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The Murderbot Diaries

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted December 16, 2017
Edits and Addenda on August 16, 2019 & January 21, 2020

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

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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, 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.

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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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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 is 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.

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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, particularly 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 read will be a stand-alone novel. Network Effect comes out March 24, 2020. I have an advance e-book from Edelweiss, which I hope to review about a month ahead of that. Stay tuned.

 

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Author
Martha Wells

Published
2017, 2018

Awards
See review for details

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

A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.