All Systems Red is the first novel in Wells’ Murderbot Diaries, only, at one hundred pages, it isn’t really a novel it’s barely a novella (more on that issue later). The ‘murderbot’ in question is a security unit that is part organic clone, part inorganic android fitted with a ‘governor’ to stop it running amok and murdering everyone in sight. A governor that this particular ‘construct’ has hacked. Except this particular construct is actually a very moral one that is determined to protect its humans – a planetary survey group of scientists – when faced with attack by another similar group.
This is the first Martha Wells book I have read and, though I gather she may be a fairly well respected fantasy author, I’m afraid that, for me, she is only an average SF author. Her writing is moderately smooth and easy to read but the depth of her characters was pretty poor; the only character we really get to know is the construct itself, with the rest of the team feeling pretty indistinguishable, which I suppose should be no great surprise in such a short book. The plot is a fairly straightforward thriller style plot that is unexceptional and has little in the way of unexpected twists. It kept me entertained for a hundred pages put would have struggled had it been any longer.
Sadly though, the biggest problem for me was the construct itself. The story is told in first person from the construct’s point of view which is fine and it did have a certain naïve endearing quality but it was also, to all intents and purposes, an autistic character; it gets embarrassed when ‘humans’ look at it directly or touch it and prefers to remain in is armour with the face plate obscured. At times when the humans show it too much attention or empathy it simply retreats into a corner of the room facing the wall. Presenting an autistic character as the central character in a book is just fine and has been done exceptionally well in some books I have read but this is supposed to be a programmed security unit designed to protect its client humans. It does this admirably well but the combination of this role and its profound autism in the presence on the humans kept jarring with me as utterly implausible for something that has been designed and programmed for a fundamentally aggressive role.
But despite that it was an enjoyable read. However I will not be reading more from this series or indeed from Martha Wells for the simple reason I resent being openly ripped off. Let me explain. As mentioned earlier this book was a hundred pages long on my ereader (which generally matches paperback page counts pretty accurately), though Amazon does claim 150 pages for the paperback edition (they must use big line spacing and even bigger margins to get the count up that high – though possibly they have twenty pages of adverts at the end), so it’s really only just barely a novella. The price for the ebook was £2.22 which, though a little steep for one hundred pages, was acceptable (note I did not realise this when I bought the book resulting in immediate disappointment when I started reading). However this is where the fair pricing starts to go significantly downhill; the paperback edition (remember just one hundred pages) is £9.99 and the hardback £13.20! No matter how I look at that, it would be daylight robbery even if it was from an acclaimed literary genius, which I’m afraid Wells definitely is not. But the worst is yet to come; the next three books so far published are the same short length, have no paperback edition and the ebooks are £7.59 while the hardbacks are £13.36… for one hundred page books! I’m sorry but no matter how good the books are, and this first one is not that good, there is no way I will pay that much for so little. And that, not the content, is why I’m giving this book just 1 star. Note that the fifth book is apparently going to be a full novel length; I wonder how much that will be priced at!
If you have money to throw away then these books are probably worth reading; I do not have that much spare money.