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Everyone’s favorite killer cyborg returns in Artificial Condition, the sequel to Martha Wells’ Hugo and Nebula award-nominated 2017 novella All Systems Red. The first book introduced us to Murderbot, an artificially intelligent robot (technically a cyborg) who has managed to hack their programming, freeing them from following human commands. The self-granted nickname is ironic to a point; though there was an unfortunate incident in the past that left some humans dead, Murderbot bears no strong animosity toward meat-things, provided we don’t bug them while they are watching their stories). Caught up with their human charges in a life-or-death struggle at a scientific research site on an inhospitable planet, Murderbot managed to solidify their independence (at the cost of revealing their secret to a few humans).
So what does an independent Murderbot want to do? As we have learned, Murderbot’s memories of the events that earned them that name are at best fuzzy, and bear evience of tampering. What really happened? In Artificial Condition, Murderbot decides to find out what really happened when they first went rogue, and so heads off to the planet that is home the mining facility where it all went wrong.
Like the first book, this novella’s chief strength is Murderbot’s narration. Snarky, independent, and keen to be left alone, Murderbot is an AI like no other. Their quest to discover their origins only increases the depth of their character, providing more opportunities to interact with humans amid a fraught existence of autonomy. I am not sure Murderbot’s story isn’t, in the end, a way for Wells to explore the philosophical underpinnings of free will and autonomy, but it is fascinating to see something we generally take for granted explored so explicitly in a character for whom the experience is new, and Murderbot’s inhuman viewpoint is a perfect vehicle to do just that. Wells has also shown skill writing from an alien point-of-view in her celebrated Raksura fantasy novels (nominated for a Best Series Hugo this year), and she has turned it to good effect with her title character here.
Murderbot’s clients are the primary human characters, in parallel to the first novella. Murderbot might rather bingewatch episodes of Sanctuary Moon, but it is a human universe, and to get to where they want to go, humans provide the obvious entree and protective coloration. (Humans: Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.) Murderbot quickly learns to use humans to advance their own agenda, but in so doing, gets wrapped up in their problems again.
This novella’s breakout character is not human, however: it is a research transport vehicle, of all things. Wells realistically shows us the slow-budding, often prickly relationship between Murderbot and another artificial mind, which they come to call ART. Both of them are isolated and individual, learning how to make a functional a relationship with another somewhat similar entity. It’s tricky thing to make both accessible and engaging for a reader and logical from a story standpoint. It worked for me rather well. Wells’ has always excelled in creating character relationships with depth.
This volume (the first of three out in 2018) reveals more of the world, and gives us more of the worldbuilding the first novella only hinted at. We see spaceship travel, visit another planet, and tour settlements and human polities through Murderbot’s eyes. We begin to understand how commerce functions in this universe, and get a more complete picture of how its quasi-corporatocracy functions. This is not a completely corporate run state; in a brief page count, we learn just how complicated the world Wells has built truly is: a cat’s cradle of entities that has caught up Murderbot, their clients, ART, and the various human players. It’s a system natural in its messiness, yet clear in explication. And I love the small bits of pop culture dropped in here and there—I would so watch Worldhoppers if it was a real property. The worlds described in the two novellas to date would slot into a space opera role playing game like Ashen Stars with ease.
Artificial Condition answers key questions about the characters and the world and sets up mysteries to be unpacked in future installments, and how lovely that personal autonomy gives us the freedom to follow Murderbot wherever they go next.