The Murderbot Diaries
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted December 16, 2017
Edits and Addendum August 16, 2019
All Systems Red / Artificial Condition / Rogue Protocol / Exit Strategy
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]. 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, and was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award, given to paperback originals. The other volumes in this series won't be eligible for the PKD since they're coming out in hardcover first.
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, Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy, 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.
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