Review: Machine (White Space #2) by Elizabeth Bear

I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review, all opinions are my own

I didn’t realise that this book was the second in the series, but it reads perfectly well as a stand alone novel, and follows new characters than the first White Space novel, so if you’re interested in reading (contrary to my usual advice) you could definitely start with Machine rather than Ancestral Night if you would like.

The cover is simple, effective, and represents something that actually exists in the book. What more could I ask for?

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.

I really enjoyed this book. While fantasy is my first and greatest love, I also enjoy the complex themes that sci-fi effortlessly encompasses, and Machine is an excellent example of that. The main character lives with an ongoing illness, and experiences pain and anxiety from this very often, and the technology and near-mandatory medical treatment (especially as regards mental health) present in the futuristic world of the book means that this is merely one part of her life, as she does her rather intense job of being an intergalactic emergency doctor. I loved the realism of the many ways that these aspects affected Dr Jens’ life and decisions, without defining or lessening her character in any way.

I also appreciated the representation of gender and sexual minorities in this book, and the classic sci fi ‘what makes us human’ question that inevitably arises when AI comes into play. The commentary on our current world allowed for by the central plot of this book, centering on a ship from Earth in what is presumably the near future for us, and the far past for the characters in the novel, provides insightful commentary on our political situation, climate change, mental and physical health, and the countless ways society would have to change for our lifestyle to be at all sustainable.

The idea of ayatanas—being able to download and assume someone’s knowledge, experience, and viewpoint—is a fascinating one, and a technological advancement that would truly change the world. I think everyone who has ever spent time learning a second language (or third or fourth, I suppose, if you’re ridiculously impressive) would love the ability to download other people’s memories and worldview at will.

 I enjoyed the more manageable amount of alien species and cultures focussed on in the book through Sally’s crew; and I thought the technological complexity and general expense of Core General was a nice touch of realism in the novel, though in general I loved the medical soap opera/space rescue action feel of the book. The main character in this book is a lesbian, and many of the alien species (known as systers) in the novel do not conform to a strict gender binary. This made for interesting world-building touches, and I enjoyed the discussion on gender that Dr Jens has at one point with a member of an alien race that uses gender neutral pronouns. That conversation also includes on of my favourite lines from the book: “Expecting art to present absolute answers or offer tidy moral certainties is expecting art to act like propaganda,”. While I do like definite endings for storylines and situations, I don’t enjoy being spoon fed opinions on topics, or issues being unrealistically presented as black and white, and enjoyed this slightly meta-nod to the role of sci-fi, and fiction/art in general.

The world-building of an entire galactic society’s worth of species, cultures and physical/medical/technological requirements was nicely balanced by the grounding touches of Dr Jens’ own struggles and achievements, and I enjoyed getting to know the immense world of Machine through her viewpoint. I appreciated that while she was a sympathetic hero, she wasn’t perfect, as all too often characters can seem unrealistically morally upstanding. The morally and ethically complicated situations encountered in this book were interesting, and I liked that there was space left for readers to make their own judgements about the issues that arose.

The mysteries that drove the plot were interesting, and the conclusion of the novel was exciting and poignant. The action touches were great to drive the plot, and I really appreciated the comedic touches (particularly surrounding Dr Rilriltok and Goodlaw Cheeirilaq) that helped to offset the serious issues being explored in Machine.

I’d recommend this book to lovers of classic, ‘hard’ science fiction; and those who enjoy solid character development. Dr Jens at times reminds me of Cas Russel, from SL Huang’s series of the same name, and those who enjoy the action, kickass heroine and sci fi aspects of the Cas Russel series will find plenty to enjoy in Elizabeth Bear’s Machine. Fans of Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series who enjoy a space setting would also find plenty to enjoy in this book.

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