There’s nothing like a scary family illness (fortunately all over with now) to take my mind far from blogging for a couple of weeks, and there’s nothing like a compelling Elizabeth Bear novel like Machine to bring me right back. Machine is the second White Space novel, following Ancestral Night, set in the Synarche universe, but it works perfectly well as a stand-alone. It’s a bit uneven as a reading experience, but the story wound up drawing me in completely. Bear takes a lot of chances in this novel, and they all work, though I admit everyone would not agree.
Dr. Brookllyn Jens is a physician who specializes in space rescue missions, and the story begins with a gripping scene when she launches from her vessel to cross several hundred meters to a stranded generation ship, Big Rock Candy Mountain. There are multiple mysteries about this ancient ship with a broken hull: why is its crew, except for the dead captain, locked in improvised cryo tanks, how did it get to a location where it shouldn’t have been, why is there no answer from the ship that docked beside it in response to its rescue signal? And why has the ship’s mind been reduced to a strangely sexualized robot named Helen?
Those questions are only the beginning of Machine, as a multi-layered mystery unfolds, one that Jens finds herself tasked with solving. Once Jens and her crew, including the ship mind they call Sally, bring Helen and several cryo tanks back to their gigantic hospital station, Core General, the mystery only deepens. It turns out Helen and her ship have been infected with a virus, a meme, which threatens all the AIs in the hospital and potentially in the rest of the galaxy. So far, this sounds like the sort of space opera mystery you might have encountered before, but Bear tells the story through the difficult mind of Dr. Jens. That makes for strange pacing that reflects all the turmoil she is going through.
Llyn Jens suffers from chronic pain which she manages with help from her exoskeleton, but movement around even the regulated gravity of Core General can be slow and difficult. Plus there she experiences a background level of anxiety and guilt from traumas of her past, including growing up poor, a divorce and leaving her 18 month-old daughter for a ten year stint in the military. By the time of Machine, she hasn’t seen her daughter for twenty years and hardly a moment passes when she isn’t thinking about her. That is why she prefers her life of rescuing people from danger, a profession of all action that leaves her little time for ruminating.
But here she finds herself in a meme-infected hospital station, waiting out the slow process of bringing the cryo patients back to life so that she can get to the bottom of the mystery of Big Rock Candy Mountain. Perhaps the biggest chance Bear takes as a writer is to dramatize the effect of the meme and her own illnesses in the thought process of Dr. Jens.
Hence the quality of the first person narration itself, which plainly frustrates a lot of readers because it leads her on winding paths of theories and ideas that endlessly circle back on themselves and drive both her and us a little crazy. But her style of thought also seems to me to be a good representation of a mind in the midst of anxiety, guilt, pain and depression.
Jens keeps telling us she is excellent in a crisis where action rather than thought is required. That’s because her mind dwells on potential catastrophes if left to itself, perhaps as a way of dealing with her own physical pain as well as her emotional pain about her choice to leave her infant daughter. But what finally saves her in her deepest moment of crisis when she is in the grip of the meme itself is her determination to kick out the endless ideation, fight and hack back to get herself out of danger.
When she pushes her physical limits to check out a strange private ward in the hospital, she encounters resistance and silence from some of the people she has trusted the most. Soon she has to question her faith in her found family at Core General and face the reality that there might be something poisonous at its center. So it’s not only the meme she has to fight but her own resistance to believing that everyone she had trusted could possibly be implicated.
Trust is a key theme and how it can be lost in betrayals made for purely altruistic reasons. Good and evil are hard to separate when the worst secrets of the hospital may enable the functioning of a benevolent institution. Here is another risk Bear takes by writing a space opera where good and evil are not so easy to identify as they usually are in this genre.
Bear poses intricate problems of ethics and pushes the limits of the “rightmindedness” that is the core philosophy of the enlightened civilization of the Synarche. It is a system based more on reason than authority, more on egalitarian sharing than the exploitative systems that preceded it and that spelled the doom of earlier Terra. Jens is appalled at encountering the primitive beliefs of recovering cryo patients from six hundred years earlier. Take their response to “aliens.”
The Synarche is a universe built on respect for multiple species whose members, called systers, work together in complex environments that adapt to their very different requirements. So she has colleagues who are like giant insects, a squid-like creature that maneuvers around in a big water tank and, as administrator of Core General, a giant tree. Each is a sharply drawn and interesting character, but humans who have been out of touch for six centuries can only see “aliens.”
Even more central to the story is the idea of a machine. In the Synarche, AIs may be machines made of code but they have sentience and the rights of “synizens.” Bear jumps right into the gray area between the limits of machines, AIs, humans and other sentients. The Machine is not only the one constructed by the infected AI running Helen. The hospital is a great machine, Sally is a machine, and Jens herself stays functional with the essential aid of her exoskeleton and her hardsuit. In particular the exo enables her to function through her chronic pain. There are multiple machines that become involved in the “sophipathology” of the viral meme infecting the AIs and threatening the destruction of Core General. This is a world in which machines are vital yet can also be twisted to do harm.
There are no easy answers to these problems, and the way Bear pulls us through the tangled meme of this story is thought-provoking and exciting at the same time. The endless rumination of her narrator finally gives way to the sort of clear action that the novel starts off with. I have to admit that it’s easy to get exasperated with Jens as narrator, as her reasoning so easily becomes bent and circular in response to pain and infection. But for me Elizabeth Bear has pulled off this complex story with amazing skill and daring.