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  • Deep Sociological SF with Mystery and Adventure

    Originally posted on Tales to Tide You Over When I chose this book, I only expected a fast-paced story with death-defying feats out in the vastness of the universe. A wild adventure filled with paramedics in space, dangerous artificial intelligences, and mysteries to solve. Machine offers all that and more. It is a mix of space opera’s desperate rescues in near impossible situations and a philosophical examination of human and other cultures in the past and story present. This gives it both elements of Stardoc by S. L. Viehl and the culture clash found in City of Pearl by Karen Traviss. It’s not a quick read, but I had a lot of fun absorbing the story. The world building unfolds through interactions between the characters and some flashbacks as well as in explaining the rules to the generation ship humans who left before humanity learned to clean up after itself. The multi-species civilization humans joined while the generation ship slowly moved out among the stars is founded on altruism rather than individualism. The definitions of personhood and value have also shifted in radical ways, especially considering the ship left before first contact. You might imagine this results in several tense conversations, and there are more levels I will not mention, except to add it’s not a one-sided conversation. The world is complex and fascinating enough to make me want to check out the series it springs from, White Space. I don’t know whether this novel is intended to a standalone companion story with a favorite character for existing fans, a way to introduce new readers to the series, or a little of both, but I enjoyed what I saw. More than just that, though, it left me pondering questions the book raised. Don’t think it’s all rumination, though. In fact, the characters rarely have time to contemplate everything going on around them. There’s the defrosting humans well past their time, AIs that aren’t as flawless as believed, giant bug monsters who are merely another sapient species, and interdepartmental politics, which only scratches the surface of what you’ll see. The philosophy comes up within context and supports the growth of the characters rather than slowing the story. The same is true for character backstory and the universe they’re in. The information comes in dribbles at the right time rather than hard to swallow chunks, the sign of a good sociological science fiction work. If you read yesterday’s post, you already know Dr. Brookllyn Jens, the protagonist, suffers from chronic pain. She uses a non-sapient exoskeleton along with medication to manage her symptoms, but that’s far from a cure or even total relief. She must work through her limitations and rise above the pain. Her portrayal matches my experience while her sophisticated support system enables her to contribute despite her condition. Llyn is only one of a large, diverse cast, including the ambulance crew, some from the generation ship, and others back at Core General, the hospital. They each have recognizable characteristics having to do with their jobs, species, or attitudes such that I had no trouble keeping them apart whether human people or not, and whether organic or programmed. Part of tracking the characters, though, comes from a well-seeded plot. I could see how some mysteries were unfolding before the characters did, but there was enough complexity to surprise me with a couple of reveals. What they uncover impacts the characters, especially Llyn, who has to re-examine the assumptions she’s worked under and decide how to react to the new discoveries. This is not a simple whodunit, but instead a nuanced situation where the clear path isn’t clear at all. The clash between old and modern humans is a perfect example of this nuance. The differences are tackled head on, but in such a way to reveal Llyn’s biases even as she tries to prepare the rescued AI and its crew for current beliefs. While their modern civilization is advanced in many important elements, it’s the flaws that make for a deep description instead of a one-note ideal. Llyn does not always speak from a position of strength, even when she thinks she does. The relationship between machine sapience and biological sapience is fascinating, especially in regard to treatment. The wounds might be different, but Core General does not distinguish between life began in primordial soup and that sprung from lines of code any more than it discriminates between crystalline methane breathers and organic oxygen breathers. Ultimately, the story is about space paramedics who uncover mysteries where they expected a routine, if dangerous, search and rescue. The book stays true to this story even with all the soul searching and philosophies both personal and systemic. There’s a lot more meat on these bones than I’d expected, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. P.S. I received this Advanced Readers’ Copy from the Publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.

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  • Great story and thought provoking

    I love this story! The future is an intriguing place, and the author does a good job of keeping things just familiar enough that we can follow along. A fantastic story with an engaging group of characters, that brings up some thorny ethical issues in an easy to read way. I've already picked up more of her books.

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  • I loved it - made me think of possibilities

    This is the first science fiction book I've read in a long time, although it used to be one of my favorite genres. I've read several books before by Elizabeth Bear so I was excited to get this one. Machine. The very title is mysterious. This is a hard book to review because if you give away too much about the progression of the story, it will ruin it for the reader - and it's a book well worth reading. There is a place in the story where the focus of the book changes dramatically. It disappointed me at the time as it seemed to me that the book I was reading abruptly changed focus. There were numerous clues along the way, but I didn't see their significance at the time. The revelations experienced by the main character, Dr. Jens, and her decisions changed her life and more. By the end of the book, I was blown away with both the overall outcome and the one for the main character, Dr. Jens. I never saw it coming. Much of the book takes place on a huge rotating space station called Core General, which is a hospital for many species and also staffed by many species. Many of its functions are run by artificial intelligences, who are also citizens. So many diverse entities are able to work together due in part to a way of thinking called rightminding, which was one of the most interesting parts of the book to me. Rightminding appeared to be incorporated by every sentient, both artificial and born. For flesh species, rightminding was achieved by being mindful of their state of mind, and consciously adjusting their brain chemicals to achieve clarity. Today, we might take a long walk, meditate, or take medication. I wish very much that this was real because I would have loved to have lived and worked on one of those stations. One of my favorite characters was the administrator of the whole huge hospital. He was a really really big tree growing out of the station itself and referred to fondly as the Administree. Two of my other favorite characters seem to be described as similar to praying mantises, only with more legs and eyes. The female was easily six feet long and the much smaller male on the station was terrified of her and usually ducked behind someone when she was around. He also offered food to almost everyone he spent time with - a holdover from when females of their kind would eat the male after mating if they were hungry. This book is not only entertaining, it makes the reader think about possibilities. I highly recommend it.

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  • Medical mystery in spaaaaace

    More Bear magic with an achingly well-worded narrative voice. If you're a fan of James White's "Sector General" novels, you'll either love this or tell yourself "it's not *actually* Sector General". Personally, I think James would've been pleased.

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