Martha Wells’ moment in SFF continues in Network Effect, a Murderbot story that was named Best Novel at the Hugos in December, beating out two genre heavyweights in N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became and Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi. In this fifth entry in the series (and the first at novel length), Murderbot, a security cyborg that has hacked the governor module supposedly keeping it in line and uses its freedom to watch endless soap opera episodes, accompanies its human friend Dr Mensah on a surveying mission that quickly and predictably goes very wrong. Murderbot, along with Dr Mensah’s daughter Amena, is captured and finds itself aboard a familiar spaceship (ART, or Asshole Research Transport, who we met in Artificial Condition) – but while it’s physically unharmed, ART’s personality is gone, and it’s being piloted by mysterious, possibly alien, figures who are apparently up to no good. Can Murderbot restore Amena to her mother and bring back ART? And can it do so without having any awkward conversations about feelings?
I’ve talked before about why I think the Murderbot series has seen such remarkable success recently: its protagonist is, as I wrote in my review of the first Murderbot novella, All Systems Red, a “massive queer nerd”, asexual, agender and obsessed with its favourite media in a way that reads as fannish. Having read Network Effect: yeah, I still think that’s basically correct. There are a lot of queer nerds voting for the Hugos at the moment, and this is a book pretty much designed to appeal to that demographic. Additionally, throughout the series Wells is taking on other themes that are highly relevant to the field right now: many of her human characters are Black or brown, queerness and polyamory are common and expected, capitalism is shitty and corrupt and exploitative. As well as being ace and agender, Murderbot also has compelling neurodivergent resonances: its dislike of conversations about feelings and its discomfort in social situations reads as specifically autistic. With the push for better representation of marginalised identities in speculative fiction, and general discontent with capitalism and the lingering harms of imperialism, becoming mainstream, it’s not difficult to see how well the Murderbot series is tapping into the zeitgeist.
Combine that with a relatively straightforward plot (Murderbot and its human companions get into trouble, then get out again) and character arc (Murderbot, like many many of its fictional robotic predecessors, learns the meaning of friendship and experiences Emotional Growth), plus a sarky, readable narrative voice and Wells’ carefully textured worldbuilding (she’s particularly good on work, something I don’t see represented enough in SFF) and you get something very moreish indeed. It may not be groundbreaking – though it features Black and brown characters, its worldbuilding is thoroughly Western – but it’s deeply enjoyable, and I’d be happy to read more.