Spending Time With a Murderbot: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Martha Wells is an author for whom I’ve long had no small amount of respect and admiration. Her first novel, The Element of Fire, remains one of my favourites, as does Wheel of the Infinite, while Death of a Necromancer and her Fall of Île-Rien trilogy made deep impressions. In recent years, her Books of the Raksura have received their share of critical attention and acclaim. So when I heard that Wells was to be publishing at least two novellas with Tor.com Publishing in a new series called The Murderbot Diaries, you can be pretty sure I was interested.

All Systems Red is the first novella of those Murderbot Diaries, and it really doesn’t disappoint.

The narrator and main character of All Systems Red is a part-synthetic, part-organic intelligence, a “SecUnit” rented as part of a corporate package by a survey team. This SecUnit has hacked their protocols so that they are capable of independent thought and action, and refers to theirself as a murderbot—although they haven’t done much murdering, preferring instead to download and consume media like vids, books, plays, and music in order to keep entertained. Murderbot doesn’t like humans very much, and doesn’t enjoy interacting with them (if they were completely human, the reader would suspect them of having a form of social anxiety) but Murderbot has both a personality and a conscience. When things start going wrong—when the local fauna attempt to eat two of the surveyors, when it turns out that parts of the map the team has for the planet are incomplete, and then when a neighbouring survey mission stops responding to communications attempts—Murderbot is pretty unwilling, if at times reluctantly so, to let anything happen to their humans.

It transpires that there’s sabotage and conspiracy afoot. Conspiracy that kills people, and may kill all of Murderbot’s humans if they and the survey team can’t figure out how to stop people who both outnumber and outgun them.

The action-mystery-adventure element to All Systems Red is a lot of fun. Wells has a really tight grasp of tension and pacing, and a truly polished skill with turning a phrase. The language in All Systems Red draws no attention to itself, but Wells has a knack for making even unobtrusive prose slid into a vivid line that brings a whole paragraph to life.

But the real appeal of All Systems Red is the voice. The character of Murderbot, indifferent to and somewhat annoyed by things outside their area of interest, intensely human—and relatable—in their desire for continued existence and autonomy, and in the vaguely baffled, vaguely irritated way they react to the humans’ attempts to socialise with them, and treat them as a person. (The gallows-edge of graveyard humour only adds savour.)

The character of Murderbot is really compelling. (You may notice I am not calling them it. Murderbot isn’t a thing. Murderbot might not be a human, and might not have a name, but Murderbot is definitely a person.) The other characters are interesting, but we see them only through Murderbot’s perceptions—and Murderbot isn’t especially interested in most of them. But Murderbot? Murderbot isn’t interested in being told what they want, or what they ought to want. Murderbot’s determination on self-determination is the thematic and emotional core of this novella.

All Systems Red a really fun piece of science fiction adventure with compelling characters and great pacing. I really enjoyed it.

And I’m really looking forward to seeing what comes next.

All Systems Red is available May 2nd from Tor.com Publishing.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Find her at her blog. Or her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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