Sarcastic sentience, the intricacies of individuality, and the sliding scale of humanity: all are on full display in Martha Wells new novella, All Systems Red (lovingly labeled as the first installment of The Murderbot Diaries). Wells is, of course, best known for her intricate, intelligent, highly imaginative, and genre-redefining works of fantasy (The Books of the Raksura being the most recent, essential entries in her impressive, Nebula Award-nominated bibliography). It’s something special to see her cut loose and dive deep into a world of spaceships, cyborgs, and corporate hostility, all communicated from the dry, awkward, matter-of-fact point-of-view of our resident Murderbot.
A security unit, part organic and part technological, Murderbot is the name this particular unit has chosen for itself (themself?); after hacking its governor module and becoming, essentially a free agent, Murderbot could’ve chosen to become a mass murderer, sure. But then it discovered thousands of hours of downloadable entertainment it could binge-watch to distract itself from the mundanity of servitude to pesky humans, and decided, eh, why not? When not actively imbibing the serial Sanctuary Moon directly into its meat and mechanical mind, Murderbot is responsible for keeping an eye on an lively, diverse group of humans as they survey an unknown planet for scientific research, all of them watched over by the Company, which controls all activity in and out of the star system. But when equipment malfunctions arise and other groups of surveyors begin to drop off the grid, Murderbot, for all its annoyance, frustration, and low-level animosity toward humans, grudgingly steps up to protect them. Because humans may be strange creatures, but these are Murderbot’s humans, and no one in going to kill them on its watch. Unless Murderbot decides to do it. But it won’t. Probably.
Murderbot is one of the most fascinating, original, funny, and bittersweet voices I’ve encountered in fiction in some time. It is clearly a sentient being, and would be classified as a person by most anyone. But Murderbot doesn’t want to fight for agency. Murderbot just wants to be left alone. It doesn’t want its humans running into dangerous and possibly life-threatening situations. It doesn’t want to face off against other SecUnits trying to kill their own humans. And it certainly doesn’t want to have a conversation with any of its humans, let alone ensure they survive the sudden rise in life-threatening peril. In lesser hands, Murderbot could’ve come off sardonic, sarcastic, or even saccharine. But in less than 200 pages, Wells builds it into a complex, complicated conundrum, with a viewpoint that is truly is not human.
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When there are flashes of sarcasm or moments of humor or emotion, they reflect Murderbot’s choices—either put the humans at ease, express empathy, or otherwise reflect on its past, not to appeal to its overseers own humanity. Murderbot is not human, and is perfectly content with that (Commander Data this isn’t). Murderbot, as much as it grows to care for its humans, still finds them confusing, frustrating, and rage-inducing—especially when they interrupt its shows by getting shot at.
This is a novella, and the political conspiracy that drives the plot isn’t fleshed out much beyond a few adrenaline-laced set-pieces, but the story doesn’t stand or fall on the machinations of a corrupt corporation (though they’re certainly fuel for some good gags about the cost-benefit ratio of renting shoddy equipment to your colonists). The story stands on the shoulders of Murderbot; the strength of Murderbot’s voice, and the complex relationships it navigates between its human charges—whose casually diverse roles and relationships continue science fiction’s push into a more optimistic future. This is a vehicle for Murderbot’s self-deprecation, casual violence, mother bear protectiveness, and fierce claiming of its individuality, and it proves Murderbot helps others because it wants to, not because it is forced to. Because if there’s one thing Murderbot dislikes more than humans, it’s being told what to do.