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  • Writer's pictureMandy McHugh

Machine, Elizabeth Bear: A Review

Most of my queue has been thriller and horror lately, but I was really in the mood for a space read, so I was thrilled to be approved for Machine by Elizabeth Bear. With an eerie cover and even spookier blurb, I couldn't wait to dive in.

Dr. Jens and an experienced team are tasked with a recovery mission when a distress call is sent from an archaic Terran ship. Once on board, however, she finds a primitive shipmind AI named Helen, a crew suffering from a mysterious illness, and a Frankenstein-ed meme entity Helen calls the Machine. On a separate ship that initially investigated, they find much the same, except an added, unknown machine. As she dives into recovery, Dr. Jens learns that nothing about this assignment is as it seems. I liked this book. Dr. Jens is an interesting, complex, extremely-well developed character. We learn intimate details about her upbringing, her experience, her family, and fears. In a way, we're given the same access the shipminds are given, and I really enjoyed that aspect. Her steadfast love of her career provided honest insight into a world where she felt at odds with stereotypical maternal goals, and I especially appreciated the moments we got her reflection on motherhood. The difference between harboring guilt and knowing you're not doing a good job being a mother to your child, but rather utilizing the set of skills where you excel--this brought another level of relatability to her I think many readers will enjoy. The plot, too, is super interesting and taut with a wonderful blend of terror, dread, and intrigue. Bear doesn't skimp on the world building. Her descriptions are vivid and involved. Here is where my attention faltered a bit. I love when world-building is concise and elaborate, but I felt some of the narrative ran tangential. Dr. Jens gets distracted and tells stories about the past in a non-linear way, interweaving current events with historical moments, cultural facts, or personal thoughts. Yes, this is how people converse for the most part, but the tangents sometimes spanned pages, and because of that, the read was pretty dense. I think a reader more prone to intricacies will love this, but as a matter of personal preference, I would've liked if the details had been pared down or integrated more. Overall, Machine is an intriguing story with elaborate world building, nuanced characters, and existential terror you'll feel in your bones. Big thanks to Gallery/Saga and NetGalley for providing an eARC in exchange for honest review consideration.


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