#SciFiMonth Review: Machine by Elizabeth Bear
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 2 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 2 of White Space
Publisher: Gallery/Saga Press (October 20, 2020)
Length: 496 pages
I really wanted to like this one, but unfortunately it just didn’t work out for me. While I’ve enjoyed Elizabeth Bear’s work in the past, for some reason Machine failed to capture my attention, and even from the start the story and main character struggled to make an impression, though I tried my best to give the book a fair shake.
At first, I thought it might have something to do with the fact it is a sequel, and that I haven’t read its predecessor, Ancestral Night. However, it soon became clear that was not the case, because although Machine takes place in the same White Space universe, it is written to be experienced as a standalone, featuring a new story and a different protagonist. Dr. Brookllyn Jens is her name, a rescue specialist working on a first responder ship dispatched to investigate a distress signal originating from a generation ship which left Earth hundreds of years ago. Upon arrival, Dr. Jens finds the ship’s crew and passengers still sealed inside their cryogenic space pods, with only an android named Helen as the only conscious caretaker active onboard.
Thus, a tantalizing mystery emerges: What could have happened to the ship to leave its ten thousand souls in such a state? And what might have caused Helen, an A.I. who doesn’t appear to be all together there, to be left in charge by herself? Even more disconcerting is the discovery of a modern vessel attached to the centuries-old generation ship, and the strange machine inside of it, dubbed a craboid because of its resemblance to the crustacean. Everyone is baffled as to its purpose, though Jens might have a few guesses. As she works hard to rescue as many of the passengers as she can by transporting them to the state-of-the-art hospital at which she is employed, even more problems begin to arise, including an unknown illness, computer viruses, and even malicious sabotage. As much as Jens wants to get to the bottom of all of it, she worries the answers will come at a steep price—and she isn’t sure she will like what she finds.
To be fair, Machine had quite a few strengths, even if they weren’t enough to win me over. For example, I liked that our protagonist was a doctor, and the medical angle of her narrative provided this space opera with a fresh and interesting perspective. I also enjoyed the author’s vision for her futuristic setting, one populated by humans, aliens, and A.I. There’s wonderful interaction between the characters, creating opportunities for compelling relationships as well as plenty of room to grow them.
Unfortunately though, Dr. Jens winds up being the weak link in all these scenarios. For one thing, she can’t seem to stop with the aggravating internal monologues, rambling on and on in a completely different line of thought than whatever was happening on the page. While it’s probably in her character’s nature to be inquisitive and examine every single tiny thing from all possible angles, as a reader trying to follow her often long-winded and digressive spiels it was absolute torture. It’s a shame, really, for I’m sure this novel could have been one hell of a sci-fi mystery page-turner, if only the main character could’ve shut up long enough for the exciting parts of the story to actually come through.
Perhaps it is not surprising then, that pacing was also an issue. Due to all the frequent interruptions and tangents, the plot never really manages to find its rhythm, and to be honest, there were too many moments I found myself bored and tempted to skim or skip ahead. I tried to sympathize with Jens, because she really does have quite an intricate and poignant backstory, but the narrative style simply made it far too difficult to engage. I also didn’t like her over-the-top self-criticism especially towards the end of the book, which didn’t help her likeability one bit, and only served to make me even more annoyed with her.
Overall, I can’t say I had a good experience with Machine, even though the novel’s premise with its mystery and intrigue should have been right up alley. Regrettably, I just couldn’t get onboard with the main character and the stop-start pacing of the story, when what I really wanted was less talk and more emphasis on the mystery aspect and the action elements. Ultimately, I was left unsatisfied and disappointed.