All Systems Red (2017): Martha Wells

★★★★

The Murderbot Diaries: Book 1

On an isolated planet, a survey team carries out assessments to determine if it’s worth making a bid for this world’s resources. They are a small group, living cheek by jowl in a temporary habitat alongside their SecUnit – a humanoid AI formed from both mechanical and organic components, which has been programmed to protect them. However, the scientists are blissfully unaware that their SecUnit has hacked its governing module and is now a rogue agent. In many sci-fi stories, the alarm bells would already ringing. Before you know it, we’d be on a one-way path to ‘Rotate the pod, please, HAL’, and Daisy, Daisy. But Martha Wells’s grumpy and antisocial AI has absolutely no interest in sabotage. All it wants is to be left alone: it has 35,000 hours of media content downloaded and just wants to find out what happens next on Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon. Unfortunately for SecUnit – or Murderbot, as it has christened itself – terrifying events are about to occur, which threaten the mission’s success, its humans’ lives and, depressingly, its longed-for isolation. All Systems Red raises the curtain on one of sci-fi’s most unexpected heroes.

I’ve been hearing about Martha Wells’s Murderbot series for years: reviews have been consistently bubbly and enthusiastic, and now I can see why. Despite being a novella, All Systems Red creates a world as vivid, and characters as engaging, as those developed over the course of many a longer book. Its most appealing feature is the narration of Murderbot itself: this misanthropic intelligence, created for the sole purpose of security and defence, is just getting rather fed up with the whole thing. ‘As a heartless killing machine,’ it admits, ‘I was a terrible failure.’ When two of its humans are attacked by a ferocious tunnelling creature, Murderbot rescues the injured Dr Bharadwaj and coaxes the shellshocked Dr Volescu back to safety. This is no more than it’s programmed to do but, annoyingly, the rest of the humans take this as a sign that Murderbot should be embraced as a member of the team, which is the last thing that it wants: ‘Murderbot + actual human = awkwardness. Keeping the armor on all the time cuts down on unnecessary interaction.’ Murderbot, we’ve all had moments like that.

And there’s worse to come. When signals from another survey team die out, the project leader Dr Mensah decides that it’s their duty to go and investigate – to help, if possible. As preparations get underway, the team start to realise that they’ve been experiencing other strange technical issues. Their maps seem to be wrong. Their autopilot cuts out unexpectedly. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that everything has been sourced from ‘the company’ – including Murderbot itself – and that equipment is notoriously shoddy (‘They don’t give murderbots decent education modules on anything except murdering, and even those are the cheap versions‘). Or could there be a more sinister explanation? Having needed to conceal its hacked governing module, Murderbot has become a bit of an expert on the various systems, and begins to wonder if these glitches are deliberate and, worse, malicious. But who could want its team dead? And how far is Murderbot prepared to go in order to defend them when, as a free agent, it is no longer obliged to do so?

The immediate comparison that came to mind was Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers series. All Systems Red is also character-focused sci-fi, with a diverse cast, and themes of acceptance, community and learning to belong. There’s a similar warmth and generosity to the message, despite Murderbot’s sarky narration (during one of my internet trawls, I read someone suggesting that Murderbot and Gideon of Gideon the Ninth would get on rather well, and it struck me: their ‘voices’ definitely do have a great deal in common). Of course, despite its best intentions, Murderbot does show flashes of human emotion: irritation and embarrassment, for the most part. Yet it also, begrudgingly, begins to feel a certain attachment to its colleagues; and they in turn must learn how best to accommodate preferences and needs that are very different to their own.

Thank goodness I’ve finally got around to these books: I’d never imagined that a sci-fi series titled The Murderbot Diaries would be so ridiculously heartwarming, but for me it ticked all the right boxes. Wells adds satisfying scientific and technical details, but the focus here is firmly on Murderbot’s own self-enquiry about what it is, what it can do, and perhaps even what it means to be human. I’m really looking forward to reading the other novellas in the series – five, and a short story, at the time of writing – and finding out where Murderbot’s adventures take it.

Plus, isn’t that cover art beautiful? And one final note for you: if Murderbot’s narration has got you wondering about AI’s literary abilities, take a look at this remarkable article written by AI and published last year in The Guardian

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