Fresh FIction Box Not To Miss

Elizabeth Bear | Q&A: MACHINE

October 29, 2020

What are you currently reading, watching, listening to?

Well, along with the rest of the world, I just rediscovered Fleetwood Mac and I’ve been listening to their live album rather a lot. On audiobook, I just finished Jeff Guinn’s THE LAST GUNFIGHT, which is a pretty clear-eyed look at The Matter of Tombstone, often referred to as “The gunfight at the OK Corral,” but really a two-year trainwreck of patronage, black market cattle operations, and opportunism. I’m reading C.L.Polk’s THE MIDNIGHT BARGAIN, which is just as enjoyable as I expect, and Carlos Hernandez’s SAL AND GABI BREAK THE UNIVERSE, a very fun romp. (I totally read kid’s books and I think every writer should. Kids don’t have patience for a lot of nonsense.)

My spouse and I have been watching LOVECRAFT COUNTRY, which just finished as I write this, and catching up on SCOOBY DOO: MYSTERY INCORPORATED. I am incredibly impressed by LOVECRAFT COUNTRY in general, though I did feel the ending was rushed and missed several opportunities for character development in preference for gotcha moments. They could have used a 90 minute finale.

And of course we’re watching the current season of THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF, because we live in the world.

Are you still quarantining in your state? What have you been doing other than writing? Have you picked up any new hobbies?

We’re not strictly quarantining but we are social distancing pretty hard. I live in Massachusetts, about two hours west of Boston (way out in the real Lovecraft Country, as it were–we’re close to a town named Whately, for crying out loud)–and we just last week went to an actual grocery store for the first time since early March. It was kind of a trip to select my own produce. 

(We’ve got a pretty good farm share/farm store system out here in the hinterlands and we’ve mostly been living off that and occasional grocery deliveries. Support local agriculture! It’s still there when the supply system breaks down!)   

I actually had a period of about two months where I just couldn’t write. My brain kind of locked up and I spent a bunch of time watching documentaries about historical farming in Britain on YouTube and checking in with distant friends. I’m back at it now, though, which is good because I am way overdue on the book I was supposed to hand in in June.

Me and everybody else, it seems!

I’ve always worked from home, so that’s not too different for me. I am a hobby cook and a terrible guitarist, and we have an Icelandic horse named Ormr; I’ve been taking riding lessons on him and on his best friend, Magni, another Icelandic horse who belongs to our neighbors. (This is both fun and research for another Karen Memory book I hope to finish after I get the thing that is under contract done.)

What’s been the biggest challenge–and most surprising reward–for you during the pandemic?

We missed a lot of travel this year. We were supposed to go to Japan and New Zealand for conventions, and obviously that didn’t happen. It would have been my first time leaving the Northwestern Hemidemisphere! That’s sad, and Scott’s (my spouse) family is mostly in the Minneapolis area, which is scary right now with the coronavirus surge. We also haven’t been able to get out to see them as much as we’d like. We also went months without seeing my mom and her partner, which was hard on everybody, but we’ve figured out safe protocols for that now and are managing it every couple of weeks.

The hardest thing is, I think, the same for most of us. Stress management, not doomscrolling, helping to support friends and loved ones in their attempts not to have a breakdown over The Everything, as my Mom calls it.

We also had to cancel Viable Paradise, the workshop that Scott and I teach at regularly, and that’s been hugely sad for everybody–not the least students who might have only been able to make it this year due to life circumstances. It was supposed to be last week, and there were a lot of feels, as the kids in the internets say. Or used to say, I think that one is over now.

The surprising reward has been being home through every season. We live in an utterly beautiful part of the world in a quiet New England farmland kind of way, and I think this is the first time I’ve been home through all of the blooming season and all the fall colors since. . . h, probably 2009. We’ve gotten some deferred maintenance done too–had an arborist out to take care of the trees and so on. We have some gorgeous old maples and spruces and an ash. . . and we want to keep them both healthy and not, you know, over the roof!

In normal circumstances, I would hope that living quietly at home would make me super productive. Alas, there are distractions. 

I comfort myself regularly that even Agatha Christie slowed down for a war. Although that might have been paper shortages.

Machine features an instance of AI decision-making gone wrong–what inspired you to include this in the story, and what research did you do on AI for the book? Have you had any of your own botched AI experiences?

