A Tunnel in the Sky

Like templetongate.net on Facebook  Follow @templetongate on Twitter
 
 
  -Home
-Archives
 
 
  -Literature
-Films
-Television
-Comics
-Non-SF
 
 
  -About
-Dossiers
-Links
-Forums
-Contact
-Site Search
 
 
 
 

The Murderbot Diaries
by Martha Wells

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted December 16, 2017
With multiple edits and addenda

All Systems Red / Artificial Condition / Rogue Protocol / Exit Strategy / Network Effect / Fugitive Telemetry

Buy from Bookshop or Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.

Another Tor.com novella, Martha Wells' All Systems Red is the first in a series with the collective title of The Murderbot Diaries. It is set in a far-future, corporate-controlled society, in which the "Company" authorizes various businesses to contract for scientific exploration or mining operations on newly discovered worlds. Advanced robotics are used in all levels of work, with each expedition assigned a SecUnit (Sec for 'Security') per a set number of humans. Some humans, referred to as augmented, are also enhanced with various bio-tech and/or electronic implants. The 'Diaries' part of the title is because the story is a first-person narrative from one of the SecUnits. It refers to itself as a 'Murderbot,' although it's not clear if it's using the phrase ironically or sincerely, because the first paragraph ends with, "As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure."

The SecUnits are not completely robotic, not sure if they should be considered cyborgs or androids, but in this world they are referred to as constructs. Parts of their bodies are organic, but it's not clear if those are artifically grown, cloned from humans, or maybe direct implants of human tissue. Apparently, without its armor and helmet, a SecUnit has human features, but Murderbot prefers not to reveal itself that way since it does not want its human co-workers to think of it in human terms. Murderbot also does not want them to find out it has hacked its governor module and is capable of independent thought and action. It did kill several humans on a previous assignment (at least it thinks it did), but was reconditioned and put back into service. It thinks that action was due to a fault in its governor module, so it hopes to maintain its free will while still performing all of its normal functions. Almost any first-person narrative has the pitfall of the unreliable narrator, and in this case I'm not sure we can believe Murderbot's continued pronouncements that it does not care for the humans it works with. Its reactions probably shouldn't be considered emotional, but rather just practical evaluations necessary to complete its tasks, but it's apparent it does think of some of the humans in more positive ways.

At times it seems Murderbot has developed more human thoughts and emotions, even a sense of humor, or else it is merely incorporating some behavioral differences from sources other than its initial programming. Its current assignment is guarding a survey team on an unnamed planet, but it's bored with the work and would rather just stay in its cubicle and watch entertainment programs, its favorite being a serial called Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon. The routine is shattered by an unexpected attack by a large, unknown predator, and in trying to rescue and calm two of the humans, Murderbot reveals its human face to them. After that, it has to contend with the humans' tendency to think of it as a fellow human. I won't detail the rest of the plot, except to say there is another expedition on the other side of the planet, and both are being sabotaged by an unknown third group. A bit of the motive for that is revealed, but I'm not sure we'll get a resolution to it, even though there will be at least two more stories in the sequence [EDIT: Now at least three more—Wait…now four five.]. By the end of this one, Murderbot has been purchased by the leader of the expedition, whom it acknowledges is its favorite human, but then it leaves her and, disguised as an augmented human, escapes the orbital station on a robotic transport ship. I gather it intends to investigate the reasons for the malfunction of its governor module, and it is possible that might circle back around to the criminal group in this story.

Update: All Systems Red won Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, was a finalist for a Prometheus, and the Philip K. Dick Award. The latter is given to paperback originals, but the other volumes in this series won't be eligible for the PKD since they're coming out in hardcover first.

.

Buy from Bookshop or Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.

