Machine by Elizabeth Bear

This second in the White Space series, published in 2020, is some more of your touchy feely science fiction, and while I largely enjoyed it, I did start to lose patience with the narrator, whose every action was delivered with a triple dose of self reflection and third guessing, so that by the end I confess I was speed reading and no longer enjoying it. Of the first in this series, Ancestral Night, I wrote,

Enjoyable stuff. A bit too much of the modern trend for touchy feeliness when you’re reading for the plot, but nothing insurmountable.

I’ve got no problem with touchy feely science fiction. I like the idea that I’m reading something that is determinedly non-violent and not militaristic. Our protagonist here is a kind of interstellar search and rescue paramedic/ER doc, and I appreciate the fact that she looks for solutions to problems that don’t involve discharging weapons or blowing things up. This takes me all the way back to some of the first science fiction I ever read: Arthur C Clarke, or even Larry Niven. My difficulty here is that I do think that the balance between deliberation of consequences and being stuck inside somebody’s pathologically circling thoughts tends rather towards the latter. As with the latest Becky Chambers, I felt in the end that the constant concern with whether we were about to offend the various alien species and fellow space medics was too much.

By all means, the different pronouns, the alien ideas of gender, the syster species, and so on, but once we’ve established that there is a friendship and a degree of trust between people, can we not stipulate that people aren’t going to be offended? I honestly think that you cannot live like that. Consideration between pals, of course, but tippy toeing on eggshells around them is no basis for a healthy relationship. As I said, it becomes pathological, and there’s certainly a hint towards the end that our narrator is probably a little too detached at all times. Which I do get: this is a character in constant neuralgic pain who is never not aware of her own body, who relies a lot on technology to help her function. But as I said, there’s a balance to be struck here, and I think some of this would have been better left on the cutting room floor.

All of which drags this down a bit because, well, it became a bit of a drag. Otherwise, it’s still enjoyable stuff: a long-lost generation ship turns up in an unexpected place. There’s a distress call, and then hints of sabotage as things begin to go wrong. Our medic is called upon to play detective. It’s all very interesting, but the big reveal doesn’t have much impact because it gets lost in the weeds of the near solipsistic narration.

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