Lemming of Discord
- Jun 4, 2006
The Murderbot Diaries #1: All Systems Red by Martha Wells
An unstoppable killing android has decided it doesn't really want to do all that murdering any more and has decided to strike out on its own, with a mission to stay low and watch as much TV as possible. But the self-styled "Murderbot" is drawn into a survey mission on a planet that goes wrong, and discovers that keeping its identity a secret is going to be very difficult.
Martha Wells's Murderbot Diaries has become one of the most-praised science fiction series of the last few years, winning multiple Nebula and Hugo Awards between the five novellas and single novel that make up the series so far (three more books are projected). Its central protagonist is an AI that has broken free of the restraints on its programming and become fully sentient, but rather than do anything philosophical with this freedom has become an addict of TV shows, whilst doing security missions it finds deeply tedious.
Murderbot is sarcastic but socially awkward, intelligent but not always understanding of human motivations or emotions, which makes for a lot of good moments of mixed messaging and musings on humanity. Nothing new in science fiction, but here done with a wryness that is rare and a lightness of touch that is enviable. All Systems Red takes advantage of its novella status to keep up a brisk, relentless pace whilst also layering in some nice character work, both of Murderbot and the humans it ends up awkwardly allying with, and the story is intriguing enough in its twists to remain interesting throughout.
There are also some very nice thematic parallels here - Murderbot trying to cover up its true identity and awkwardly being "outed" against its will and dealing with people's varying reactions works as a metaphor for lots of ideas - which make the story more interesting and deeper than its brevity would imply.
There aren't many negatives: the brevity of the story will be frustrating for some, and it feels like it ends just as it gets going, but then it is a novella, that comes with the territory. Harder-up readers may also feel disappointed that there still isn't an omnibus or collection making the stories available in a more economic format: paying full novel prices for 150 pages, no matter how solid, is a big ask in challenging times. Hopefully that changes in the future.
Otherwise, All Systems Red (****) is a fine, focused story featuring sharp characterisation, enjoyable action and some genuine laughs. It is available now in the US, and on import in most other territories.
The original 2017 novella is followed by Artifical Condition (2018), Rogue Protocol (2018), Exit Strategy (2018), Network Effect (2020) and Fugitive Telemetry (2021).