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The Murderbot Diaries

June 11, 2018

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells, is another one of the books I got as gifts from my friend Jenny when I went to visit her. This is the first novella in a series called “The Murderbot Diaries,” and I didn’t find either the title of the novella or the series very interesting. Boy was I wrong.

I was hooked from the first sentence, and delighted by the entire first paragraph:
“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 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.”

This is the story of a sentient creature built for a purpose that it doesn’t approve of. The so-called “Murderbot” has both human and robot parts, making it a cyborg with a heart of…well, probably literally it’s not gold, but figuratively, it absolutely is.

We meet the “Murderbot” as it is saving the life of two of the humans who have been required to hire it as security. We see that there’s no logical reason why it should feel any loyalty to them, as it is not being compelled (it has “hacked its governor module”) and they have not noticed that it has any human characteristics, as it has been careful to appear in front of them only with its armor on and its face shielded: “Human clients usually like to pretend I’m a robot and that’s much easier in the armor.” The usual term for this creature is Security Unit or “SecUnit.”

The slavery analogies are unavoidable, as its current employers are kinder than many of the previous ones: “I had worked for some contracts that would have kept me standing here the entire day and night cycle, just on the off chance they wanted me to do something and didn’t want to bother using the feed to call me.”

The Murderbot continually protests too much about its motives for protecting the humans in its care, saying things like “I’ve got four perfectly good humans here and I didn’t want them to get killed….It’s not like I cared about them personally, but it would look bad on my record.”

At one point, a SecUnit with a functioning governor module manages to insert a combat override module into the Murderbot’s data port, open on the back of its neck, and the module does what it is designed to do, which is to “turn it from a mostly autonomous construct into a gun puppet.” The Murderbot tells the leader of her group of employers, Dr. Mensah, that she must shut it down, and when that doesn’t happen fast enough and Mensah won’t comply with its request to be killed, the Murderbot shoots itself in the chest. This is what the Murderbot, our first-person narrator, thinks next:
“I came back online to find I was inert, but slowly cycling into a wake-up phase. I was agitated, my levels were all off, and I had no idea why. I played back my personal log. Oh, right.
I shouldn’t be waking up. I hoped they hadn’t been stupid about it, too soft-hearted to kill me.
You notice I didn’t point the weapon at my head. I didn’t want to kill myself, but it was going to have to be done. I could have incapacitated myself some other way, but let’s face it, I didn’t want to sit around and listen to the part where they convinced each other that there was no other choice.
A diagnostic initiated and informed me the combat override module had been removed. For a second I didn’t believe it.”
Although the humans have restored the Murderbot to life, in the course of their rescue they find out that it is a “rogue unit” because it has hacked its governor module. They realize that “the fact that the Unit has been acting to preserve our lives, to take care of us, while it was a free agent, gives us even more reason to trust it.”

About halfway through the story, Dr. Mensah finally asks “SecUnit, do you have a name?” And the member of her group who has been going through the unit’s personal log after finding out that its governor module is hacked replies “It calls itself ‘Murderbot.’ Then we get the SecUnit’s reaction: “From their expressions I knew everything I felt was showing on my face, and I hate that. I grated out, ‘That was private.’”

The humans decide that it’s “shy,” and one of them points out that “it doesn’t want to interact with humans. And why should it? You know how constructs are treated, especially in corporate-political environments.”

At the end of the adventure, Dr. Mensah buys the Murderbot’s contract. When they tell it that it is now free, Murderbot thinks “I’m off inventory” and reveals that “I had the urge to twitch uncontrollably and I had no idea why.”

You’ll be amazed at how quickly and easily you begin to see humans from the point of view of a useful thing they have created in order to protect themselves. I kept wanting to call the murderbot “she,” which must be because of how much I sympathized with it, not because it has any gender. In fact, it specifically rejects gender, saying that it’s “not a sexbot.”

I loved All Systems Red so much I immediately went out to find a copy of the second one in the series, Artificial Condition. In the second novella, the Murderbot has another adventure and continues to develop its personality. We learn that
“When constructs were first developed, they were originally supposed to have a pre-sentient level of intelligence, like the dumber variety of bot. But you can’t put something as dumb as a hauler bot in charge of security for anything without spending even more money for expensive company-employed human supervisors. So they made us smarter. The anxiety and depression were side effects.” This, of course, made me think of Marvin the paranoid android, in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

In the second novella, the Murderbot makes a friend, a sentient transport (spaceship) that it calls “ART” (“Asshole Research Transport”). As ART is getting to know the Murderbot, it observes that “You dislike your function. I don’t understand how that is possible” and the Murderbot thinks “Its function was traveling through what it thought of as the endlessly fascinating sensation of space, and keeping all its human and otherwise passengers safe inside its metal body. Of course it didn’t understand not wanting to perform your function. Its function was great.”

In the second adventure, the Murderbot is passing as an “augmented human,” and there are more slavery analogies and a couple of funny parts because of that, including one tense moment when the Murderbot has the jump on some bad guys but can’t let them know it:
“I dropped my arm but didn’t move. I had clear shots at all three of them, but that was a worst-case scenario. For me, at least. Humans can miss a lot of little clues, but me being able to fire energy weapons from my arms would be something of a red flag.”

The Murderbot is sounding increasingly human. At one point it tells the group that it’s currently guarding “Sometimes people do things to you that you can’t do anything about. You just have to survive it and go on.” And then “they all stopped talking and stared at me. It made me nervous and I immediately switched my view to the nearest security camera so I could watch us from the side. I had said it with more emphasis than I intended, but it was just the way things were. I wasn’t sure why it had such an impact on them.”

Near the end of the second novella a human asks the Murderbot for help and adds “please,” and its reaction is revealing:
“I had forgotten that I had a choice, that I wasn’t obligated to do what she wanted just because she was here. Being asked to stay, with a please and an option for refusal, hit me almost as hard as a human asking for my opinion and actually listening to me. I sighed again. I was having a lot of opportunities to do it and I think I was getting good at it.”

The first two novellas in the Murderbot Diaries series are absolutely marvelous short adventures full of interesting ideas and clever character development. They are perfect little helpings of delight, to fill a summer hour. There will eventually be two more in the series–one is due out in August, and another in October.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Jenny permalink
    June 12, 2018 1:34 pm

    This reminds me of the servitors in Ninefox Gambit, but much more developed and from their point of view. How interesting!

    • June 12, 2018 1:55 pm

      The point of view (and first-person narration) is what made it so interesting to me.

  2. June 12, 2018 1:50 pm

    I’ve been toying around with these books too but ultimately won’t–I don’t know how to articulate what it is that bugs me about the writing, but something does. Not quite to fingernails on a chalkboard level of bugging, but bugging nevertheless.

    • June 12, 2018 1:56 pm

      Oh, I wouldn’t have suspected that–these seem right up your alley. Maybe it’s the humor of the slight gap between what the Murderbot perceives and what we know is likely to be in the heads of the humans?

      • June 12, 2018 2:00 pm

        The topics most definitely are–I’m always interested in exploring what makes us human or sentient, and these are squarely in that space.

  3. June 19, 2018 8:49 pm

    Aren’t these books SO wonderful? Oh, I’m so pleased you like them. Did I tell you I read an ARC of the third one? BE PREPARED, it is rather sad and I wish that I had not read it while not having access to the fourth one. I just want Murderbot to be happy, my darling Murderbot, my treasure.

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