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Machine (SF) - Elizabeth Bear ****

Elizabeth Bear is one of the best SF writers currently active, and Machine does not disappoint. As Bear makes clear in her acknowledgements, this novel, set in her 'White Space' universe, owes a debt to the Irish author James White's classic Sector General stories, which were a breath of fresh air in the 1960s. Like White's stories, the main setting here is a multi-species space hospital, with the central characters dealing with exotic medical problems. However, what we get in Machine is a lot more than just an exo-hospital drama.

In her White Space universe, Bear has what is surely one of the best successors to Iain M Banks' Culture universe setting, whether it's in the sophisticated culture, the AI-as-people or the quaintly-named ships. Throw in a relic wreck of a generation ship, located where it never should have reached, a host of corpsicles, a strange AI entity and unexpected systems failures and we get a satisfyingly rich and interesting plot.

The ideas come thick and fast, and Bear deploys fun future technology with aplomb. There are enough dangers and setbacks to keep the reader interested, with the usual introduction and consideration of the way that a more civilised future culture might behave.

Looking back at Bear's previous White Space title, Ancestral Night, I commented 'the author's motto of "show don't tell" is ignored and we get long internal monologues - often lasting several pages - which don't move much forward.' This seems to happen even more in Machine, where I did occasionally find it frustrating. There was one example where such musing even happens in the middle of an action sequence where the main character Llyn is running for her life, but still manages to spend several pages mulling things over. Elsewhere, Llyn spends rather too long reflecting on her medical condition. It's by no means disastrous - this is still a truly enjoyable and engaging novel, but the internal monologues could have done with some ruthless trimming.

A good addition to what I hope will be a long-continued universe.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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