REVIEW: "The Murderbot Diaries" 1-3 by Martha Wells
The bots may be here to save our lives ... but that doesn't mean they've gotta be happy about it. Not that Murderbot is just any old bot; this sharp-shooting, plain-talking, pop-culture-savvy SecUnit is more than first meets the eye. And what first meets the eye is armor. Lots of armor. But underneath that (literal) shield is something akin to a heart, and that heart beats to watch the futurist version of telenovelas and k-dramas—most especially Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon, which I officially hope and dream will become a spin-off series of its own once The Murderbot Diaries are finished.
So here's the thing: Murderbot is an android, with some fleshy bits rounding out the synthetic bits, but Murderbot is not human. Wells manages to put her finger on an element of artificial intelligence which so often escapes other authors, and that element is the fact that the A.I. of the future will most definitely not think in a human-like fashion, and it doesn't need to be "redeemed" from its differentness in order to be acceptable or interesting. That story arc is a little threadbare at this point; we've all probably seen several movies and read several books in which robots are humanized over the course of the story, and emerge somehow grateful or otherwise better for that humanization. We live in a world where robots and their android cousins are frequently embroiled in conversations about gender identity, androgyny, projection, and sexual objectification—and with incompleteness, failures at personhood, and sexual frustration. Murderbot continues, at least throughout the first three books of this series, to resist these assumptions, even while it discusses the rogue SecUnit's thoughts on gender and sex.
(There's also a personal angle* which I will hide in the footnotes.)
Best of all, the books repeatedly and clearly point out that sex and gender are not the most interesting (or at least not the only interesting) aspects of an individual's life and experience, or an A.I.'s coming-of-sentience. Murderbot doesn't have sex, doesn't ever want to have sex, and doesn't care about sexualizing its appearance. It lets us know this, and then it gets on with its job, and with saving useless humans from their own mistakes.
Those mistakes often involve intersolar fraud, espionage, counter-espionage, mining disasters, cover-ups, and assumptions that Murderbot likes human contact. Only, Murderbot does not like human contact. (And it may or may not let you know this by planting your face on the ground.) It does, however, get some complicated form of satisfaction out of saving select groups of humans from other select groups of humans. And it likes human media. But to assume that watching a few re-runs of Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon will render Murderbot more open to human-like interactions is to make the gravest of errors. (Murderbot has watched each episode of Sanctuary Moon upwards of 25 times in any case, so if change was going to happen it would have happened long ago.)
Murderbot's motivations are left as something of a mystery, even three books into the series. All Systems Red sees it accidentally embroiled in a conspiracy to kill off its charges, a human contingent of scientists surveying a planetary surface. I say "accidentally" in that Murderbot has full agency, only it prefers to remain undercover as an obedient, non-rogue SecUnit so that it can continue to watch Sanctuary Moon without interruption. It is fully capable of independent decision-making and action, having disabled its governor module, the device and programming designed to keep androids and robots subservient to their human overlords. In All Systems Red, Murderbot acts to save certain humans without really interrogating why. One of these humans then purchases Murderbot from Evil Co. (I mean, "the company") and sets it free, officially, after which it races off into space to leave all those pesky humans behind. In Artificial Condition, Murderbot accepts a job as a security consultant (undercover as a regular ol' augmented human) because his new employers are offering it a ride where it already intended to go—and when they run afoul of another shady corporation, ends up bailing their puny human asses out of trouble, all while trying to figure out the truth behind its own memories. Did it or did it not commit a mass murder before becoming self-aware and hacking its governor module? The end result is surprising enough not to spoil here.
