‘”As a heartless killing machine, I was a complete failure.”
In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.
But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.
On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.
But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.
A genuinely fun set of science fiction reads, featuring convincing world building and very capable plotting is elevated by a unique and compelling narrative voice in our favourite SecUnit: dangerous, compassionate, distant, a little obsessive and more than a touch neurodivergent.
What I Liked
- Murderbot – both the concept, the character and the execution
- The world-building of untrustworthy planetary corporate entities
- The way each novella seemed to touch on different genres.
What Could Have Been Different
- I found the world building a little overwhelming – the names of different corporate identities did confuse my little brain
- I wonder whether big-corporation-bad, little-guys-good was not a little obvious…
Whilst in the process of listening to and reading some of the Women’s Prize longlist, these novellas have been a glorious little diversion.
I made a conscious choice this year to read more science fiction because, well, why not? It’s not a genre I have read much of, although I have no reason not to and there were a number of books that had come onto my radar. This series was one of them and people have raved about them. And rightly so.
On the one hand these are great science fiction light reads: a range of planetary and extra-planetary settings; jump gates and transport ships; AI, and robots and drones and constructs. On the one hand all very staple material. Familiar things – done well, absolutely, but familiar even to me, a reader who is not embedded in the genre. We first found ourselves on an unexplored alien planet where a rival excavation has gone silent, and we head off to investigate in a tense science fiction style of thriller; by the second novella, we are almost into detective fiction as we investigate a years-old crime, hushed up by the villainous GrayCris corporation; the third story has us investigating an abandoned space station where something lurks in the darkness, a story that echoed with almost haunted houses; the fourth novella brings us back full circle as we infiltrate a station on the CorporateRim and rescue a character from the first book from the nefarious clutches of GrayCris, a narrative that had echoes almost of a spy narrative, albeit one which becomes full of action rather quickly.
What sets these novellas apart, for me was the narrator: we see events unfolding through the eyes of Murderbot, a rogue Security Unit. A construct made of both inorganic and cloned organic material – as opposed to an augmented human, born but with elective inorganic implants – Murderbot has hacked its own governor unit which kept it obedient through torture and pain and whose life, once hacked, free and independent consisted of … doing what it had been doing all along: being shipped out by the company which owned it as security around the galaxy. And there is something really rather poignant about that – the emancipation of slaves whose lives are in no way changed. Did not the abolition of slavery often lead to the recently freed ex-slaves continuing to work in plantations for a pittance of a wage, conditioned by and economically dependent on their former slave owners? For Murderbot, that is, until it met Dr Mensah in All Systems Red, the first human to treat it as a person, and it has the chance at genuine independence. It is with that independence that it investigates the massacre that it perpetrated itself in Artificial Condition, secures evidence of GrayCris’ illegal alien artifact mining operations in Rogue Protocol and rescued Dr Mensah, its favourite human, in Exit Strategy.
There are aspects of Murderbot that chimed heavily with me, as a father of an autistic child – and in many ways Murderbot felt more neurodivergent as the novellas progressed. A small part of me balked at the equation of autism with a robotic, machine-like processing, for fear that it might play into the autistic-people-can’t-have-emotion trope which, on the surface, it did touch upon. However, as a first person narrator, Murderbot bursts with emotions – compassion for Dr Mensah and her team, and all the humans whom it comes across on its travels; frustration at the tendency of humanity to make bad choices that it has to rescue people from; empathy for and joy in its media and in particular its love for Sanctuary Moon; its anger at the mistreatment it sees around it and a burning thirst for justice.
And I see all of these emotions in my autistic daughter. We may not hop onto interstellar transport ships or fight combat bots, but we share her favourite TV shows (currently Miraculous Lady Bug and Cat Noir!) just as Murderbot and the AI that navigates one of the ships it uses, ART, watch media together; she exhibits high levels of empathy and compassion – perhaps not expressing it in the same way as others, but certainly feeling it. When Dr Mensah and her team, even in tense combat situations, take the time to warn Murderbot that they are going to touch it, or when Dr Mensah worries that Murderbot may not be able to pass in human society – what we might call masking – again I see my own daughter, and the way I would like her to be treated. And there is something deeply empowering when Murderbot announces that it has no wish to become “human” – that to assume everything wants to conform to the baseline of human is incredibly “stupid” – and it just wants to be accepted as itself.
These were thoroughly enjoyable reads – and quick reads too. I felt that the four together felt like a closed circle somehow. I don’t know whether GrayCris continues as the antagonist in future books but I hope not: that arc feels complete, and there are more interesting antagonists, I am sure, that big capitalist corporations, especially on a galactic playground. That said, the Murderbot Diaries feel very personal and the stakes are – yes, life and death – but surprisingly low. Friendship, belonging, identity, freedom… I don’t think I want to see the stage expanded beyond that.
Martha Wells (born September 1, 1964) is an American writer of speculative fiction. She has published a number of fantasy novels, young adult novels, media tie-ins, short stories, and nonfiction essays on fantasy and science fiction subjects. Her novels have been translated into twelve languages. Wells has won four Hugo Awards, two Nebula Awards and three Locus Awards for her science fiction series The Murderbot Diaries. She is also known for her fantasy series Ile-Rien and The Books of the Raksura.
Plot / Pace:
156 pages, All Systems Red
149 pages, Artificial Condition
150 pages, Rogue Protocol
163 pages, Exit Strategy
2 May 2017, All Systems Red
8 May 2018, Artificial Condition
7 August 2018, Rogue Protocol
2 October 2018, Exit Strategy