8/10 The Murderbot Diaries #1
The story of murderbot is the story of alienation. Alienation in the sense of an emotional disconnect that many people feel from the rest of society, often starting in early adulthood, causing some to lose themselves in hobbies, or entertainment. In effect, living a separate second life, in which the responsibilities of work or adulthood take place in almost another plane of existence, but around the cracks of those responsibilities a second life can be built of losing yourself in consumption. I know, I’ve been there. Imagine a shy, awkward person, perhaps with social anxieties, perhaps a bit unlucky in the development of his/her personality. Martha Wells knows who she’s writing for.
The brilliant thing about All Systems Red is that the science fiction setting makes this alienation explicit with SF elements. As the novella starts, murderbot is there to support human researchers at a science station on an alien planet. She (or he) is not regarded as fully human because she is a cyborg and programmed with orders. However, she hacked her governing module to watch TV shows whenever she can. But she mustn’t let the researchers know this or she will be taken apart. So, you see the secret life of hobbies that she is leading, while pretending to her employers that No she is all there for the job, sir, totally committed.
In the first chapter, some action happens and murderbot saves one of the researchers, but severely damages herself in the process. No one cares. The human is rushed to the infirmary but murderbot has to fix herself in the toolshed. She’s a tool and she’s seen as one. Don’t we all feel that way sometimes? But it is not entirely true: one of the humans asks how she’s doing, but murderbot’s own social anxiety aggravates the disconnect. Shyness isn’t what you would expect from a killer cyborg so there is a further disconnect between how she sees herself and the function she fulfils. Call it impostor syndrome.
That is why this book and the series gained such a following. It is a perfect merger between real life psychological states and a collection of science fiction tropes (being a cyborg and all) to express them. She’s physically and psychologically covered in armour.
Now that I have analysed the sh*t out of it, is it any fun?
Sure, I liked it. Murderbot is interesting enough to carry a novella, but it is not a full story. I do wonder if her (or his) personality will change because so far it is rather static and I couldn’t always empathise with the extreme social anxiety. For it being a character study more than anything else, we don’t learn much about her. If she doesn’t change or deepen out in the next novellas, I can see myself tire of it. So, the novella is more like an opening chapter and doesn’t fully explore what it sets up.
What I really liked was that in murderbot’s slow progress of self-actualisation, the matter of trust comes up with the humans around her. Does she feel empathy for the humans she protects? And can the humans trust her while she hacks her own modules? There’s this ambiguity in the air and Wells did a great job with laying this all out for us.
For the next novella, I feel like I am about to be ripped off. I’m not sure it is worth the money. The first 4 books are novellas, but only the first one is reasonably priced as one. The others are all as expensive as novels. Very sneaky. And there is no omnibus edition in sight, only a complete murderbot box with 4 novellas for sixty euros. That’s 60 euros for 600 pages. That’s not just sneaky, that’s outrageous.