Posted August 16, 2019
Artificial Condition won this year's Locus Award for Best Novella, was a finalist for the Nebula, and is up for a Hugo, winners of which will be announced two days from now. [UPDATE: It won the Hugo] At the end of the previous story, Murderbot left his new owner and was able to gain passage on a robotic transport ship, in part by offering the ship's bot-pilot access to its vast storage of entertainment media. It is enroute to the mining planet RaviHyral, which it believes is the scene of its previous murderous rampage. On one leg of the journey, Murderbot encounters a much more advanced robotic pilot, which it at first thinks is trying to exert control, but later allows to alter its appearance so it can more easily pass as an augmented human. Giving up some of its autonomy doesn't alter Murderbot's resentment of the intrusion, and it dubs the bot ART, for Asshole Research Transport.

Wearing nondescript clothing that covers its most obvious construct modifications, Murderbot seeks a way to get to the planet's surface. It takes a job as security consultant to three humans who want to retrieve their research data from the mining company that fired them. Murderbot knows the meeting they have arranged is a set-up, but thinks it can protect them, and it is a way to reach the area it believes was the scene of its malfunction. Lots of back and forth action; sabotage of a shuttle, which ART is able to land safely using Murderbot as a conduit to its piloting system; other meetings with the head of Tlacey Excavations, or representatives of the same; at least two other kidnapping/murder attempts. Murderbot thinks its clients are off the planet safely, so it infiltrates a mining shaft, maps of which have suspiciously been deleted from the feed. Evidence (although not conclusive) is discovered, and on return to the main port hub, Murderbot once again has to protect one of its clients who had remained behind.

So, pieces of the puzzle discovered, and Murderbot again defies how it has described itself. It may not care for humanity in general, but it does have a moral code of its own, feels an obligation to protect its clients, perhaps even develops a fondness for certain individuals. One might even say it is empathetic, no matter how defiantly Murderbot would deny that accusation. It knows that reality can't be as predictable as its favorite stories, but still can't help hoping that it will be. It meets good people, even though some are gullible and irresponsible, and it also meets evil people. It knows which side it is on. Since this title received major award nominations, Tor dropped the e-book price, so I snagged it quickly. Not so for the other two novellas that were also published last year, still a bit high for novellas in my opinion. There is also a novel projected for publication sometime in 2020. I do want to continue this series, but since my book budget is shrinking, I need to go back to being a regular library patron, especially if my local branch offers e-book downloads. Stay tuned for the further adventures of Murderbot.

.

Buy from Bookshop or Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.

Posted January 21, 2020
I got hardcover copies of Rogue Protocol (finalist for a Locus award) and the next title from the library. I'm still enjoying this series and will want to re-read, so I'd like to own them all eventually, either all on Kindle, or maybe all in print if I can find good used copies down the road. Murderbot continues its quest for answers to its own previous malfunction, as well as investigating GrayCris, the company it identified as the aggressor in the first book's action. In the previous book it had stowed away on an unmanned cargo vessel, but now is forced to travel on a mixed ship, crew and passengers as well as cargo. It would prefer to stay isolated, content to watch and re-watch its favorite shows, but finds it difficult to avoid contact with some of the human passengers. That proves to have both a positive and negative effect. It knows it needs to get better at interaction with humans, to learn how to blend in and disguise the fact it is a construct, but its moral code also creates dilemmas. It has to leave that ship knowing it was not able to help the people who were on their way to fulfill a work contract, which it knows is essentially slave labor. Why should it care? Why indeed.

News reports lead Murderbot to suspect GrayCris was involved in other nefarious activities on another planet, but that has been abandoned with its terraforming station decommissioned and to be destroyed soon. It becomes involved with another group tasked with verifying the station is completely abandoned, or if maybe some personnel or equipment is still there. What they find is unexpected, and Murderbot once again has to protect the humans when it would much rather concentrate on its own interests. But also once again, its actions seem to contradict its stated feelings towards humans, its continued struggle with what it fears are emotional attachments. It is able to get off the station, as well as preventing the station's destruction, so the terraforming project might be resumed at a later date. But GrayCris is still implicated in major crimes, so Murderbot vows to continue unraveling the clues.

.

Buy from Bookshop or Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.

