All Systems Red is an exploration into existentialist denial masquerading as a tense science fiction adventure slash comedy. Add a dash of corporate espionage too. I love it.
Synopsis of The Murderbot Series #1
In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.
But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.
On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid—a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.
But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.Martha Wells. All Systems Red, paperback synopsis, 2017.
This novella is the first in a series of books called The Murderbot Diaries. As the title suggests, the novellas follow the thoughts and adventures of Murderbot, a misanthropist android* (or antisocial, though I’d argue they’re just shy) who hacks into its own protocols, thereby gaining agency and sentience.
But the deep philosophies of existence might not be the meat of this story, because all the Murderbot cares about is watching 70,000 more hours of unrealistic soap operas. I also have the same response to crises of humanity, so I can perfectly relate.
Murderbot’s denial of their newfound agency is distracted by awkward interactions with the humans under their protection. There’s intrigue, anti-capitalist rhetoric, and fast-paced action with bites of character brilliance woven in.
*Android? Most official media say android, but as a human-based clone with both inorganic and organic parts, I’m still not sure if android is the right word for this artificial construct…
More thoughts on the Murderbot
This is how the book starts:
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.Martha Wells. All Systems Red, chapter 1, 2017.
I was instantly hooked. The first paragraph of a book gives you an idea of what’s to come. If that little excerpt excited you, I suggest you click out of this blog post and get a copy of The Murderbot Diaries #1 immediately. (Then come back after a couple of hours).
The voice of the protagonist is definitely one of the highlights of this book. As a first person POV, having an engaging narrator is essential. The Murderbot’s love affair with art versus actual murder had me laughing in the first paragraph. (With a protagonist name like that, I also really didn’t have any choice but to get invested.)
I will protect Murderbot with my life.
Another great thing about this novella is the way it deals with the fraying concepts of autonomy and artificial intelligence in science fiction. There are no long monologues or pushy dialogues to push one point or the other. You can even consume this novella without needing to delve into philosophy if that’s not your cup of tea right now. It’s a clear yet subtle commentary on what it means to be human.
Both character and plot serve as vehicles for a realistic transition from code and protocols to human agency and even emotions. The Murderbot has an implicit instinct for survival. Unlike many other androids becoming self-aware in the history of fiction, the Murderbot doesn’t go rogue; the Murderbot hides. Even their explicit motivation mirrors the story of all learning children. The awareness of desire becomes the basis for a sort of hedonistic pleasure- and entertainment-driven existence.
Through it all, the Murderbot responds to stress in very human ways: through introversion or isolation, through sleeping or watching television, through internal eye-rolls or self-deprecating humor. Mostly these are directed at the Murderbot’s lack of murder intent and aptitude, their own cheap technology (again a pretty flat tirade against galactic age capitalism) and their accidental love for their humans.
This humor is consistently excellent, and set up pretty well. None of the humans in the expedition have ever actually seen a SecUnit android, so they don’t know there’s anything wrong or too independent with the one they got. The bot is sometimes too depressed to function; it’s just a baby! It’s in denial!
In short, Wells adds a hilarious Murderbot with an existentialist crisis to a run-of-the-mill dystopia. It also happens to read almost like a slice-of-life chapter (or standalone soap opera episode). I suggest you give the Murderbot a chance.
Do I recommend this book?
This book won the 2017 Nebula Award for Best Novella and the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Novella. There are currently four books in the series.
If you’re a lover of science fiction or dark humor, I think you’ll easily enjoy this novella. And even if you aren’t, it’s still worth a shot in this world of uncertainty. Because it’s only 30,000 words long, All Systems Red is a fun and quick distraction from everything else that’s happening.
It’s wrong to think of a construct as half bot, half human. It makes it sound like the halves are discrete… As opposed to the reality, which was that I was one whole confused entity, with no idea what I wanted to do. What I should do. What I needed to do.Martha Wells. All Systems Red, chapter 1, 2017.