Review of Machine
Elizabeth Bear. Machine. Saga Press, 2020. Trade paperback, 482 pg. $16.99. ISBN 978-1-5344-0302-4.
Elizabeth Bear, a master of the craft of SF, released Machine as the second novel in her White Space series. It is a direct follow-up to 2019’s Ancestral Night, also an excellent read: the events of Ancestral Night form part of the backdrop to Machine. The novel is a complex and sympathetic depiction of a seriously disabled person who is enabled to function at the much higher level she desires through the intervention of an empathetic social democratic government and technology developed by and among a diverse society. It is also a sustained critique of the utopian impulse, both directly and in its presentation of the conflict between an imperfect society still more utopian than our own and those whose wish to purify it puts that society at serious risk.
White Space is a universe in which humans crashed Earth’s ecology and their own society before learning to work together, whereupon they were contacted by the mostly benevolent and very diverse galactic society of the Synarche; after a few centuries, humanity has integrated into shared governance with other “syster” species and the advanced AIs that run starships and facilities. Machine takes as its setting the enormous, multispecies, multienvironment teaching hospital Core General; it is told from the perspective of Brookllyn “Llyn” Jens, who grew up on a backwater human planet to serve first as an officer in the Synarche’s law enforcement apparatus, then as an ER physician at Core General.
Llyn’s current job as the point person for a medical rescue team affiliated with the hospital leads her to a derelict human sublight generation ark, drifting in space far from where it should be and filled with the corpsicles of humans who fled Earth as things were collapsing, and thus represent the very bad past for Llyn. This encounter leads to the infection of Core General’s AIs with a virus; Llyn’s investigations lead her to discover that Core General is a corrupt institution that in a proudly egalitarian society allows wealthy individuals a form of immortality that crosses a real line in the Synarche, all in order to fund its services, including Llyn’s rescue team. Sorting out what is happening and how those she holds dear have manipulated her first into discovering the corruption, then having to work to ameliorate it is deeply wrenching for Llyn. She is a true believer in the benevolence of Core General and the Synarche, who have taken her from someone defined by her disability on a nasty backwater planet to someone everyone else regards as an action hero.
The plot is significantly more complicated than this, but Machine is well worth not further spoiling. Let us rather consider the novel’s presentation of history, disability and utopia. Llyn is pleased, and proud, and very vocal, about how the modern humanity that was able to solve most of its problems benefitted still more from contact with and integration into the Synarche. She frames this as the human species reaching “adulthood”:
Adulthood begins when you look at the mess you’ve made and realize that the common element in all the terrible things that have gone wrong in your life is you. The choices you have made; the shortcuts you have taken; the times you have been lazy or selfish or not taken steps to mitigate damage; or have neglected to care for the community. As a species, the immature decisions we made contributed to the collapse of our own population and the radical alteration of our biosphere. Running away to space at sublight speeds was a desperate move. It made more sense and was more sustainable in the long run to fix the evolutionary issues in our own psyches that led us into irrational, hierarchal, and self-destructive choice? (131)
The metaphor here is to compare an individual’s development to a society’s; the estrangement is of course to cast our own society as children, the implicit defining feature of which is to be so psychically damaged as to take shortcuts, or to neglect to care for the community. Llyn grew up, and became an adult and a self-admittedly very bad parent, in a society she considers not fully adult; she underwent therapy/medication, which Machine refers to as “rightminding”, to rid herself of selfish tendencies. Like most human adults in the Synarche, Llyn also has a “fox” or computer implanted and networked into her brain: at moments of high anxiety, she or her ship AI use the fox to moderate her brain chemistry. It is clear from the text that “rightminding” can be coercive and is widely used as a means of disciplining those deemed too selfish or who damage the community; it is less clear whether direct manipulation of brain chemistry is similarly imposed. Llyn is a big fan of rightminding, and preaches its virtues just often enough to point to how we as readers ought to pay attention to just how much free will is involved in rightminding and being a part of the Synarche. Her own less-rightminded birth society was something she escaped as soon as she could; she is apprehensive because the corpsicles might exhibit all sorts of the behavior she calls “socipathological”, and intelligent enough to be amused by her own shock that the one thawed corpsicle she spends meaningful time with turns out to exhibit nothing but communitarian, “adult” values when things become dire.
