“How humans decide what to do with their arms on a second-by-second basis, I still have no idea.” (Exit Strategy, p 59.)
When I learned that Tor.com Publishing had offered Martha Wells a contract for a novel that will continue the story of Murderbot, I was utterly delighted. Because Murderbot, the protagonist of four novellas in the Murderbot Diaries, of which Exit Strategy is the fourth and latest, is such an enormous amount of fun to read about that for the series to come to an end just yet would be somewhat disappointing. Murderbot—anxious, insecure, and bedevilled by strong emotions which it deeply dislikes experiencing—is an extremely relatable character, a Security Unit (SecUnit) bot/construct that has achieved its independence (illegally) and finds itself somehow still with the impulse to help people (especially people it feels loyalty towards) despite its best efforts.
Murderbot is a delightfully unreliable narrator of its own emotional landscape. (Apart from anxiety and frustration; it’s very reliable about them.) In this respect, it reminds me of Breq from Ann Leckie’s Imperial Raadch books—although Murderbot has a much more down-to-earth, sardonic sense of humour.
“I had been in crowds of humans enough times by now I shouldn’t panic anymore—I had ridden on a transport with a whole crowd of humans who thought I was an augmented human security consultant and talked at me nonstop nearly the whole time. Except there was a little panic.
I should be over this by now.”
In Exit Strategy, Murderbot has just acquired some valuable information on the illegal and, well, dastardly, activities of major corporation GrayCris and has decided to turn that information over to Doctor Mensah (whom you might remember from All Systems Red, the first Murderbot novella), to aid in Mensah and PreservationAux’s lawsuit against GrayCris. Murderbot is on its way to do just that (a journey briefly interrupted by the need to evade a security team that has orders to capture or destroy the “rogue” SecUnit) when it learns that Mensah has left the station where the lawsuit is being litigated. Mensah has, it seems, been kidnapped by GrayCris in order to pressure PreservationAux—a kidnapping spurred by Murderbot’s recent actions. (GrayCris, Murderbot reasons, believe that it is operating under Mensah’s direction.)
Murderbot decides that since GrayCris escalated its corporate response in reaction to Murderbot’s actions, it’s up to Murderbot to rescue Doctor Mensah. Travelling to the space station where Mensah’s being held, it reunites with members of Mensah’s team from All Systems Red and masterminds a plan to get them all safely away. Unfortunately for Murderbot, coming face-to-face once more with the first humans to see it as a person (while knowing that it was a SecUnit) results in many, many inconvenient emotions. Murderbot may have to acknowledge that it just possibly may have friends, and accept what that means for it.
“That she understood even that much made me melt. I hate that this happens, it makes me feel vulnerable… I hadn’t been afraid that she wasn’t my friend, I had been afraid that she was, and what it did to me.” Exit Strategy, p 115.
Murderbot doesn’t really have time to dwell on this possibility, really. There’s a lot going on in pulling off a one-Murderbot rescue/escape plan against a corporation that’s pulled out all the stops to prevent anyone getting away. A couple of climactic battles against overwhelming odds are pretty distracting…
Murderbot novellas are usually a joy to read. Exit Strategy becomes even more of a joy to read in the emotional climax and dénouement, after the shooting is done and Murderbot is putting itself back together and having conversations while the Murderbot equivalent of woozy and concussed. It nearly died. Those were some poor life choices.
“The bad thing about having emotions is, you know, OH SHIT WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO ME.”
Having friends might be stressful, but it turns out that friends are good to have. Murderbot has a little adjusting to do to the idea that people might care about it just as it is. It’ll be interesting to see where Wells goes from here.
This is a fast, fun, and funny novella that, at its heart, is about personhood, independence, and selfhood: about autonomy, trust, and kindness, as well as anxiety, frustration, and anger. At its heart, Exit Strategy is a kind story, and a hopeful one. I deeply enjoyed it. I heartily recommend the entire Murderbot Diaries series. Don’t start with Exit Strategy: start with All Systems Red. But you’ll find that Exit Strategy is worth the build-up.
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 was nominated for a 2018 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.