Review: Martha Wells – Artificial Condition (2018)

8/10 The Murderbot Diaries #2

I liked this one more than the first novella, All Systems Red (although both novellas are quite strong). It is funnier and more interesting, adding some meat to the bones of the first novella.

Murderbot is on her own now. Not having a clear plan for the future, and not wanting to be found out as a rogue bot, she/he hitches a ride on a bot-controlled cargo ship. The ship bot has very much its own personality and before soon Murderbot nicknames it ART (Asshole Research Transport). Much of the humor comes from ART and Murderbot’s interactions. They watch human TV shows together and occasionally Murderbot shuts herself down in annoyance. ART helps her with a mission to find out more about her past.

The crux of whether this series works for you is whether you relate to Murderbot. I understood her and related up to a point, but also got annoyed a bit… and then we have a problem. Does an anxiety disorder make a personality? There isn’t much else to her. And the worldbuilding alone is not carrying the series; not enough to hook me in. There is lots of talk about companies, contracts, bonds, political entities and the logistics of hacking into corridors, transits, nodes, modules, feeds and supply shuttles, and it is all a bit abstract and bland.

So that brings me back to the characters. I liked ART and Murderbot together. I liked that it took another bot instead of a human to push Murderbot forwards over her hesitations. I also liked the plot, which involves Murderbot pretending to be a human. As a construct, she has some kind of artificially created autism and her struggles feel familiar to anyone who ever had trouble trying to fit in. At the end of the story, Murderbot has had some new experiences with this but I don’t really see her changing yet. Also because the success of the series itself rests on her relatability. How far is Wells willing to let Murderbot change? Don’t know.

What is interesting from a more philosophical point is that Wells’ future is populated by a spectrum of entities, running from humans to augmented humans to human-robot constructs to AIs for all sorts of functions. Murderbot is somewhere in the middle but with an inner conflict, drawn inexplicably towards the human side of it and trying to be one, instead of the other way around of wanting to be more like an AI, even though she’s afraid of being a person. As readers, we sort of take that as logical but that is our own bias. ART, an AI, doesn’t have this conflict. It just is. But Murderbot doesn’t envy ART for that. It also makes us see Murderbot as a flawed kind of human instead of its own thing and wait for her to become more human. Is that a fair expectation? Don’t know.

The story rests on a lot of assumptions about all of this and not much is really made explicit or deepened out. There are enough reviews online that admit to a slight sense of confusion about Murderbot. I feel it too. Partly this is by design, I think. For example, (s)he is genderless but we automatically picture a male or female person. But partly I think the confusion is because Wells focuses on relating to Murderbot because she’s nervous and not so much on building that background. 

If you liked All Systems Red, I’m sure that you’ll like this one too. I did, but I don’t really feel compelled to read the rest of the series.

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12 Responses to Review: Martha Wells – Artificial Condition (2018)

  1. This one was great! One of my favorite installments of the series. It’s all about ART 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes ART is great! Mbot thinks that ART is overbearing but I don’t think that is the case. He is a friendly bot that wants to help but he pushes a bit against Mbot’s insecurities. He doesn’t deserve to be called an asshole.

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  2. Bookstooge says:

    What was the little long arrow thingy separating the “spectrum of entities, running from:” and “humans to augmented humans to”?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. bormgans says:

    Again a very illuminating review. Would be nice if somebody who has read the full series would comment re: evolution.

    As it stands, based on your two reviews, I don’t think I’ll start the series. While I haven’t fit in too at times, I’ve hardly felt anxiety about it, and I’m not really interested in a story that turns not fitting in into its main gimmick.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ola G says:

    Good to see you enjoyed it so much! It’s one of the better entries – the next two are definitely weaker. You could jump to the novel now if you wanted, it’s entertaining and furthers the relationships angle in a nice but not overly illuminating way. As for the evolution of the main character, it’s in there, but slower that you or Bart would probably like – by novella no. 6 it definitely starts looking like a gimmick even to a good-willed reader.
    Reiterating, I’m very happy to read Murderbot books on a library loan/NG offering, but I’d not buy the series – too expensive for what it offers, and not really a re-read material. Still, an enjoyable series!

    Liked by 1 person

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