“Yes, talk to Murderbot about its feelings. The idea was so painful I dropped to 97 percent efficiency.”
Short and punchy but thought-provoking, All Systems Red the first novella in the Murderbot Diaries series by Martha Wells, featuring the titular Murderbot as the protagonist. It’s a mystery-adventure set in deep space, with cool tech and a complex, interesting world. Also, much to my enjoyment, it explored ideas I love to see in scifi: what it means to be “human,” and how technology impacts society.
The point-of-view character and protagonist, a corporation-owned security robot, gave itself its name after the company’s cheap parts led to a hardware malfunction and, ultimately, a murderous rampage on the part of Murderbot. Not wanting to be subjected to catastrophic parts failures again, it hacked its own Governor Module and gave itself free will. What does Murderbot want to do now that it doesn’t explicitly have to obey company and client orders? Well, what a whole lot of space soap operas and download massive amounts of data from entertainment feeds, that’s what:
I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,00 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.
(Not the murder part, but like…I feel you, Murderbot. Sometimes a sentient being just wants to be left alone and devour some entertainment, y’know?)
(I want to add that I’m referring to Murderbot as “it” because that seems like the pronoun it prefers, and it doesn’t identify with any gender. If that ever changes in later novellas or the upcoming novel, I’ll add another note to this!)
I want to emphasize that I love that Murderbot explicity doesn’t want to be human. Not in a “ew, humans are gross” kind of way, but in a “I am a different form of life and that is perfectly fine, even if I myself haven’t exactly figured out what I want to be” sort of way. It’s great and Murderbot is great and you should read this. Yes, you. Please.
The setup for this novella is already interesting on its own: it’s kind of unsettlingly similar to our current situation with late-stage capitalism, just worse, with more advanced technology, and in space. It’s not completely doom and gloom, though; while mega-corporations are omnipresent and even have their own corporate states, they’re not all-powerful. There are other free states and ways of living. (Speaking of, the diversity rep in the novel is great, with many characters mentioning having multiple partners/same gender partners, and none of the humans I can recall as being white.) So yeah, the world is a shitty in both large and mundane ways, but it’s not hopelessly bleak. In that way, the setting and plot provide an interesting layer of commentary on corporate motivations and how people move around and within money-hungry power structures.
While the plot of this novella is short, it’s entertaining and to the point. We have just enough time to take a walk in Murderbot’s shoes, seeing the world through its sardonic point of view, while also seeing how its human crew reacts to its sentience. There’s enough space for the plot and characters to create and release tension around ideas of humanity and free will without the dialogue getting esoteric or the narration getting info-dumpy. The story sticks around just long enough to make you ready to read the next novella right away.
Before I try to wrap this up: a nod (or like, many many nods) to Kevin R. Free, the audiobook narrator/reader. I’ve listened to one other novella he’s narrated, Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, and his voice and inflection in both of these works of his that I’ve listened to are absolutely wonderful. I can’t imagine Murderbot sounding any other way in my head now. (Speaking of which, my library needs to get the audiobook for the next ones in the series ASAP.)
I can’t think of a good way to end this review, if I’m being honest. I’ve tried my best to convey how much of a pleasant surprise for me this book was, so hopefully that gets across. And if you’ve read and enjoyed this novella or its series (or have any recommendations like it for me), let me know!