The Empathetic Murderbot: Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

“…I went from being told what to do and having every action monitored to being able to do whatever I wanted, and somewhere along the way my impulse control went to hell.”

Rogue Protocol is the third Murderbot novella by acclaimed author Martha Wells, following directly on from Artificial Condition. The rogue Security Unit (SecUnit) that calls itself Murderbot and answers to no human authority has answered some questions about its past. Now it has decided to answer some questions about GrayCris, the corporation that nearly killed most of its clients in All Systems Red.

Some spoilers follow.

Murderbot claims not to like humans at all, and to want to spend all its time watching entertainment media—its favourite is The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon—but it worries about Dr. Mensah and her team. Information about GrayCris’s nefarious activities might speed up the legal proceedings that are preventing Mensah and company from returning to their homes in PreservationAux, so Murderbot decides to go get that information. Purely so that it can stop worrying, you understand.

(Murderbot is a very anxious sort of construct. People looking at it is distressing for it. And for all its ability with violence, and its claims that it’s very different to humans, really, no seriously—it’s a very human character. Intensely relatable.)

“I needed to have an emotion in private.”

Murderbot arrives at a distant, barely-inhabited station (after spending several days in transit with humans who—since Murderbot was masquerading as a security consultant—kept looking to Murderbot to solve all their problems), near a terraforming project that GrayCris has abandoned for probably nefarious reasons. A salvage company has acquired the rights to that project, and a small team is about to set out for the terraforming platform. The team includes a bot called Miki, who has never been hurt or lied to by a human, and who refers to the humans on the team as its friends. Murderbot finds its cheerfulness annoying and frustrating—and has other more complicated feelings about Miki’s relationship with its humans—but enlists its help in order to get to the terraforming platform.

It turns out that the terraforming platform is a dangerous place. Although Murderbot is really only there to gather information, when the human salvage team runs into danger in the form of deadly combat bots—apparently roaming the abandoned terraforming platform intent on killing anything that comes in range—Murderbot feels compelled to go to their rescue. (Empathy, it appears, is really inconvenient.) Worse is to come: the salvage team’s human security consultants turn out to be there to kill them, not protect them. It’s up to Murderbot—who’d rather not be responsible for it—to save the day.

Wells’ characterisation is pitch-perfect. Murderbot’s voice is darkly—and frequently not-so-darkly—funny, and Murderbot itself is a deeply appealing character. Other characters, as is appropriate for a writer of Wells’ talents, feel like fully formed individuals with lives and goals of their own, despite how little time the reader spends in their company. The pacing is excellent, tension mounting to an explosive conclusion, and like all of Wells’ work, it has atmosphere in spades.

And thematically, it’s about what it means to be human, and the nature of responsibility.

I really enjoyed this instalment of the adventures of Murderbot. I’m looking forward to Exit Strategy, the next novella, and to the recently-announced forthcoming Murderbot novel. The world needs more Murderbot, because Murderbot is delightful.

Rogue Protocol and the other Murderbot Diaries novellasAll Systems Red, Artificial Condition, and the forthcoming Exit Strategy—are available 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. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was 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, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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