Review: Martha Wells – All Systems Red (2017)

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. 

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15 Responses to Review: Martha Wells – All Systems Red (2017)

  1. Andreas says:

    I only read the first book. Isfdb classifies the fifth and sixth volumes as novels. It probably won’t help you that there is a German omnibus with the first four novellas for a very reasonable price. In summary: The pricing is outrageous 🤬

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah it is. Maybe with a sale I will pick up the next novella but for now I think I will pass. I also thought of skipping the other novellas and going straight for the novel, nr 5, but I’ve heard some criticism about it too. Hmm.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ola G says:

    Would you be able to pick it from the library? I would never have paid this amount for the novellas, sorry – they’re good, but not that good.

    To answer your question, yes, there is character development, fittingly slow and painful, with attention to the backstory in one of the novellas.

    I’m currently reading the last novel, so I did stick with this series, and I’m still enjoying it. It’s not mind blowing, but it’s highly entertaining and you’re right – we can all see ourselves in Murderbot from time to time.

    As an aside question: are you familiar with evolutionary/biological lexicon in English?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ah yes libraries. I should find out about libraries in my neighbourhood. But I fear that they will have only Dutch books. I’m not sure how it works actually.

      I can imagine that the other novellas are quite good, very entertaining at least. I might try another one and then just say that the average cost between the two novellas is still reasonable. Maybe. I saw that you were reading Network Effect? I’m looking forward to that review because then I might just skip the novellas and go straight for the novel.

      Yes I am familiar with evolutionary & biological lexicon in English. 🙂 It has been a while, but I can still read the scientific publications. Was there anything you wanted to ask? or bring up?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ola G says:

        All right, that’s a deal – I’ll write the review for Network Effect 😉
        I’d say the payoff for Network Effect is bigger when you’ve read the novellas – there is one in particular that’s important for NE: Artificial Condition, which is #2, I believe. They all tell a story, and frankly they could’ve easily been combined to form 2 novels instead of 4 novellas, and especially #3 I felt to be unnecessarily padded. Still, there is character development and we learn quite a lot about Murderbot’s history in the novellas…

        Heh, I’ve got a few sentences I wanted to make sure they sound properly scientific without being to hermetic 😉 I know the words, but I’m not entirely sure I have them all linked in correct expressions 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Bookstooge says:

    OUtrageous indeed. I think the novels have been on netgalley though, so that might work for you (or not, depending on how NG deals with non-US countries).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Im not sure how NetGalley works. Do you have to commit yourself to writing reviews or something? And does it work for books that are a few years old?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Bookstooge says:

        Working backwards.
        NG (that’s how us old hands all refer to it as 😉 ) is strictly new release. After a set amount of time they archive the book and it’s no longer accessible to the public.

        You don’t have to write reviews, but you do have a NG rating based on a percentage of the books you read and rated. As long as you rate a book, I think that is all that NG cares about. Certain publishers will then only let reviewers with a certain percentage preview certain books. But in all honestly, your biggest issue would be geo-restrictions. If you’re willing to use a vpn and claim to be from the UK or US, it would be like having a new release library.

        If you do review, they, the publishers, have the right to use snippets from it on the final publication. That’s what happened to me and The Best of Tad Williams. That’s when I stopped using NG.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Oh I see that older titles get archived on netgalley and are no longer available. No luck there for older books.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. bormgans says:

    Thanks for this, the first clear analysis I’ve come across, aside from the hype. Why is hardly anybody else writing analysis like this?

    Anyhow, based on what you’ve written, I’ll wait for you to read/analyze the second title before I’ll decide to invest.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Bormgans that is a nice compliment!

      Problem is, I don’t know whether to pick up the next novella because they are all so expensive. I might skip the novellas and go straight for the 2020 novel. I believe Ola has read it. So while you’ll be waiting for me, I’ll be waiting for Ola to decide what my next point of entry should be in this series

      Liked by 1 person

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