All Systems Red
By Martha Wells
As I write this, the fifth book and first full-length novel in the Murderbot diaries, Network Effect, has won the Hugo award 2021 for best novel, already having won the Nebula and Locus. The series itself has also won the 2021 Hugo for best series. I guess I have some catching up to do. All Systems Red and the following three books in the series (Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy) are novella-length stories about an AI construct security unit who call themselves "Murderbot", hack their governor module (designed to make them follow orders) and gain independence. Such independence was primarily sought so they could just watch soap operas all day, but they find themselves helping out pesky humans from being squished by other pesky humans, alien fauna and other security units.
Only reason why I haven't reviewed any of these books so far, is that so many others have, and it becomes less needed to add my own voice to the busy crowd. This is coupled with the fact that I still like to buy real, genuine, paper versions of a book and I object to paying over £10 for something novella-length (150 pages) - some of the others in the series are £15. I think Tor.com need to rethink their pricing. If you don't mind the electronic version, they are pretty good prices though - usually just a few pounds / dollars.
All Systems Red introduces us to Murderbot, a self-professed failure of design as a heartless killing machine and one of the funniest, most cynical, wonderful creations of recent times. A cyborg of metal and organic components, they only really want to spend their time watching soap operas and don't have a lot of interest in doing anything else. Having hacked their own governor module, they don't really have to either, but yet still follow the "orders" (mostly) that "the Company" provide (after all they are also proving the soaps too). Currently that means keeping the expeditionary team alive so that they can carry out a survey they've paid the company for on a remote, wild planet.
I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realised I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.
In this future, humanity has travelled to the stars, and seem to be controlled by the commercial entity known as "the company". The expeditionary team Murderbot is looking after have paid the company for a survey package that allows them to explore this remote planet for things that may be commercially advantageous. Despite this future of advanced AI, space ships, cyborgs and even modified humans it doesn't look like humanity has progressed that much socially, as these robots / cyborgs being often miss-treated or just treated badly, just like those who are different still are today. This current group doesn't seem like this though, treating Murderbot more like one of their own, especially the leader - Dr. Mensah.
It was starting to occur to me that Dr. Mensah might actually be an intrepid galactic explorer, even if she didn’t look like the ones on the entertainment feed
Things start to go wrong right from the start of the book, and it isn't long before everyone comes to realise that these random problems might not be so random after all. I love the Murderbot's attitude - cynical, pessimistic, socially awkward, but also emphatic. I can relate. Given this is just a novella, there is a lot packed into the 150 or so pages, and it does so without lengthy exposition, resulting in a swift pace. The quality of the writing is excellent too, and so easy to read. All those things meant I read the book in a single sitting.
Is it as good as people say, worthy of all the awards? Absolutely. It's funny, clever fiction with a great protagonist and strong story, one of my favourite reads of recent times.
Written on 31st December 2021 by Ant .