The Murderbot Diaries
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Book 1: All Systems Red
Another Tor.com novella, Martha Wells' All Systems Red is the first in a series with the collective title of The Murderbot Diaries. It is set in a far-future, corporate-controlled society, in which the "Company" authorizes various businesses to contract for scientific exploration or mining operations on newly discovered worlds. Advanced robotics are used in all levels of work, with each expedition assigned a SecUnit (Sec for 'Security') per a set number of humans. Some humans, referred to as augmented, are also enhanced with various bio-tech and/or electronic implants. The 'Diary' part of the title is because the story is a first-person narrative from one of the SecUnits. It refers to itself as a 'Murderbot,' although it's not clear if it using the phrase ironically or sincerely, because the first paragraph ends with, "As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure."
The SecUnits are not completely robotic, not sure if they should be considered cyborgs or androids. Parts of their bodies are organic, but it's not clear if those are artifically grown, cloned from humans, or maybe direct implants of human tissue. Apparently, without its armor and helmet, a SecUnit has human features, but Murderbot prefers not to reveal itself that way since it does not want its human co-workers to think of it in human terms. Murderbot also does not want them to find out it has hacked its governor module and is capable of independent thought and action. It did kill several humans on a previous assignment, but was reconditioned and put back into service. It knows that action was due to a fault in its governor module, so it hopes to maintain its free will while still performing all of its normal functions. Almost any first-person narrative has the pitfall of the unreliable narrator, and in this case I'm not sure we can believe Murderbot's continued pronouncements that it does not care for the humans it works with. Its reactions probably shouldn't be considered emotional, but rather just practical evaluations necessary to complete its tasks, but it's apparent it does think of some of the humans in more positive ways.
At times it seems Murderbot has developed more human thoughts and emotions, even a sense of humor, or else it is merely incorporating some behavioral differences from sources other than its initial programming. Its current assignment is guarding a survey team on an unnamed planet, but it's bored with the work and would rather just stay in its cubicle and download entertainment programs, its favorite being a serial called Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon. The routine is shattered by an unexpected attack by a large, unknown predator, and in trying to rescue and calm two of the humans, Murderbot reveals its human face to them. After that, it has to contend with the humans' tendency to think of it as a fellow human. I won't detail the rest of the plot, except to say there is another expedition on the other side of the planet, and both are being sabotaged by an unknown third group. A bit of the motive for that is revealed, but I'm not sure we'll get a resolution to it, even though there will be at least two more stories in the sequence. By the end of this one, Murderbot has been purchased by the leader of the expedition, but then it leaves her and, disguised as an augmented human, escapes the planet. I gather it intends to investigate the reasons for the malfunction of its governor module, and it is possible that might circle back around to the criminal group in this story.
Please note, the following comments have nothing to do with the quality of this story, and I'm only putting them here since I normally just post reviews, I don't do general information blog posts. I liked this a lot, and would like to continue the journey, although I don't think I'll be pre-ordering the other titles or getting them on or near their release dates, unless prices drop. In years past, novellas were generally stand-alone stories, or in some cases (Silverberg's Nightwings, Gerrold's The Martian Child) later expanded to novel length. Now Tor has quite a few novella series in the pipeline, which would be fine if they were consistent in the formats released and in their pricing. The first of their novellas were $2.99 on Kindle, but they've raised the recent ones to $3.99, which is still reasonable. Paperback prices for this length of work have been higher than necessary, in my opinion, even after typical online discounts. A lot of recent novels I've read have been between 400-600 pages. All Systems Red is approximately 160, with the list price of the paperback being $14.99, although Barnes & Noble offers it for $11.32 and Amazon for $9.48 at this time. Typical mass market paperbacks of much longer novels average about $8-9. Two more Murderbot titles have been announced, to be released next year on May 8 and August 7, respectively. Both will be about the same length, so the three together will be around 480 pages. That would be fine at $3.99 each, but both Amazon and B&N show the e-books for $9.99 each, and the print editions will initially only be in hardcover, at $16.99 each. So, on the one hand I can applaud Tor for championing this story length, while at the same time worry that my budget will not allow me to get all the titles that otherwise would interest me.
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