An amusing, thoughtful series of novellas
These are a lot of fun. In the first three books in Martha Wells’s Murderbot Diaries — All Systems Red, Artificial Condition and Rogue Protocol — we follow the adventures of a SecUnit who has hacked its governor module and, therefore, mostly autonomous. It’s a wonderful guide to this setting, and in each of these books we are given a little more detail on how the universe is set up and runs. All the while, the SecUnit (who does get a couple of personalized names in the books) struggles with its distaste and dislike of humans, and a stubborn urge to protect them. (They’re just so soft and feckless, after all…)
I don’t want to delve too deeply into the plots, as they are all quite short and it would likely throw out too many spoilers. Nevertheless, it may be helpful to provide at least one synopsis, so here’s the official one for All Systems Red:
“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.
These events kick off a journey of discovery for the Murderbot (a nickname it gave itself after a deadly event pre-All Systems Red), as it tries to carve out a space for itself in a universe that treats bots and SecUnits with disdain, as less-than-human, and yet has become almost completely dependent on them. This disdain is pretty much shared by the Murderbot, though, who oftentimes makes it clear that there is nothing more annoying in the universe than humans…
“The reason why they were trying to kill, maim, etc., each other wasn’t the SecUnit’s problem, it was for the humans’ supervisor to deal with. (Or to willfully ignore until the whole project devolved into a giant clusterfuck and your SecUnit prayed for the sweet relief of a massive accidental explosive decompression, not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.)” [Rogue Protocol]
Murderbot must navigate a series of adventures in which is unwittingly finds itself embroiled — from the investigation in the first novella; to an accidental protection detail as it investigates the events that led itself to bestow that monicker (in Artificial Condition); and then yet another surprise stint protecting a group of sketchy humans while it hunts for evidence to take down a mega-corporation (in Rogue Protocol). All of this when, really, all it wants to do is watch its favourite soap operas.
This brings me nicely on to what makes this series stand out: Murderbot itself, and its interactions with not only the various humans it comes into contact with, but also other bots/artificial intelligences. Easily my favourite was ART, in Artificial Condition. (I really don’t want to spoil who that is, because part of the joy of that character comes from learning about it as you read.) And Miki… poor, dear Miki, in the third book.
Murderbot itself is an interesting character, and especially the interplay between its ambivalence towards humans, and its persistent, frustrating desire to protect them from themselves. All of this, and Murderbot also suffers from an anxiety disorder…
“So, I’m awkward with actual humans. It’s not paranoia about my hacked governor module, and it’s not them; it’s me. I know I’m a horrifying murderbot, and they know it, and it makes both of us nervous, which makes me even more nervous. Also, if I’m not in the armor then it’s because I’m wounded and one of my organic parts may fall off and plop on the floor at any moment and no one wants to see that.” [All Systems Red]
This anxiety, combined with Murderbot’s dislike of humans and their mores makes for plenty of awkward, oft-amusing moments, whether the humans in question are hostile towards our protagonist (at which point, it frequently ponders how stupid they are when bitching out an android specifically designed to put them down); or when they are are more progressive, and believe that androids deserve certain freedoms and shouldn’t be treated as non-humans (at which point, Murderbot attempts to avoid all instances in which it will be encouraged to talk about its feelings).
Wells’s writing is fantastic, and the author keeps the story moving along at a pleasant clip — i.e., not too rushed, but nor does she get bogged down with info-dumping, etc. The books are filled with amusing asides, observations and turns of phrase (“After a subjective half hour and an objective 3.4 seconds”). For example:
“Young humans can be impulsive. The trick is keeping them around long enough to become old humans. This is what my crew tells me and my own observations seem to confirm it.” [Artificial Condition]
There’s a strong temptation to quote liberally from these three novellas, but I will resist. Needless to say, if you’re looking for a lighter science fiction adventure series, one that you can read relatively quickly, then the Murderbot Diaries should suit perfectly. Each book is interesting in itself, and I like the way a bigger picture is being unveiled over the course of the series. The humour is just right, as is the action, and neither overwhelm the conversation the books seem to be having with the reader — the classic one about A.I.s and their sense of self. Only, this time, the perspective is from that of an android. With issues.
Very highly recommended. I really enjoyed these, and can’t wait to read the final book!
Martha Wells’s Murderbot Diaries series is published by Tor.com, in North America and in the UK. Rogue Protocol is due to be published on August 7th; the fourth book, Exit Strategy is due out on October 2nd.