Whatever you may think about The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)—and I have a lot of questions and/or issues with this film—it’s pretty much the first movie to bring 3D printing into a futuristic setting as an everyday thing, as far as I know. There was a Clint Eastwood movie years ago with John Malkovich as the bad guy (In The Line of Fire, 1993); Eastwood was a Secret Service agent trying to protect POTUS, and Malkovich was a rogue ex-CIA agent who built a non-metallic gun out of some kind of resin or plastic for an attempt to kill that same President.
But as far as I know, this is the first movie where 3D printing is used a) to build a working gun; and b) as a routine part of a space mission. For me, it brought back memories of—my goodness, was it four years ago already?—my review of William Gibson’s newest (to that date) novel, The Peripheral, where 3D printing is used just about everywhere to make just about everything (click the link to go to that review).
That movie (Cloverfield Paradox) is nowhere as good as Gibson’s book, but it does seem that both have the right idea; 3D printers using plastic filament are now under $300, and ones that print organic material and metal (as well as composites like carbon-fibre) are becoming not only a reality, but an affordable reality. (Hey, if this is the future, I’m still waiting for my flying car or jetpack!)
Be that as it may, we still have “hard SF” that we can take as attempts to construct a plausible future. One case in point is Martha Wells’s new book from TOR (May 2018), All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries). This is a slim little book—my ARC (Advanced Reading Copy) is only 152 pages—but it’s jam-packed with great SF ideas and believable characters.
I liked this book a whole lot, and I will be watching to see if Wells has any more in this particular world with this particular character/protagonist. For convenience, I will be calling the protagonist (who calls himself “murderbot”) a “he”; but actually, the character is a “bot,” a constructed being. He himself says he has no gender nor yet indeed any sexual parts; but his whole personality sounds kinda “male” in the stereotypal way. So, rather than call him “it,” I’ll confuse the issue by calling him “him.”
Anyway, murderbot is an AI in an artificial body with both organic and non-organic parts; he’s human-looking enough to pass as a real person when you first meet him. But like other bots, he’s a computer first and a person second… with one exception. All bots appear to have a governor, a software and/or hardware interface that can control them.
All space exploration appears to be controlled by The Company, which licenses (for a fat fee) survey parties, rents them SecBots (Security Bots), and gives them available information on planets they can survey. Murderbot (who calls himself that because of an unfortunate incident where he killed a previous group of clients) is the SecBot for this particular group of clients. He can function as a SecBot because, although he’s not exceptionally heavily armed or armoured, he does have armour and guns in his arms.
Problem is, even though murderbot is professional enough to want to do his job and keep his clients safe, he doesn’t really like humans all that much; in fact, he’d rather not interface with them any more than necessary. He’d rather sit in his cubicle (where he recharges and has any injuries to his body or armour automatically repaired) and watch some of the 35,000 hours of music, video, games and books he’s illegally downloaded from the Company’s entertainment satellites.
And something else: he’s hacked his governor, so doesn’t have to obey any orders or programs sent to him by the Company, either overtly or (more likely) hidden inside harmless software updates. Nobody knows this but him, and he never calls himself “murderbot” when humans are around. But he is a professional at security for his clients (despite that earlier incident), and when things start happening—like giant, dangerous, indigenous lifeforms attacking the survey crew—lifeforms that aren’t even supposed to exist on the planet; or suspicious blanks in the planetary database that the Company has supplied, murderbot has to act.
And when a rival survey crew (informally called “EvilSurvey” by this crew) goes silent, not answering ‘net calls, emails, radio or anything else, murderbot has to go along on an exploratory expedition to their survey site to make sure there’s nothing happening that can impact his clients. What he finds will change his life, as well as the lives of his clients… and may have an impact on the Company itself!
As I said, I really enjoyed this book; and I will be checking now to see if murderbot features in any others of Wells’s work. Highly recommended: four flibbets: ¤¤¤¤!
Two things: I can’t find the cover artist credited in the somewhat generic cover for Matthew Hollis Damon’s Destiny Nowhere; and secondly, I’ve looked at the author photo and he’s definitely not the actor Matt Damon! (That’s a joke.)
Let’s be up front here: this is another zombie apocalypse book. But not just another zombie apocalypse book; there are a number of different things about it that make it worth reading. For one thing, Matthew’s protagonist, Sam Bland, says right away that these zombies are not your Walking Dead walkers (though he does steal the name “walkers”)—they’ll eat anything, especially human flesh—in fact, they seem to want to attack humans on sight. And they’re not really dead—they can be killed by all the usual things that kill humans; it’s not necessary to stick something into their brains as on the TV show. They’re infected by some kind of virus that quickly spread worldwide; if you get bitten by an infected one, you will end up infected yourself—and while they’re not dead, they are the next best thing to brain-dead.
Sam himself is not your typical protagonist in a zombie book or movie either—in fact, he’s a somewhat cowardly, not terribly prepossessing, not very muscular university professor. When we first meet him, he hasn’t been out of his room for a couple of days (no classes this week), and is busy (excuse the phrase) whacking off to a porn video, completely unaware that the rest of the world is being attacked by walkers.
The gas station at the end of his block—in Syracuse, NY, I believe—goes up in flames and, attracted by the noise (and light) outside his building, Sam runs out in bare feet and pyjamas to see what’s going on. Then he finds himself in the middle of a horde of slow-moving walkers who were likewise attracted, and has to do some broken-field running (not that he’s ever played football in his life) to get back home without being bitten.
The thing is that Sam, whatever his other failings are (and many of us can share at least one of them), is a good person. His first concern is not always for his own safety; when he falls in with a couple of different groups, he tries to keep the more vulnerable of them from being bitten and/or killed at some risk of his own body. But he’s very much a schlemiel in some ways—kinda like Li’l Abner’s Joe Btfsplk, with a dark cloud over his head. His day often goes from bad to worse—at one point he gets shot in the chest (obviously, he doesn’t die, or this book would end up a lot shorter)!
Along the way on Sam’s journey in this book, he meets a lot of people—some are real “dicks,” as he describes them; some are just ordinary people trying to get along in a horrible situation; and some are heroic in one way or another. Sam, by the way, is writing a history of the apocalypse, so this is all told first-person. Sam’s description of how a group of African-Americans talk who he falls in with is (in my opinion) quite well done but probably funny from an African-American perspective. (Before we call the verbatim translation anything like “racist,” let’s remember that this is being told from a character’s perspective rather than the author’s.)
Sam’s development from a zero to… well, not really a hero… is well told; he seems to learn from his (and others’) mistakes, which keeps him from being annoying. Though (possibly because he was originally the next best thing to a recluse) he does seem to fall in love easily. But maybe that’s just the fault of the apocalypse; or maybe it’s the fault of being who Sam is and was.
The ending is solid—and was foreshadowed early enough in the book to not be a “deus ex machina”—yet leaves room for a sequel or two. (Or more; there are a lot of ways Sam and his world can still be developed.) I liked it. I’d give it a solid three-and-a-bit flibbets: ¤¤¤+! The book’s available for a bit over $3 from Amazon as a Kindle, about $15 in paperback; click the link to get it.
Next week I hope to review the March/April F&SF; I realize I should have already done it, because it’s almost time for the May/June issue.
I’m looking for comments on this column. If you have any, please comment here or on my Facebook page, or in the Facebook groups where I link to this column. All your comments are welcome, whether you agree with me or not. Remember, my opinion is, as always, just my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other columnists. See you next week!
All Systems Red is the first of four books in the Murderbot Diaries from TOR.
Excellent; I didn’t know that. Thanks, my dear!