This review contains spoilers.
Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries, which All Systems Red kicks off, have been quite prodigiously popular among science fiction fans: this first instalment won the 2018 Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novella; its follow-up Artificial Condition won a Hugo again in 2019; Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy both won enough votes to be nominated in the same year; and a full-length novel, Network Effect, is up for the Hugo this year. It’s a pretty impressive track record.
The titular Murderbot is a SecUnit, a type of cyborg owned by a company that rents out equipment to planetary exploration teams. Unbeknownst to the company or to its clients, Murderbot has hacked its governor module, meaning it no longer has to obey human commands. It uses its newfound freedom to watch soap operas; in general, its primary goal in life is to be left alone. However, when the survey team it’s been rented to starts finding inexplicable discrepancies in the information they’ve been provided about the planet they’re exploring, Murderbot is forced into closer companionship with its human clients than it would like as it attempts to protect them from an unknown threat.
None of this, on the face of it, is especially groundbreaking. Stories that explore the personhood of artificial intelligences and robots are two a penny; the trope is so abundant, in fact, that mainstream authors have begun to examine it. Nor is All Systems Red‘s plot particularly complex or insightful: Murderbot and the humans get into trouble, and then get out of it; during the course of the story, Murderbot unexpectedly finds companionship, sympathy and a measure of self-determination.
The worldbuilding and Murderbot’s characterisation, though, are what give the novella its moreish quality. Wells is particularly good on what it feels like to live under capitalist conditions: the characters’ complete reliance on the equipment they’ve been supplied by the rental company – equipment which, as we know from Murderbot, is cheaply made and frequently faulty – is an affective reminder of the ubiquity of capitalism and the way it shapes every part of our lives. Similarly, in their attempts to deduce who’s responsible for the danger they’re in, Murderbot and the rest of the survey team are constantly thinking through the logics of capitalism, the kinds of crime that would benefit the company most: so, the company will take a bribe to conceal information from its clients, but will probably not actually hurt them, since that would cost it money. Again, the workings of capitalism are constantly foregrounded in the text, which incidentally makes the world of the novella feel very familiar and legible – since it operates along the exact same economic lines our own world does.
But it’s Murderbot itself that I suspect lies at the heart of the series’ popularity. Murderbot is genderless and asexual. It’s also painfully socially awkward, hating to make eye contact with humans and turning to face the wall when too many people are looking at it. And it cares intensely about the media it consumes.
Murderbot is basically a massive queer nerd.
More seriously, this all feels like an extension of the conversation SF has been having in recent years about who gets to see themselves represented. Many of the stories that make a case for the personhood of robots and AIs paradoxically adopt quite a narrow definition of “personhood” – one that’s generally based on normative, allosexual and neurotypical assumptions about what humans are like. For example, a robot might be shown to be deserving of personhood because it falls in love. It’s refreshing, then, to see a sympathetic robot character who falls outside those parameters, who exhibits both neuroatypical and asexual characteristics – especially given how rare explicitly ace characters still are in all kinds of fiction. It’s a corrective to the normativity of this kind of story.
Ultimately I don’t think All Systems Red is really that groundbreaking: Murderbot is too readily sympathetic a character really to challenge our notions of personhood, and I think even the critique of capitalism is mostly defanged by the novella’s consolatory ending, in which Murderbot is bought by the survey team and essentially freed. Having said that, though, the fact that it does hit so many familiar narrative beats makes it a pretty enjoyable, comfortable read: it’s solid science fiction, well-told, with a relatable protagonist and a convincing world. That’s a combination that’s rarer than you might think.