Martha Wells’ All Systems Red

cover art, first editionAll Systems Red is the first book in Martha Wells’ series “The Murderbot Diaries.” It’s a highly entertaining series of novellas set in a distant semi-dystopian future in which bots and borgs and other kinds of artificially intelligent constructs do the dirty work for humans. It takes place in an interplanetary setting with travel by wormhole.

The main character, which calls itself Murderbot (for reasons that don’t become clear until the second installment in the series, Artificial Condition), is a Security Unit. SecUnit for short. As should be clear from the series title, it’s told in first person. And “person” is indeed the appropriate word here. Murderbot and others of its kind, which include SecUnits and Combat Units, are sentient. Murderbot is an android, a construct with organic parts but a brain that is all AI, faster and more complex than any mere human’s. As opposed to a Combat Unit, it’s essentially a rent-a-cop, albeit one with superhuman powers both physical and mental. And, you know, energy weapons embedded in its arms.

The action takes place in something called Corporate Rim, and Murderbot is property of The Company. We discover right off the bat that Murderbot has hacked its governor module. That means it doesn’t have to do what humans command it to do, but also that it’s in mortal danger – if anyone finds out, it’ll be scrapped and sold for parts. What it mostly does with its newfound freedom is stuff itself with entertainment media – partly to combat the boredom and depression that are the common lot of SecUnits, and partly, we suspect, as a way of learning what makes humans tick and how to behave among them without them finding out it’s free.

The plot of All Systems Red is not all that important. Murderbot is contracted to protect a bunch of scientists doing a planetary survey, and at first it’s just the usual stuff, unexpected monsters that try to eat the scientists, that sort of thing. But some odd things keep happening that make it clear that something else is trying to kill them to stop the survey, and Murderbot struggles to protect his charges while not revealing that he’s not a slave to his software.

But if the plot of the novella is secondary, the overarching plot of the series is not. It becomes apparent that the larger plot concerns whether Murderbot will be able to maintain its freedom amidst a corporate-ruled culture that is steeped in security and surveillance, and which deeply fears the idea of a free-thinking and free-acting android.

The humans who need SecUnits tend to resent them, because security isn’t their only job. Murderbot is required to monitor everything each client does, 24 hours a day: ” … the company would access all those recordings and data mine them for anything they could sell. No, they don’t tell people that. Yes, everyone does know it. No, there’s nothing you can do about it.” Sound familiar?

Wells, an American author, is best known for her fantasy books, both adult and YA: The Wizard Hunters, Wheel of the Infinite. She has also written tie-in stories in the Stargate and Star Wars universes, so she knows her way around SF tropes. But the Murderbot books are essentially fantasy hero tales dressed up in SF trappings, which I find works really well. It cuts down on the exposition and SF’s often stilted dialogue, and allows us to learn quickly about the hero’s character – both by what it does and by what it tells us about those actions in this diary. It’s sword and sorcery, except with energy weapons instead of swords and high-tech hijinks instead of “magic.”

The book is packed with action almost from the first page. It doesn’t waste a lot of words and time on explanations, just gives you the information you need and trusts you to know what to do with it. It’s also very funny, due to Murderbot’s dry, self-deprecating, highly ironic sense of humor. Most of the humor comes through the bot’s interior put-downs of the frailty and stupidity of humans (as well as less-intelligent androids). The bot needs this humor, of course, to relieve the internal tensions that arise because, although it sees humans as stupid and cruel, it also craves their friendship and even love. That’s a secret, though, even to Murderbot.

In the meantime, it’s really uncomfortable interacting with humans in any personal way, especially without its armor on. At one point, during the breather after the first crisis, the team leader Dr. Mensah asks SecUnit if it’d like to hang out with them in the habitat’s crew area:

They all looked at me, most of them smiling. One disadvantage in wearing the armor is that I get used to opaquing the faceplate. I’m out of practice at controlling my expression. Right now I’m pretty sure it was somewhere in the region of stunned horror, or maybe appalled horror.
Mensah sat up, startled. She said hurriedly, “Or not, you know, whatever you like.”

All Systems Red and the other installments all clock in at about 150 pages. You can read it in one or two settings if you want, and believe me, you’ll want to. It’s a gripping yarn told by a memorable character. The character isn’t human but it’s made by humans, and its thoughts and actions tell us more about ourselves than we might be comfortable with. Wells is doing the dirty work of imagining one particularly grim future for artificial intelligence, and it’s not a pretty picture.

(Tor, 2017)

About Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.