Dr. Jens and her alien colleagues rescue spaceships that are in trouble. After answering a distress call, they discover an old ship in which all of the human crewmembers are in cryogenic storage. Their only caretaker is an oddly sexy robot who was given instructions to build the cryogenic storage containers for the crew long ago.
When Dr. Jens and her colleagues get back to their own ship and get ready to thaw out some of the frozen humans, they discover that their own trusty shipmind, Sally, is starting to forget things. They begin to suspect a rogue artificial intelligence might be responsible for what’s been happening on both of the ships.
When Dr. Jens is asked to figure out what’s going on, she begins to unravel a strange mystery and discovers that the benevolent organization she works with, and some of her beloved colleagues, may not be quite as wonderful as she thought. As we tag along, we get to explore the intriguing possible future utopian society that Elizabeth Bear has created.
Machine (2020) is the second stand-alone novel in Bear’s WHITE SPACE series. Like the first book, Ancestral Night, it focuses on a team of humans and aliens who rescue derelict spaceships. In their society, people can choose to control their emotions and behaviors by adjusting the release of their own neurotransmitters and hormones. Citizens also go through a process in which their brains are tuned to be “right-minded.” Getting everyone’s values and behaviors on the same page greatly reduces conflict and increases peace and happiness.
The WHITE SPACE novels are at their best when Bear is addressing these sorts of issues. We are likely to encounter such quandaries in the near future in our own world and science fiction is the perfect place to safely explore them.
Another thought-provoking feature of Machine is that our protagonist, Dr. Jens, lives with chronic pain. It’s so debilitating that she must use a mechanized exoskeleton to get around. It’s interesting to think about how chronic pain, which is experienced by so many of our fellow humans, affects our daily lives, and it’s admirable to watch Dr. Jens attempt, but not always succeed, to overcome her limitations.
As far as the plot goes, I had the same experience that I had with Ancestral Night. In my review of that novel, I said that the story “takes a while to really get going. Haimey tells us the story by journaling it, and it seems she wrote down every single thought she had during the time we’re following her story. She thinks a lot. She overthinks. The plot progresses slowly because for every moment of action, we get many more moments of Haimey’s thoughts and reactions.”
The same is true of Dr. Jens. She gives us a moment-by-moment description of her job and her society, constantly hijacking the flow of the story. It feels like we are her kids accompanying her on take-your-child-to-work-day. She explains the anatomy, neurology, eating habits, metabolism, language, reproductive habits, etc., of every alien she works with (this is often creative and sometimes amusing); she gives little lectures about gravity, data degradation, economics, right-mindedness, etc. In theory I don’t mind these things, but I do when they get in the way of the plot and, especially, when they interrupt the most interesting scenes. Unfortunately, this happened all the way through Machine. To put it bluntly, I was often bored in a fascinating setting with characters that should have been anything but boring.
The audio edition by Simon & Schuster Audio boasts a lovely performance by narrator Adjoa Andoh. It’s 16.5 hours long.