Artificial Condition is the second of Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries, after last year’s All Systems Red. It could be subtitled “Murderbot makes a friend, finds it harder to pretend not to be a person, and discovers some truths about their past,” but that’s a really long subtitle, so it’s probably just as well it isn’t.
Murderbot has left its former clients (and possible friends, if Murderbot admitted to having human friends) in the PreservationAux crew in order to figure out what it wants from life. What it wants, it’s decided, is to figure out if it’s actually responsible for a massacre in its past: the massacre after which it hacked its governor module to make sure it would in the future at least have a choice. That means travelling to where the massacre occurred to find out what information remains—and to see if it can jog its organic memory, which cannot be wiped like its hardware.
You can divide Artificial Condition into two parts. In the first part, Murderbot tries to hitch a ride on a transport and finds that the transport is operated by an enormously powerful research AI: one that’s sarcastic and interested in helping Murderbot with its problems because the AI—“ART,” as Murderbot calls it, short for “Asshole Research Transport”—is really bored. Murderbot learns to trust ART over shared enjoyment of entertainment media, for it turns out that ART gets really upset when minor characters die and cannot bring itself to watch shows based on true stories where human crewmembers are injured. So when ART offers to perform a set of medical procedures that will help Murderbot pass as an augmented human—and not be fingered as a rogue SecUnit as soon as it encounters anyone who’s worked with a SecUnit before—Murderbot, after spending a little while emotionally torn, agrees.
In the second part of Artificial Condition, Murderbot—now awkwardly posing as a human security consultant—accepts a job offer that takes it closer to its goal. Three young persons (I can’t help thinking of them as grad students) hire Murderbot to keep them alive while they negotiate with the shady figure who’s confiscated their data. Fortunately for Murderbot, ART is still around to help, because the first attempt on their lives is killware on a public shuttle.
Murderbot’s not used to being able to give advice or put its foot down about stupid ideas, so keeping the three young people alive is a little more complicated (and guilt-inducing) than might otherwise be the case. In between protecting them from the consequences of their naivety, Murderbot returns to the site of the massacre. It finds no great revelation there, but evidence suggests that it was not inexplicably murderous.
Martha Wells can always be relied upon for atmospheric novels with great voice and precise, gorgeously descriptive turns of phrase. In the Murderbot Diaries, Wells’ enormous talent for voice and atmosphere has full reign in a space opera setting—and her deft facility with characterisation makes Murderbot an incredibly appealing character. Self-conscious, awkward, and self-contradictory: we can all recognise ourselves in Murderbot’s struggles with acting like a person.
I deeply enjoyed this novella. I hope Wells writes many more.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It’s a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and is nominated for a Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.