Machine by Elizabeth Bear
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This second book in the White Space series shares a couple of characters with the first book, Ancestral Night, but the protagonist and setting is different. The setting is fascinating, and a character in its own right: Core General, a moon-sized multispecies hospital, and the artificial intelligence called Linden who runs the place. Its administrator--or Administree, as it's referred to--is a sentient tree named Starlight, and several of the important side characters are nonhuman sapients. Almost all of our time in this book is spent here, and there could easily be another book written with this setting and characters. Indeed, I wish there could be, as the minutiae and detail of what would make up a futuristic multispecies hospital interested me to no end.
This is a mystery, and a medical thriller; not a murder mystery (although there are some deaths). The point of the mystery is who is sabotaging the hospital and why? Our protagonist, Brookllyn Jens, is a trauma surgeon and rescue specialist at Core General, sent out with her ambulance (another sentient AI ship intelligence, this one called Sally) to investigate a newly discovered generation ship from centuries past. This ship, the Big Rock Candy Mountain, should not be in this section of space so far from Earth. What Brookllyn and her crew find there will upend her world, and threaten the Synarche, the galaxy-spanning civilization humans are now a part of.
This is a book of ethical dilemmas, and faith, and belief. Specifically, Brookllyn's faith in Core General, where she has worked for years, devoting her life to what she thinks it represents, and how she loses that faith and finds it again. As Brookllyn says when she faces down the artificial intelligence who, unknown to almost everyone, has run a secret, technically not illegal but highly unethical cloning experiment inside the hospital:
The most important thing in the universe is not, it turns out, a single, objective truth. It's not a hospital whose ideals you love, that treats all comers. It's not a lover; it's not a job. It's not friends and teammates.
It's not even a child that rarely writes me back, and to be honest I probably earned that. I could have been there for her. I didn't know how to be there for anybody, though. Not even for me.
The most important thing in the universe, it turns out, is a complex of subjective and individual approximations. Of tries and fails. Of ideals, and things we do to try to get close to those ideals.
It's who we are when nobody is looking.
This book has some action sequences, but for the most part it deals with its mystery, those ethical dilemmas, and its characters. Brookllyn, in particular, is stripped down to the core and has to face some unpleasant truths. Her friendships are shaken, and her assumptions and beliefs about her world are turned inside out. This focus on character might make the book seem slow to some, but the setting and the mystery more than made up for it, for me. I hope there's a sequel someday, as I'd love to see what happens to these characters going forward.
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