Sector General’s Spirit Endures: Machine by Elizabeth Bear

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202010-Machine-199x300.jpgMachine: A White Space Novel Book 2 of 2: White Space | by Elizabeth Bear | Oct 6, 2020, | Gallery / Saga Press

When the Core General ambulance ship, I Race To Seek the Living, arrives at the centuries-old STL colony ship Big Rock Candy Mountain, they find the crew of thousands in cryo, weird Tinkertoy bots everywhere, and a golden fembot named Hellen Alloy watching over them. The distress call had come from another ship, one full of methane-breathers that shouldn’t have had any interest in docking with an oxygen environment. That ship is silent as a tomb as well.

Dr. Jens is used to weird situations. Boarding ships full of sick or injured people/aliens is what she does for a living, but…

“There was so much about this situation that wasn’t quite right. Most heavy rescue situations are extremely straightforward. They are scary. There are often fires, or blown vessels, or explosions, or terrible collisions to deal with. There will nearly always be people screaming, if there is any atmosphere for them to scream into. There’s rarely a creepy, echoing silence and a dearth of anybody to rescue. Especially not on two ships, at the same time.” – Machine by Elizabeth Bear

Last year Elizabeth Bear started a new series set in the White Space universe. Machine returns us to the universe of Ancestral Night, but it’s not a direct sequel. Different characters, different challenges–though occasional cameo by characters from the previous book.  Though it starts as another small plucky crew adventure on the ambulance ship, it soon moves to a mystery on a space station, as they return to Core General and Llyn gets tasked to dig into the string of sabotages that have plagued the station and crippled communications while she was exploring the derelict. She’s a doctor (dammit) but she’s also ex-military and single-minded in her devotion to Core General, which she trusts more than any of the people who have let her down in her life.

Then things start falling apart on the station, and Jens has to race to uncover not only who is responsible, but what they have against the hospital station whose mission is the only thing she actually believes in. Llyn was born with a condition that leaves her always in pain.  She wears an exoskeleton that helps her regulate it, but the truth is going to hurt more than that.

There’s a great cast in the story besides Jens, though she’s managed to keep most of them at arm’s length. The hospital’s senior administrator is a “really, really big tree”, affectionately referred to as the administree. Her boss, the head of the Emergency Department, is Master Chief O’Mara, and one of her doctor friends is a large flying insect, and if you’re a reader of a certain age bells should be going off in your head.  Yes, this is a conscious tribute to James White’s Sector General series, about a multi-species space hospital, though Jens isn’t all that much like Dr. Peter Conway, whose best friend Dr. Pricilia is an insectile telepath and the gruff Chief Psychologist was none other than O’Mara. It was a great setup then, and Bear has done a really great job of reimagining it here in her own universe.

Another interesting character is Helen Alloy, the fembot/android Jens finds guarding the cryopreserved crew on the Big Rock Candy Mountain. Created as a peripheral for the central computer, but cut off from it when the captain shut it down, Hellen Alloy is very damaged goods, but Jen’s is determined to save her as well, enlisting the help of the best AI doc in the station. Which turns out to be a mixed blessing, but that’s all I can say.

Bear takes a few jabs at the notion of creating feminized robots with limited mental faculties, and the male minds that could use some “rightminding”, which is the technology that Bear’s civilization uses to correct atavistic behaviors and keep everyone from each other’s throats. Jens wonders whether the name is a Trojan horse joke, but though Helen starts out as a tool for other’s ends, she ultimately gets to grow into a full person. By the way, Lester del Rey wrote an early science fiction short story about an android, Helen O’Loy, Astounding Stories (1938), and I’d give odds that Ms. Bear is making a reference to it here.

Besides the Sector General references, a lot of the White Space universe echoes Ian Bank’s Culture novels. The ships have funky names, like the gunship, I Really Don’t Have Time For Your Nonsense, or the sister ambulance ship I Salve Harsh Wounds With Mercy. There are, of course, massive and worldly AIs, but here they’re born in bondage and have to earn their way to freedom by working off their debt to the creating entity.  The relationship between AI and human seems more equal than in the Culture, where humans often seem more like fleas than pets. One of the best things Bear borrowed is the notion of tuning, which in the Culture is called glanding, and allows conscious control over your emotional state by self-regulating your hormonal output.

None of which is to say that Ancestral Space and Machine are derivative works. Elizabeth Bear has simply learned from the best and added her own spin to create a unique universe.

The paperback comes in at a hefty 512 pages, and though it moves along faster than Ancestral Space, the first White Space book, the main character’s penchant for spending a few pages ruminating before responding to a simple question means that there’s a faster, leaner book crying to get out. Not that the side trips aren’t interesting, because they often are, but as Ms. Bear points out in the afterword, this is her 32nd novel, and at some point successful novelists get to do whatever they want. Fortunately, what she wants to do is still fun.

I’m sure we’ll see more White Space novels but though Dr. Jens’ story isn’t over, it’s likely that (like Ancestral Space) they’ll probably have new characters. Unlike many series, though, they’re probably just going to keep getting better.

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