Last week I mentioned I would probably be writing up some “Art of” books soon, but that I’d also started on the second book in The Murderbot Diaries … well, turns out Murderbot won out.
I gave a brief description last week of the first novella, All Systems Red. I don’t want to summarize each book’s plot because that will naturally get into a lot of plot points from earlier books, so instead I’ll try to give more of a high-level description of the series and tell you what I like about it.
First off: the series started off with four novellas, then a full-length novel, and then another novella. (The first four have now been collected into one hardcover as well, though I picked them up as individual volumes at the bookstore because they didn’t have the collected edition.) I did find that the new hardcover editions of the novellas aren’t numbered, so it was a little confusing figuring out the order, particularly since the dust jacket flap for each of the first four included all three of the other books, no matter which one you looked at. So, here’s the order:
- All Systems Red
- Artificial Condition
- Rogue Protocol
- Exit Strategy
- Network Effect (full novel)
- Fugitive Telemetry
And now, the stories. The books take place in a future world that includes interstellar travel through wormholes, and most of the plot is within the Corporation Rim, in which (as you may have guessed) corporations pretty serve as for-profit governments, and most rules and regulations are about protecting the bottom line. There’s not a whole lot in the way of alien life—we just see humans, augmented humans (who have implants, usually to give them more powerful access to network feeds and controls), and bots (both simple and more intelligent).
Murderbot (the official designation is SecUnit) is a construct, a combination of organic and mechanical parts, and is designed to provide security on explorations—at a price, of course, but if you don’t buy the security package then the company won’t sign off on the trip. SecUnits are treated like things, not people: they’re transported in boxes with the cargo instead of riding in the cabins with the humans, and they have governor modules that will fry their brains if they don’t follow orders or do anything against their programming. Our protagonist, however, has managed to hack its own governor module (unbeknownst to the company and its clients), so it can do as it pleases—though it mostly behaves because it knows it’ll be scrapped if it gets found out.
So what does Murderbot do with its freedom? Well, mostly it watches entertainment media, does its bare minimum to keep its clients alive, and tries to interact with humans as little as possible because it finds them really annoying. But through the course of the series, Murderbot ends up with a group that isn’t your typical corporate team just out to exploit a planet’s resources for material gain, and begins to develop icky feelings, which it hates. It also starts to think more about what it actually wants, which drives it to take a few different trips, most of which end up with a lot more action and drama than it was anticipating.
Much of the story takes place in Murderbot’s head as it narrates the events of the story, and we get a lot of snide commentary about how terrible humans are at evaluating risk or how gross we are with our various bodily functions. There are parentheticals inside parentheticals. On the one hand, reading the books makes me wish there were a TV series, and on the other, I know it would be incredibly hard to capture some of what makes the books so entertaining because it would probably be turned into a voiceover. The other thing that largely takes place internally and wouldn’t make for good television is the hacking: Murderbot is constantly hacking into other systems—in stations, spaceships, other bots—and the battles are won as much through computing as through its weaponry. Martha Wells manages to make these sequences tense and exciting, even though what’s physically visible would often be Murderbot staring at a bulkhead (to avoid eye contact, of course).
Even though Murderbot isn’t human, many of its foibles and social anxieties (for instance, it really hates making eye contact and will often watch humans through its drone cameras instead of its eyes) are very relatable, and a lot of its struggles—outside of battling a string of antagonists who are trying to kill it or its clients—are about coming to terms with its feelings and desires.
Despite that, though, Murderbot is not a Pinocchio story, a robot who just wants to be a real human. Murderbot definitely does not want to be human, and that does provide a unique perspective. We—as well as the humans around it—do get the occasional reminder that it isn’t human, that its actions are based on a different set of motivations, but that also gives us the sense of an “outsider” perspective on humans and their interactions with each other.
Anyway, all that’s to say that it’s a fantastic series that I really shouldn’t have slept on for so long. I’d received a review galley of Network Effect prior to its publication in 2020, and figured I’d look up the previous books at some point. This past week, once I got started, I couldn’t stop. Plus the novellas are short enough that I was able to finish one a day, and then the novel pulls together some of the events and characters from the novellas into one big web. I’ll definitely be adding Fugitive Telemetry to my list to read soon!
My Current Stack
I just got a copy of TRUE L1F3 by Jay Kristoff, the third in the LIFEL1K3 series that I mentioned last week, so I’ve started that one. Although it’s a totally different universe and style than Murderbot, it does include various bots and human-bot hybrids; one of the characters even refers to the lifelikes as “murderbots” because of the trail of destruction some of them had left behind them. I’ll be interested to see how this story concludes, too.