Oct 062020

Locus: One thing about Elizabeth Bear’s Machine, the second novel set in her White Space universe after 2019’s Ancestral Night: it’s sure as hell not either shallow or amoral. It is, in fact, fundamentally engaged in wrestling with questions of ethics, culture, worldview, and how much restitution needs to be made when one does harm in order to do other kinds of good.

Jens is a fascinating character. The narrator of Machine, she is – in all her flaws, determination, skill, friendships, and conviction – very easy to relate to, and to empathise with, in her human complexity, triumphs, and failures.

Though Machine is set in the same world as Ancestral Night – in the Synarche, with its vast diversity of people and species, its peculiar form of government, and its technological advances and social compromises – it has a similarly engaging voice, for all that Jens is a very different character to Ancestral Night’s Haimey, and a similarly engaging approach to pacing: Machine isn’t a short book, but it’s a very fast read for its length. Bear has a striking command of tension and character, and a deep interest in ethics and human behaviour.

It’s impossible, if you’re aware of James White’s Sector General stories and novels, not to see Machine as in conversation with that particular lineage. (I think I’ve read all of one Sector General story, but the influence is clear.) Space opera rarely concerns itself with the medical, and with the challenges of workaday life: it’s an untapped vein, and Bear draws from it with characteristic deftness and skill.

Machine is a fascinating, compelling, and ultimately satisfying space opera in a vast, complex, weird, and interesting universe. I really enjoyed it, and I hope this isn’t the last novel to concern itself with Core General, or with the Synarche at large.