Let’s talk about robots.
Or maybe murderbots.
Martha Wells is an amazing writer, whose work I’ve generally loved since first encountering The Element of Fire. When her novella All Systems Red came out last year from Tor.com Publishing, it was a delight to see Wells turn her considerable talents to original science fiction—space operatic science fiction with a sense of humour and a deep well of kindness. This year will see three sequels published to finish out the series—Artificial Condition is available now, with Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy forthcoming in August and October. I’ve read books two and three, and—not a word of a lie—they’re both really good.
SecUnits are sentient constructs (part machine, part organic, largely human in form and created in part with human tissue) that are owned by companies and used to provide security or protection to humans and/or property as needed. All Systems Red introduced us to one such SecUnit, one that refers to themself as “murderbot”—though never where the humans can hear—and has hacked the governor module that would otherwise control their actions in order to achieve an unusual degree of freedom. But instead of setting out on a murderous spree or anything of the kind, Murderbot’s still doing their job in All Systems Red. Though they’d prefer to spend all their time consuming entertainment and enjoying narrative, instead.
When Artificial Condition starts, they’re on the run, having seized the opportunity to… well, figure out what they actually want from existence, when they’ve never had the chance to really ask that question before. But it turns out that for all their claims about not really liking humans, or enjoying protecting them, Murderbot is really bad at saying no to protecting people who really need it. Which is how, on the way to investigate the massacre in their past which they think (they can’t really remember, they’re not sure, they want to know) may have been the cause of their original hacking of their governor, Murderbot ends up masquerading as a human security consultant and protecting three people who’ve got themselves involved in a dispute over intellectual property rights and money.
(Murderbot’s taste in entertainment is how they make a sort-of-friend in the terrifyingly powerful research transport on which they hitch a lift. Though Murderbot dubs this maybe-friend Asshole Research Transport, or ART for short.)
This tight, tense little story of murder, memory, autonomy and meaning set on a mining outpost is pretty much perfectly entertaining—and it leads right in to Rogue Protocol, a story mostly set on an abandoned terraforming platform. GrayCris Corporation has left a terraforming platform to slide to its destruction, claiming the terraforming process failed. An official salvage team have put in a claim on what remains. Murderbot thinks that GrayCris wasn’t terraforming, but was rather doing something a lot more illegal. Proof of illegal hijinks would certainly distract the media from rumours of a rogue SecUnit wandering around outside human control, so Murderbot stows away to go along.
And ends up trying to protect another group of humans from things that are intended to kill them. GrayCris left the terraforming platform trapped, to make sure that their secrets stay secret. With murderous bots and human assassins, Murderbot has a lot on their hands—while also pretending to be someone they’re not.
Wells brings a strong sense of character to Murderbot. Deeply socially anxious, immensely awkward about talking to Actual People, and constantly insisting that they don’t care (when it becomes obvious that they do), Murderbot is a very human sort of bot—despite their occasionally assertion that they’re not really a person.
Wells’ pacing is sharp, and the world of the Murderbot Diaries is atmospheric and filled with cool shit. And the individuals who appear on the pages of these stories, however briefly, all feel like fully-rounded people. These are delightful books, and I definitely want to find out what happens next.
An earlier version of this article was published in February 2018.
The Murderbot Diaries began with All Systems Red and continues with Artificial Condition, available now. Rogue Protocol publishes August 7th, and the series concludes with Exit Strategy on October 2nd.
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, is out now from Aqueduct Press. 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.