Rogue Protocol brings us full circle, in that the legal consequences of All Systems Red are finally catching up to Murderbot. It has been outed as an ungoverned SecUnit in news feeds, and its departure from its erstwhile owner, Dr. Mensah, has been noted. Meanwhile, rumors are beginning to reconsolidate into confirmed facts that certain corporations are willing to privilege profit over human life ... to the extent of massacring innocents and then covering it up. (Too close to real life? Maybe?) Dr. Mensah needs evidence that GrayCris is acting in bad faith, and despite repeated comments about how it would much rather be watching serials on the feed (read: television on the Internet), Murderbot goes a-sleuthing. Only, it doesn't tell Dr. Mensah that it's going a-sleuthing, and only after saving yet another group of puny humans from their poor security choices (and another corporate conspiracy), it has enough evidence to justify going back and reconnecting with the survey team of All Systems Red.
You might have noticed by now that there are certain elements to The Murderbot Diaries that repeat. And it's true: Wells is onto a good thing, and knows it, and is milking it a little bit. That's alright insofar as I'm concerned because the brevity of the novella form means that I'm reading these books much like Murderbot is watching episodes of Sanctuary Moon. There is an overarching structure and narrative arc, and the smaller serial arcs of the novellas are tightly plotted enough to keep the momentum going.
On a sentence level, Wells opts more often than not for simple sentences and stripped-down dialogue. Italics are used for conversations taking place over private feeds, such as between the humans and Murderbot when they don't want to converse out loud, or between Murderbot and the various bots it encounters. I'm unconvinced that my own brain could create logical, grammatically-correct sentences without the structure-enabling delays of conversation or the written page to channel them, but it works as a narrative device here to enable Murderbot to capture internal monologues in a much more interesting format. Occasionally Wells' sentences are so simple that they don't hold up well under close scrutiny; I noticed this issue first around the beginning of chapter three in Rogue Protocol, but quickly forgot about it. One might even safely assume that Wells adopts this tone deliberately in order to reflect machine code, which (mostly) eschews the extraneous. But it would be a disservice to The Murderbot Diaries to swan in looking for lush landscape description and lush self-analysis.
Rogue Protocol and The Murderbot Diaries as a whole together make up a propulsive, engaging extrasolar adventure, incorporating elements of thriller and espionage genres into the science fictional construct. Murderbot is a unique and fresh take on the inhuman protagonist, and defies expectations at every turn. These books make for an excellent summer read, and with All Systems Red now out in paperback, there's no excuse not to stick one in your pocket as you head down to the beach (or up to the mountains, or out onto the scorched plains of Hellas Planitia) for a little R&R.
The Murderbot Diaries are published by Tor. Rogue Protocol comes out on August 7 and is available through pre-order on Amazon. I was privileged to read an e-galley copy courtesy of Tor through Netgalley.
PAIRS WELL WITH:
Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch series, as another coming-of-sentience journey
Alastair Reynolds' Revenger, as an extrasolar romp with a good dollop of action
Emma Newman's Before Mars, as another out-of-this-world investigation of shady corporate malfeasance
We also live in a world in which I—an asexual, aromantic, and agender person—am regularly compared to robots. This is problematic on several levels.
Level A: Robots are not inherently genderbending, androgynous, or sexually frustrated; ascribing these characteristics to the word does a disservice to robots, robotics, and roboticists past, present, and future.
Level B: Even if I accepted those associations (which I don't), I'm actually not genderbending, androgynous, or sexually frustrated. Assumptions are evil and should just not exist, please. I'm happy to talk about the reality of my identities and orientation; you don't have to add commentary. Period.
Level C: To be asexual, aromantic, and agender, or any combination of the three, does not mean a person is unhealthy or somehow "broken." The same goes for all the letters in the LGBTQIA+ community, whether they're in the alphabet or not. And, seriously folks? I've had at least three conversations this week with people who think LGBTQIA+ identities are a direct consequence of trauma. Often members of the queer community have experienced trauma, and sometimes that trauma is a trigger for shifts in identity or orientation, and sometimes that trauma is a result of a person's identity or orientation. Untangling what's what is a job for an individual's trusted healthcare professionals, not for judgmental comments in casual conversation.
So: Can we just not assume that Queer = Broken = Robotic? Please and thank.
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