helped the ache.
“Oh,” he said, “fembots. A ship that’s taking itself apart to become macro-programmable matter. Mysterious, sourceless sabotage damage to our own vessel. The incapacitated, silent Synarche ship you’re about to go enter?”
I held a hand out, flat, and wobbled it from side to side. So-so. “What else you got?”

Dr. Brookllyn Jens, rescue coordination specialist – which basically means she jumps out of her space ambulance to save people in danger. You’d think there wouldn’t be much that would be able to phase her, but their current mission – answering a distress call from an ancient human colony ship and a more modern ship that’s inexplicably docked with – is, well, weird. Add in a bunch of cryogenically frozen colonists, a golden sexbot AI,  and a ship full of what looks like giant tinker toys and Llyn’s frankly happy to dump it all in the lap of someone else at Core General, the premier Synarche hospital, while she gets a well-deserved cup of coffee. But it turns out there’s more going on, and somehow the ghost ships are all tied up with possible sabotage at the hospital and Llyn is right in the middle of it.

I liked the first third of the book, which was spent exploring the “ghost ships,” and the initial time back at Core General. The last quarter of the book, however, didn’t work as well for me. I never quite bought into the suspense, as for whatever reason none of the action scenes were gripping to me. Though it happened less than it did in the previous book, Llyn also has a tendency to go off on repetitive tangents which slow down the plot and cause the tension to dissipate. The mystery was twisty and complicated and I thought Llyn’s attempts to solve it were interesting (though, as the character herself notes, it takes her forever to get serious about it) but I keyed on to the main players almost immediately.

“I was not, I told myself firmly, about to break into an extremely exotic and dangerous environment, surrounded by a starship that was trying to kill me.”

What made me pick up this book even though I was ambivalent about the first was the exceptional world-building. I loved the politics of the Synarche, the various syster races, the hilarious ship names (I Really Don’t Have Time For Your Nonsense being a personal favorite), the minutiae of tuning and rightminding. Sometimes it got a bit repetitive (yes, yes, I get that we’re all barbarians without rightminding) but for the most part it was absolutely fascinating and believable. There were quite a few side characters and for the most part I was ambivalent about them. My favorite characters were the Rashaqin, systers (the book’s terminology for sapient aliens) that strongly resemble praying mantises. I loved Dr. Rilriltok, a trauma recovery cryo specialist and one of Llyn’s mentors and friends. I was also pleased to see Goodlaw Cheeirilaq, who was a side character in the previous book, and how the two interacted with each other. The abundance of side characters – many of them Llyn’s friends or colleagues – leads into another point. There’s a theme running through the book about faith – whether that’s religious faith or faith in institutions like the Synarche or Core General or the simple faith that your team has your back – and how we determine whether those institutions or people are worthy of our trust. It was a good concept and well laid out except for, again, the last quarter of the book.

I have a chronic pain illness, so much of Llyn’s struggles with her own illness rang true for me, especially the struggle between being medicated enough to control the pain but not so much that it’s also adversely affecting your daily abilities. Llyn’s constantly checking in on her pain levels and doing the math on whether she’s capable of doing something without causing more pain issues, and that was so relatable. I also loved the description of Llyn’s exo and frankly I desperately want one of my own! Where the rep didn’t sit right for me is how she seemed defined by her illness. Her family’s inability to take her pain seriously led to her being unable to trust anyone, to her general disassociation with people. All of her character development (besides the fact that she really wanted a cup of coffee) basically comes back to her illness and how she coped (or didn’t cope) with it and that frustrated me. People are more than their diagnoses!

Overall, while I found the world-building absolutely amazing, I think there’s something about the author’s writing style that doesn’t quite work for me.

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