Posted January 21, 2020
The fourth novella in the series is Exit Strategy, which was a finalist for a BSFA award. It picks up almost immediately following the previous book's action. GrayCris is well aware of Murderbot's pursuit, and they prepare to capture it when it returns to the transit station it last departed. But Murderbot can do many things ordinary SecUnits cannot, or at least is much more efficient, but it also helps that it is not controlled by its governor module. These tasks include infiltrating the feeds of ships, bot-pilots, and station security. It can control cameras and drones, airlocks and tube transports, as well as wiping the logs to hide its activities. Thus it learns of security actions before the fact, and can plan how to counteract or avoid them. It has to get off its current ship without detection, then gain passage on another ship, since it has learned through news feeds that its former owner, the human who purchased it at the end of the first story, has disappeared, and it suspects GrayCris is involved, quite possibly holding her hostage in order to draw it out of hiding. They know Murderbot has found evidence that will incriminate them, and it seems nothing will stop them from squashing that evidence. Nothing, except Murderbot that is.

In addition to the speculations regarding robotics and artificial intelligence, whether a non-human entity can have emotions and a moral compass, there's also a lot of action. Murderbot has to fight or out-maneuver superior forces, at the same time making sure no harm, or the least harm, comes to its clients or other innocents. It plans ahead, but still has to alter those plans as situations develop. Its claims of just doing a job disregards the fact it has created the job itself, its pursuit of truth and justice belies its denial of caring about humans. If Murderbot was truthful, which it isn't always, another way it is different from other contructs, it would say its greatest fear is allowing human emotions to affect its judgement. It's possible that will be its greatest strength, rather than its weakness. We shall see, since its owner now wants to set it free and legislate for autonomy for constructs and other robotic AIs.

The main plot points are concluded in this book, but that doesn't mean Murderbot's adventures have to end. Each of these four titles have been novellas, but I wish they had been combined into a novel, or at most two, which might have eliminated a lot of repetitive exposition. Next up is what I've heard will be a stand-alone novel. I'm very much looking forward to it.

.

Buy from Bookshop or Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.

Posted April 14, 2020
Network Effect will be published in three weeks, May 5, but I received an advance e-book from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. It's a novel, whereas all the previous parts of the story have been novellas. I had assumed that meant it was going to be the conclusion of Murderbot's story, but that doesn't seem to be the case, or at least it doesn't have to be. In the end, Murderbot is invited to participate in other contract jobs, and it appears it will accept that invitation, so we'll just have to wait and see. That would mean many more adventures, but what intrigues me most is the developing relationship between Murderbot and its former owner, Dr. Mensah, which would be one of friendship, not romance. Murderbot doesn't do romance.

At it's heart, this story is a mystery, a puzzle concerning multiple government or corporate entities vying for control of a colony world originally settled, then apparently abandoned, prior to Corporate Rim history, along with the possibility of alien remnant contamination on said world. In a typical mystery you have a potential client approach a detective to investigate a situation. In this case the detective is Murderbot, and the potential client is ART. Remember Asshole Research Transport from the second story? And instead of ART revealing details of the case, the transport ship it controls attacks the ship Murderbot is on, kidnapping it and one of its human clients, Dr. Mensah's daughter. Then again, ART doesn't actually seem to be in control, maybe it's dead, and the ship is controlled by unidentified humans(?) who had previously captured humans from yet another ship. Where those attackers came from and what their intentions and goals are, and the motives of the other captives, forms the bulk of the mystery, but I still have some lingering questions about some of the events. I'll admit I've had trouble concentrating lately, multiple times having to backtrack and re-read sections due to a daydreaming mind. It's possible I didn't backtrack enough times, or far enough, and missed several clues that would answer some of those questions. Maybe when I re-read this series I'll be able to keep everything straight.

