Back on March 10, I published my take on Martha Wells’ new novella, All Systems Red. Apparently I wasn’t the only person to love this book, because it won a Hugo at the World Science Fiction convention in San Jose! At that time, I was informed by my wife, the Beautiful & Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk (who works for a book distributor), that the series would continue. Well, over the last few months I received books 2 (Artificial Condition), 3 (Rogue Protocol), and 4 (Exit Strategy), concluding the series. I said I liked it a lot and gave it four flibbets (¤¤¤¤).
All four books, though originally published in hardcover, are actually novellas… but IMO (In My Opinion) well worth it. (Or, if money is a problem, you could either go to the library or buy a Kindle version, which is usually cheaper.) Quick recap: our protagonist isn’t a human being at all, but a “bot.” A somewhat human-seeming cyborg with an Artificial Intelligence—in this case, a Security Bot, or SecUnit, our protagonist is of a type of bot specifically constructed with security protocols, weapons and armour; superficially resembling an augmented person, with superior speed, strength and, apparently, networking capabilities (including hacking).
In the first book, our protagonist (who calls itself “Murderbot” because at some time in the past, despite all bots having software “governors” to keep them under human control and prevent such occurrences, killed over 50 humans it was supposed to be protecting) revealed to us that he (despite it having no gender or sex, I feel more comfortable calling this person “he” than “it”—and I’m enough of a grammarian to not be comfortable saying the pronoun “they”) has hacked his own governor so as to able to act with complete autonomy (after the “accident”).
Acting as a paid protector for a group of scientists called Preservationists, he saved them from a company called GrayCris, which was acting illegally to gather alien tech and adapt, use, and sell it (also illegally). GrayCris tried to kill the scientists, led by a Dr. Mensah (as well as Murderbot himself), but in the end he was able to save her and several companions—and in return she bought out his contract and set him free. Not trusting any human (and probably in his view rightfully), Murderbot uses the opportunity to slip away.
In #2, Artificial Condition, he heads for the mining colony where he had his little “accident” of killing a bunch of humans despite having a working governor. Murderbot hacks his way onto several cargo ships going his way. (With his governor non-functioning—something which is not apparent from the outside—he is able to download thousands of hours of entertainment: books, music and, most of all, videos—from the various hubs and systems he comes into contact with. And he’s a soap-opera addict. Despite his stated desire not to be human or interact any more than he has to with humans, Murderbot likes soap operas because they give him an opportunity to study human behaviour. These give him something to do when the cargo ships’ AI is dumb or dumber than his.)
Taking a trip to the mining facility where his “accident” happened, with an eye towards solving it—on a transport with an even better AI than his own, Murderbot gets help in looking more human from the transport (he now calls it ART, for “A-hole Research Transport”). ART is smarter than Murderbot himself, and besides helping him with more AI stuff, he helps Murderbot—possibly out of sympathy; possibly out of pity—change himself physically to more resemble an augmented human.
The mining facility is called RaviHyral; and Murderbot contracts as a “human” security consultant to help some scientists who are meeting their former employer on RaviHyral. These scientists believe this employer (Tlacey of Tlacey Excavations) has illegally seized their research. It becomes clear that Tlacey is trying to kill these scientists. Of course, I can’t tell you much more without spoiling the whole story, but a very humanoid “sexbot” figures in the story.
In #3, Rogue Protocol, Murderbot is trying to get more evidence against GrayCris, and goes to a recently-abandoned terraforming facility of theirs on the planet Milu. When a new company goes to Milu to evaluate and take possession, they and their own security consultants (human, not SecUnits) are attacked by a combat Bot, and one human is taken captive. Masquerading as the property of (invented) security consultant Rin, Murderbot arrives to help the humans and their human security agents. Because it appears that GrayCris is still trying to cover up their illegal activities, a lot of action and reaction involving Murderbot, the combat bots, the human researchers, and their security consutants.
The action continues with the last book in the series, Exit Strategy, which refers to not only the last book in this series (only this arc; it appears Wells will be writing more and different books about the character of Murderbot), but also to Murderbot’s desire to get away from humans. But first, he has to rescue the Protectionist human friend?/Owner? Dr. Mensah who, it appears, is now a hostage of GrayCris.
Why would Murderbot want to help Dr. Mensah, when his stated desire is to be his own “person” and get the hell away from humans once and for all? Well, that’s complicated. First off, his own curiosity won’t let him rest until he finds out whether Dr. Mensah is indeed his owner—even with a hacked governor—or an actual friend. He (Murderbot) is smart enough, and has enough social background, to understand the concept of friends; he feels that ART—while being rather condescending to him—was a friend of sorts. He also knows that GrayCris is using Dr. Mensah to try to corral him, since he’s been outed as a “rogue” SecUnit.
Murderbot has all sorts of things to figure out; this book is an attempt for him to put it all down in diary form. The tropes are science-fictional, but these books go a lot deeper into self-identity for non-humans in a way that no robot or robot book that I can think of (not Adam Link, not R. Daneel Olivaw) has explored. I found the series arc very satisfying, and I found the character of Murderbot to be one of the most engaging in recent years.
Pinocchio doesn’t desire to be a “real boy”; he’d rather remain Pinocchio (in fact, Murderbot says that books and videos about humanoid robots wanting to be more human is the “stupidest f*-ing idea” he’s ever heard) and go on being Pinocchio.
And the books do it all within an SFnal background that almost any “hard” SF reader will comprehend without a whole lot of explanation.
You know, I think overall, I’m gonna boost my original four flibbets to five. I enjoyed this series in a way I haven’t enjoyed much SF lately. ¤¤¤¤¤!
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