This is actually my second recent story where AIs make some. . . well, typically problematic decisions. The previous one, “Okay, Glory,” involved a guy whose smart house gets taken over by ransomware in order to kidnap him. The thing with modern-day AIs is that they tend to come up with very expedient decisions based on inputs and desired outcomes, and well. . . sometimes this involves things like flipping a robot end over end to navigate it across terrain, for example. I’m assuming future AIs in this book who are sentient and sapient, who have ethics and so forth… but of course their ethics are only as good as their programming. And their programming is only as good as the foresight of their engineers. 

Which can lead to catastrophe. 

I’ve been interested in A-Life and artificial intelligence for years. I came into science fiction as a writer when people were making pronouncements like “Any science fiction book that does not take The Singularity into account cannot be taken seriously!” and well, it’s nearly 20 years later and we haven’t all been uploaded yet. (Unless this is an extraordinarily unpleasant simulation.) But it certainly did lead me into researching AI!

As for research. . .  part of being a science fiction writer–any kind of writer, I think–is soaking up every bit of information that comes your way. In particular I’ve read an awful lot of Scientific American and Discover, and I owe a particular debt in this regard to the work of Janelle Shane, who is somewhat notorious around the internet for being the person who blogs lists of AI-generated names for ice cream flavors and so forth.

Dr Jens is a great protagonist because she’s sometimes…not-so-great. Why do you think it’s important to have female protagonists like Dr Jens, who aren’t just heroes, but who are also complicated and imperfect people? 

Well, because women are complicated and imperfect people! But because of the overwhelming misogyny in our society, men’s faults are seen as humanizing, while anything about a woman that deviates from the absolute “highest” standard is seen as unacceptable. Barack Obama sneaks a cigarette once in a while and it’s seen by many as an endearing little character flaw; Michelle Obama can’t catch a break about anything from her exercise schedule to her healthy diet initiatives. I mean seriously, this is a woman who caught flack for saying schools should provide kids with vegetables and fruit. That’s amazing to me.

There’s a tendency in fiction for any female character who isn’t both idealized and a little bit submissive to be seen as “too mouthy,” “not likeable enough,” “not relatable.” Well, as Laurel Ulrich wrote, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” And I reserve the right to make my female characters complicated, difficult, and as real as I can manage, because I think it’s better art than I could achieve by reflecting some impossible stereotype of SuperMom, and also because, well, women deserve to be seen as people even if they aren’t perfect.

Jens is grumpy and forthright and a terrible parent and a little bit avoidant about jobs she hates and anything to do with emotions–and also has incredible physical courage and a really solid devotion to saving lives. I think she’s admirable as hell, and I think it’s okay that she’s difficult! The idea that women should never be difficult leads to a lot of real women getting their rights and boundaries trampled on a daily basis.

Thanks so much for the interview. These were great questions.

MACHINE by Elizabeth Bear

A White Space Novel


In this compelling and addictive novel set in the same universe as the critically acclaimed White Space series and perfect for fans of Karen Traviss and Ada Hoffman, a space station begins to unravel when a routine search and rescue mission returns after going dangerously awry.

Meet Doctor Jens.

She hasn’t had a decent cup of coffee in fifteen years. Her workday begins when she jumps out of perfectly good space ships and continues with developing treatments for sick alien species she’s never seen before. She loves her life. Even without the coffee.

But Dr. Jens is about to discover an astonishing mystery: two ships, one ancient and one new, locked in a deadly embrace. The crew is suffering from an unknown ailment and the shipmind is trapped in an inadequate body, much of her memory pared away.

Unfortunately, Dr. Jens can’t resist a mystery and she begins doing some digging. She has no idea that she’s about to discover horrifying and life-changing truths.

Science Fiction Space Opera [Gallery / Saga Press, On Sale: October 6, 2020, Hardcover / e-Book, ISBN: 9781534403017 / ]

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About Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year.

She is the Hugo, Sturgeon, Locus, and Cambell Award winning author of dozens of novels; over a hundred short stores; and a number of essays, nonfiction, and opinion pieces for markets as diverse as Popular Mechanics and The Washington Post.

Elizabeth is a frequent contributor to the Center for Science and the Imagination at ASU, and has spoken on futurism at Google, MIT, DARPA’s 100 Year Starship Project, and the White House, among others.

She lives in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts with her spouse, writer Scott Lynch.

Some recent essays are available on

Photo Credit: Kyle Cassidy

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