Machine (White Space #2)
by Elizabeth Bear
Publication date: October 20, 2020 by Saga Press
Doctor Brookllyn Jens loves her job. She’s a rescue worker who, like a daredevil, leaps through empty space from one ship to another to save people in need of rescue from the endless dangers of interstellar travel. Jens loves her job. It gives her a foundation to fall back on and something to believe in. But when Jens arrives at an ancient generation ship stranded far from where it should be and finds a much newer ship trapped along with it, she unwittingly unleashes a mystery that could affect everything she knows about her world and shake her faith in it to the core.
In her first White Space novel, Ancestral Night, Hugo Award-winning author Elizabeth Bear introduced readers to a universe in which faster-than-light travel is possible (by bending the laws of physics), and humanity lives side-by-side with many alien races, most of which differ significantly in form and culture from humans. Another element of the White Space universe is the fact of rightminding, in which people of all kinds voluntarily have a neural chip implanted to give them conscious control over their body’s hormones, and thus over their emotional responses. Don’t have time to panic in an emergency? No problem. Rightminding will let you overcome that panic in an instant.
It’s one solution to a host of problems, and it helps the denizens of the Synarche to work together for the benefit of all. But while it allows people like Jens, who suffers from chronic pain, to function for the greater good, rightminding creates its own problems, too. The first? What happens when someone is so ethical that the betterment of the majority comes at the expense of a minority? When resources are limited and citizens are expected to engage in government service to ‘earn their keep’, what happens when there are those who work their way through the loopholes in the system and end up legally harming others? And what happens in a universe where AI units, who have full citizenship, are faced with ethical conundrums that could destroy them no matter what they choose?
These sorts of quandaries fill the chapters of Machine without becoming dreary or preachy. Bear’s writing displays a quick sense of humor that draws the reader into the story and never talks down to them, even when she is explaining things like the effects of time dilation on a generation ship traveling at near-light speeds. Good science fiction does not require that the reader have a degree in the sciences, and Bear writes good science fiction. She even makes the idea of methane-based lifeforms sound perfectly plausible and logical.
But there are problems, too, and most of the have to do with rightminding, whose effects come into play when it comes to the book’s pacing and tension. Dr. Jens is a doctor surrounded by doctors and law enforcement officers who are doing their best to be Good and to help everyone, and part of that help is to remind people to take care of themselves. Which is no bad thing, unless you’re the character of a book where the tension is starting to build and intensify– right up to the moment when a helpful AI reminds you that it’s been a long time since you slept, and wouldn’t it be a good idea for you to go to bed? This is helpful when the characters need to maintain a clear head, but it brings the story to a halt while Jens trudges off to her room to get some sleep.
Another effect of rightminding on the story itself deals with the characters’ emotions which, thanks to their implants, are often deadened so they can deal with stressful situations without having to deal with adrenaline or pain. For Jens and the others, it’s a logical thing to do, and when presented through her eyes (and through that of the narrator of Ancestral Night), being able to artificially control their emotions is a blessing. But it effectively deadens their voices in many key points. Their hearts don’t race with fear, they aren’t ecstatic about a discovery, they don’t flirt with someone they find attractive. Rightminding might help Jens and the others get through tense situations, but it leaves them floundering when the bottom drops out from under them and all the rightminding in the universe can’t help them figure out what to do when they’ve lost faith in everything.
For all its ray guns, space battles, and bug-eyed aliens, science fiction has always been about people and the choices they make in extreme situations, and Machine, in spite of a few flaws, is first-rate science fiction. It tells a gripping story that’s hard to put down, and all the while it asks questions about who we are as humans and what we could become if we all worked together to overcome our greatest challenges. But it doesn’t forget that people are complicated beings, and even in the midst of a bright future, nothing is quite as shiny as it seems to be.
Thank you to NetGalley and Gallery/Saga Press for providing me with a free ebook in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion in any way.