A primary reason Llyn is so enthusiastic about the Synarche is that it enables her. Llyn suffers from chronic pain and a never clearly defined autoimmune condition whose inflammatory response often nearly immobilizes her. She implies late in the text that her condition is hereditary, introduced into the human genome as one of many mostly idiopathic autoimmune conditions that sprung up in the wake of environmental catastrophe on Earth. Rightminding and tuning her brain chemistry help ameliorate, but never eliminate, her chronic pain, but the main gift of the Synarche is her exoskeleton. This is not a metal frame like the one Ripley puts on in Aliens, but rather a much more subtle assembly of nanotubes and the like: Llyn is of course hyperaware of the exoskeleton, but the text implies that someone unfamiliar with Llyn and viewing her while clothed might not know that she’s wearing it. With the exoskeleton, she can leap out of spaceships into the void and rescue the injured; without it, as happens once in the text when she outranges its battery life, even something as simple as walking can be fraught. From the perspective of the plot, Llyn’s disability is relevant only insofar as she loves the Synarche for providing her the means to become an action hero; otherwise, she is simply a disabled person who sometimes has to make time to tend to herself. It’s a complex and nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of a disabled person who is neither defined by her disability nor has to overcome or transcend it as a sort of personal growth: we can only hope that other writers of SF will look to Bear’s example as a model for disabled characters.
Llyn’s enthusiasm for the Synarche, and her despair and then determination when she finds it to be more corrupt than she’d believed, serves as the perspective for Bear’s estrangement of utopias and the utopian impulse. The Synarche is Bear’s own invention, but it’s also pretty clearly a critical read of Iain M. Banks’ “Culture” novels and the conditions of existence for a galaxy-spanning utopia: the hinge point here are the lovingly silly names the AI ships give themselves. The Culture is whatever “pan-human” might be; the Synarche contains alien species ranging from supercold methane breathers to the inhabitants of superhot Venus-like environments. The Culture is uniformly high-development and primarily based on enormous starships and created mini-Ringworlds; the Synarche has backwater planets that are clearly not economic or social utopias, and the particular sort of FTL technology it uses prevents ships from growing too large. Banks handwaves a great number of things to get where he wants to be; Bear interrogates how something like Core General might come to exist. Whereas Banks directly states in Consider Phlebas that resources are effectively unlimited in the Culture, Bear has resource allocation become a direct problem in Machine; due to a previous crisis, funds to Core General were cut before Llyn’s time.
The limitation of resources leads the AIs and systers who run Core General to cut corners, accepting an unpleasant tradeoff in return for the funds needed for its operation. Inequality persists in White Space: the very wealthy are treated to special privileges in a private wing of the hospital. Because this breach of ethics is intolerable to some, they engage in a grand conspiracy to expose it, manipulating Llyn to do some of their dirty work. To give more detail would again be to spoil a work I encourage you to read, but the crux of the story is whether Llyn will side with those who accept some corruption and those who want purity at any cost. The Culture novels handwave how they get to utopia because they are concerned with how utopia imposes itself upon others and what happens to people who are unhappy even within utopia. Bear, by contrast, is encouraging us to consider how the utopian impulse is itself as destructive as it can be constructive: the corruption at Core General doesn’t affect its ability to deliver services, and in fact even helps it to do so, while those who would expose that corruption in the name of true equality would impede its function. It’s a fast-paced, entertaining, fun and plausible read that has far more than it seems going on beneath its surface—and it’s got three different giant talking bugs.
Ian Campbell is the editor of SFRA Review.