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Exit Strategy

October 4, 2018

Yesterday, after a long day on campus, I came home to find the new Murderbot book waiting for me in the mailbox. This is a fourth one in the series by Martha Wells, entitled Exit Strategy. What a good evening it was.

What a good book it is, from the very first sentence: “when I got back to HaveRatton Station, a bunch of humans tried to kill me. Considering how much I’d been thinking about killing a bunch of humans, it was only fair.” Since we know that it calls itself “Murderbot” in protest at the function humans intended for it, we know that what it’s saying has an ironic twist from the start.

This adventure begins with more action and less about the Murderbot’s personality. Its cyber parts are in control, even of the metaphors: “Since Ship was a minimum capacity bot pilot and had all the brains and personality of a heat shield generator…”

We find that it has not only learned from its previous adventures, but “all this coding and working with different systems on the fly had opened up some new neural pathways and processing space.” Also it has salvaged weapons from the bad guys who were shooting at it in the previous book and learned how to better defend itself: “So now I was not only a rogue unit, I was a rogue unit carrying a weapon designed to shoot armored security. Which is just playing to the humans’ expectations, I guess.”

The Murderbot stays in various hotels in the course of this adventure, and humans might be surprised to learn about all the different ways these hotels accomplish datamining of what the inhabitants say. In one hotel “the mining was only on the conversations in the public areas and corridors” and the Murderbot examines “one of the routines that was processing (it was separating out the boring bits from the juicy business conversations that would need to be sent to a human or bot monitor for review).” In hotels with free wifi in the lobby, the Murderbot discovers that “everywhere but in the lobby, the hotel had its own secured feed, which it charged extra to access. To encourage use, the hotel was choking the public feed.” Although the rooms are not supposed to be monitored, the Murderbot puts on background noise “as chaff for a suspicious monitor that the hotel might be using to record inside the rooms, even though the booking agreement certified complete in-room privacy.” The murderbot also assumes that facial recognition scans are routine in the public areas of the hotels in this near future.

This adventure turns on the intricacies of corporate greed, dishonest negotiations and, eventually, outright warfare. At one point the Murderbot observes that “disinformation, which is the same as lying but for some reason has a different name, is the top tactic in corporate negotiation/warfare.” Murderbot manages to rescue the first team of humans she protected, including Dr. Mensah, and catches them up on her adventures, telling them that she has “successfully impersonated two different groups of humans” and thinking “Impersonated is a weird word….Im-person-ated.”

The personality of the Murderbot—now there’s another weird word—starts to come out in the second half of the adventure, when it’s with Dr. Mensah again. At one point, when they are running for their lives and trying not to look like it (so attempting to have a casual conversation while the Murderbot is busy dealing with security feeds and alerts), Dr. Mensah asks why it likes its favorite serial so much and the Murderbot replies “it’s the first one I saw…it made me feel like a person.” Then it thinks “yeah, that last part shouldn’t have come out, but with all the security-feed monitoring I was doing, I was losing control of my output. I closed my archive. I really needed to get around to setting that one-second delay on my mouth.” But Dr. Mensah persists, asking why watching the serial made the Murderbot feel that way. It thinks “It gave me context for the emotions I was feeling” and then says
“’It kept me company without…’
‘Without making you interact?’ she suggested.
That she understood even that much made me melt. I hate that this happens, it makes me feel vulnerable. Maybe that was why I had been nervous about meeting Mensah again, and not all the other dumb reasons I had come up with. I hadn’t been afraid that she wasn’t my friend, I had been afraid that she was, and what it did to me.”

During a battle, the Murderbot offers to hack another SecUnit’s governor module and set it free, telling it “I hacked mine….You’d be free of them. You could dump your armor, get on a transport. This had started as a way to distract it, but the more I talked the more I wanted it to say yes. I have IDs, a currency card I can give you. Still no response. Diving around hauler bots and dodging projectiles, it was hard to come up with a decent argument for free will.” It does not say yes, however; the Murderbot is unique.

When Dr. Mensah observes that “we tend to think that because a bot or a construct looks human, its ultimate goal would be to become human” the Murderbot replies “that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” And after that, when the Murderbot gets to meet Dr. Mensah’s daughter, she says “so, you’re a SecUnit….Is that…weird?” And the Murderbot replies, saying “It was a complicated question with a simple answer. ‘Yes.’”

This last book in the Murderbot series, Exit Strategy, is a deeply satisfying ending to a fascinating and well-written series of adventures.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 9, 2018 1:03 pm

    I, as I’m sure you could guess, LOVED this book. I just wish all four had been published in one book rather than four. This was like eating one piece of cereal at a time. I guess if that’s my only complaint, that’s a first world thing 🙂

    • October 10, 2018 9:08 am

      They may be published together at some point, but I kind of liked the novella length. All four together would have made the Murderbot stories seem more human-paced, whereas the waiting in between episodes made its actions seem more disconnected and almost as dispassionate as they actually are.

  2. October 13, 2018 5:19 pm

    I got so emotional about Mensah’s behavior towards Murderbot throughout this book. She tries so hard to do what’s right and be a good person, and Murderbot always tries so hard to live its life in the right way. Bless it. I want to go back and read the whole series all over again.

    • October 13, 2018 7:27 pm

      I like it that Mensah and the Murderbot really do seem to like each other, even as unlikely as that would be, in the circumstances.
      The part about data mining from conversations in hotels really got to me.


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