ART is able to be restored, but it's possible it still has some of the alien remnant code that controlled it, and so might Murderbot. It's a fast-paced, action-filled narrative, from several perspectives. The primary narration is from Murderbot, and a couple interstitial chapters points to the complete narration being part of its therapy sessions, so some time in the future. It is possible it entered therapy at the request of Dr. Mensah, who was in therapy herself, recommended by Murderbot, due to the residual PTSD from her abduction and near death. But we also get the perspective of a copy of Murderbot, dubbed 2.0, a killware code sent to another ship to disable it, and 2.0 provides one of the SecUnits on that ship files of Murderbot's history, as well as the means to override its governor module. After that, we get a few short chapters from SecUnit 3's perspective, as it aids in the rescue of Murderbot 1.0 from the planet's surface.

Since the four novellas completed the original story arc, I had debated whether to create a new page for this book, and it's possible I may do that in the future. However many more there might be, each successive story will be more stand-alone, but there will be a continuing storyline of Murderbot either becoming more human, or possibly aligning with other freed SecUnits to form a new segment of society. That would have to happen within Preservation space territory, where Dr. Mensah lives, outside of the Corporate Rim, or they might be able to colonize their own world, to assert autonomy over their fate. The sub-URLs for the different sections of this review hints at that: Murderbot-Artificial-Rogue-Exit-Network.

The only thing that has disappointed me about these stories is the repetition, mainly Murderbot's continued assertions it doesn't care for humans, when nearly everything it does contradicts that. It may wish it could do nothing but binge watch its favorite shows, no matter how unrealistic they are in relation to how humans actually act. Perhaps it will eventually realize that the study of real people can be more rewarding. I'd like to think that's where its story will lead, but even if it's not, I'll want to continue the journey. And one of these days I'd like to be able to binge watch a Murderbot show, or at least Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon.

UPDATE: Network Effect is a finalist for the 2020 Nebula Award for Best Novel.

.

Buy from Bookshop or Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.

Posted May 31, 2021
Once again I was fortunate to receive an advance e-book of this title from Edelweiss. Fugitive Telemetry will be published in a bit less than a month, April 27. I'm actually surprised e-ARCs were offered since this has been a very popular series that doesn't need the extra exposure, although professional reviewers would still be getting early copies. We're back to novella length this time, but there is still plenty of story here to satisfy any Hard-SF fan. Not so much action, although there is some, but a complex mystery which taxes Murderbot's considerable talents. It is set on Preservation Station, which orbits the planet Dr. Mensah and her family call home. I again have to reduce my rating for this book solely on the repetitive nature of Murderbot's exposition, which is getting a little stale. I would have also liked more interaction between Murderbot and Mensah. Their relationship is unique and deserves more exploration, but there may be another one developing.

Murderbot is confronted with another mystery when a body is discovered on the station, which is a very infrequent occurrence. It takes a while to ID the victim, but everything before that pointed toward them being a transient visitor to the station. There is still a lot of fear and anxiety from most humans towards Murderbot, because it had been in the news several times identified as a rogue SecUnit, and also because SecUnits are typically cast as villains in popular entertainments. In one scene it should have been obvious Murderbot was helping people who had been kidnapped, but one of them still shot it when they realized it was a SecUnit. It's a good thing it can withstand most weapon attacks, and that it is easily repaired, or parts replaced. The title does not refer to Murderbot, the fugitives are the ones it is trying to help. That other potential relationship I mentioned above would be between Murderbot and Indrah, the head of Station Security. She is initially wary of Murderbot, both anxious and suspicious of its motives, but by the end of the adventure seems to be willing to trust it. I have no idea how many more stories Wells might write, but I will want to read them, even through the repetitive exposition. Recommended.

 

We would appreciate your support for this site with your purchases from Amazon, Bookshop, and ReAnimusPress.





 
 
 
 

Author
Martha Wells

Published
2017, 2018

Awards
See review for details

Bookshop Links
All Systems Red
Artificial Condition
Rogue Protocol
Exit Strategy
Network Effect
Fugitive Telemetry

Amazon Links:
All Systems Red
Artificial Condition
Rogue Protocol
Exit Strategy
Network Effect
Fugitive Telemetry

A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.