5 stars, aliens, artificial intelligence, Book Review, Elizabeth Bear, medical scifi, mystery, scifi, series, social government, space opera, Star Trek, Stargate SG-1
About Machine by Elizabeth Bear
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.
Review of Machine
Machine starts out when Jens and the crew of I Race to Seek the Living (yes the ship names are a little absurd) investigate Big Rock Candy Mountain and I Bring Tidings from Afar. Two ships and passengers that could not be more different, yet experiencing oddly similar circumstances. All the people on both ships are in deep sleep. One crew sleeps in cryogenic pods, the other is unconscious. Dr. Jens and her crew begin the rescue operation that is both a medical mission and an investigation. This opening grabbed my attention and held it until the last page.
Back at the Core and the hospital, things get even more mysterious. There is a lot going on. I can’t possibly do a synopsis justice. So I will just say, that what I though was going to be a science fiction tale of adventure and futuristic technology (see book title), turned out to be a mystery. Machine is a mystery wrapped in space opera. Jens likes mystery because she likes to figure things out. She just doesn’t expect solving the mystery would be so treacherous.
There are so many thing I liked about this book. First lets talk about the Synarche, a community of various races that includes humans, that has evolved to a relatively socially advanced cooperative society that considers the well-being of all its synizens. Individual tendencies that stray from the preferable ideal are considered to be sophipathic, but can be right-minded (an advanced therapy that uses memory replacement, brain chemical balancing and technology to make that all happen). I find this to be a fascinating social government that seems at once idyllic and also oppressive.
I loved how all species are treated as people. Right-minding means prejudice is undesirable. Even AI’s (though they born into debt and owing service), are treated as people. This also means that Jens interacts with several other species and AIs, so it is not just humans that are the heroes of this story. The author often uses they/them/their to replace gender pronouns for many species. At first this was disorienting, since I think of these as plural pronouns, but eventually my mind adjusted.
One of alien species is the Rashaqin. From what I remember from my first meeting of a Rashaqin (Cheerilaq in Ancestral Night), the description of giant praying mantis was what I took away from it. Normal sized praying mantises can be kind of scary looking to the bugs they prey on. Imagine one towering over you. Male Rashaqin are smaller, tiny enough to sit on a human’s shoulder, like Dr. Rilriltok. Females however….. But Goodlaw Cheeirlaq is only a threat to the bad guys, and in fact, is one of the heroes of this story.
One of the bad guys, aka the machine, reminds me a little of the spider-like replicators of the TV series Stargate SG-1. Not that the machine is necessarily spider-like, but it does replicate with a purpose.
While we are talking about old scifi TV shows, Star Trek fans will also recognize a parallel to Nomad from The Changeling.
Machine is a 1st person narrative told from the perspective of the human Dr. Jens. Since most of the people reading this books will also be human, this was a good choice. Several other characters, human and other-worldly, have important roles, but this is Jens’ story. Jens is not perfect and often questions not only what goes on around her, but also her own life choices, making her a character to sympathize with and invest in.
The author attempted to create a futuristic use of language for a few words, but did not stray too far from what we are familiar with. Every now and then, 21st century western jargon creeps in. In particular, I recall ‘stay frosty’. I am pleased that the author envisions that humans of today will have their own influence on the use of language in the future.
Machine is not a light read. It is complex and detailed but with enough suspense and sense of adventure to keep the story rolling along. At 496 pages, it is longish, but I found I was sad when it ended. While the story takes place in the same universe as Ancestral Night, it is totally standalone. If you read Machine first, you might find spoilers for Ancestral Night, but I think you can read them in any order.
As I was reading Machine, I highlighted several passages. I thought I’d share a couple with you here:
The best we can do is not pretend that we don’t belong to a system; it’s to accept that we do, and try to be fair about using it. To keep it from exploiting the weakest.
The most important thing in the universe, it turns out, is a complex of subjective and individual approximations. Of tries and fails. Of ideals, and things we do to try to get close to those ideals.
It’s who we are when nobody is looking.
Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.
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