Synopsis: A doctor in an ambulance ship of a far-future secretly-dystopian society does great medicine, bad amatuer sleuthing, and has the seeds of dissent planted in her soul…
Book Review: Boy, there’s a lot to unpack here, which is why the synopsis is so scattered and unhelpful on its own.
The novel starts with the discovery of a derelict generation ship. It’s been gone for 600 years, appears to be a ghost ship, and is lightyears away from any position that is achievable by the tech available when it was launched. Our hero is breaching this thing to search for survivors and evacuate them to her rescue ship. It’s spooky and exciting and the exploration of a mysterious/impossible thing under dangerous conditions is fantastic! We get reveals, deeper mysteries, and great action along the way.
Then we do it again with a modern ship that has recently docked to the generation ship, is broadcasting a distress call, and is also a spooky ghost-ship. This was was crewed by methane-breathers, so we get a lot of science about how a human has to protect herself and her potential rescuees with such vastly incompatible enviroments, and of course engineering challanges and difficulties. It’s great. And also, she brings back Sometime Dangerous that starts infecting her own crew.
This is the best part of the novel. After this it takes a turn into exploration of this society (broadly), and more locally, the space hospital where the rest of the action takes place. It’s not bad, but it’s not nearly as gripping, and it feels like a different story. I preferred the first one.
One the plus side, during the second phase of the novel, we get to see what a functional-but-dystopian society looks like to someone who is happily existing within it. And that in itself is quite the feat. I am reminded of Brave New World, which I really didn’t like, and which I didn’t finish. It, too, has a functioning dystopian society. But our protagonist in that one is a defective human. He’s congenitally pitted against it in vicious opposition. I don’t trust that sort of story at all, because it feels like clumsy 50s-era communist propaganda. “Here’s a terrible society. Look how badly it mistreats our protagonist! Boooo! We hates it, booooo!” Well, ok, that sucks for your protagonist, but he’s a genetic freak that’s designed by the author to be ideally tortured. What about everyone else on the planet? Are they doing OK? Are they happy? If so, why should I hate this society, rather than hating the fact that horrible congenital accidents can make life miserable? Because the second one seems like the actual problem that we should be fixing!
But getting back to Machine — it does the opposite of this! It has a protagonist that is served very well by her society. She’s happy within it, and taken care of by it, and lives a fulfilling life. And yet, as readers, we start to see giant cracks in her narration. We slowly come to realize that this entire society is run by constant personhood-violations and mental alterations to keep people servile and loyal. We realize that our narrator is unreliable, at least in terms of how her society functions and the benevolance of its ruling class. Best of all, we get the insights leaked to us in ways that are intended to be praise by the protagonist, and would be read as praise if we were likewise brainwashed. It’s really cool, and really creepy!
That being said, the plot of the 2nd part of the novel is really thin. I think this is in part because our narrator is unreliable when it comes to her society, and so has blindspots that she doesn’t see, but look like holes that one could drive a truck through, to us. While the first part of the story was basically competance-porn of a skilled Search-and-Rescue crew in dangerous territory… the second half of the story has a lot of face-palming, omg she’s an idiot, this is kinda embarrasing,-style action. This makes the book less fun, and quite frustrating. It’s hard not to be exasperated when incompetant villians are portrayed as True Heroes, even when you know why that’s being done.
In fact, I want to get a lot deeper into this. But I can’t here, because it contains full spoilers for the whole book. So, here’s a post where I dive into that, if you’ve already read Machine, or don’t mind spoilers. In short, the second part of the book is a let down if you expect it to keep going like the first part, but is interesting in its own right if you are ready for the sudden change, and willing to exercise a lot of patience.
Also, as someone who is now cursed with chronic pain as well, Machine had one of the most relatable and well-done portrayals of someone in chronic pain that I’ve seen in years. I appreciated it a lot for that alone.
So, I dunno. I guess, Recommended, With Caveats.
Book Club Review: Everyone agreed the first part is great. The devisive part was about whether the dystopian-society reading was intended by the author, or accidental. Generally these sorts of dystopian society novels are reactions to things going on in the author’s society at the time of writing, and Machine is no exception. In a Poe’s Law corrallary, if the novel isn’t super-blatent in your face about how horrible such a thing is (like Brave New World, or 1984), then a reader can think “well… maybe this, but seriously?” How much someone suspected Bear was trying to say “man this sucks” vs just “wouldn’t this society be great?” significantly shaded how people read the novel, and their enjoyment of it the second part.
That being said, we did get some pretty good discussion out of this, which is my primary metric for if a book makes a good Book Club book. Not as much as I was hoping when I was driving to our Perkins, because it turns out we’re not quite as viewpoint diverse as we used to be. That was a little dissapointing, I was hoping for more of a fight. :) (But friendly!!). Still, we went long in our discussion, and it was quite the interesting discussion. So, for book clubs, Recommended.