First, two confessions: One, I’ve only read one Martha Wells’ novel that wasn’t a Murderbot. Two, I have read all of the Murderbot novels plus the last novel well over twelve times (I stopped counting then) and I’ll re-read them another twelve times at least. Wells is a terrific writer so I’m sure all of her books are terrific, but I am a Murderbot fan (to put it mildly) so this is a Murderbot post.
I devoured science fiction in junior high and high school, so my background in the genre is Asimov, Norton, and Sheckley. (I almost drove off the road one afternoon when my pal Alisa Kwitney told me her dad was Robert Sheckley; I loved Robert Sheckley’s work. Our Laura Resnick is Mike Resnick’s daughter. Writing is a very small community.). But then I moved on to mystery and did my first master’s thesis on that (it was terrible) and then working on my PhD I finally took a good look at romance and settled in for the long haul. So when I kept hearing about Murderbot, I thought, Robots that kill, uh, no, and moved on. Then Tor offered the first four novellas for free, and readers I trusted were so enthusiastic that I took Tor up on its offer (hey, FREE) and met Murderbot and loved it from the first line:
“I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels on the company satellite.”
A character that has a choice between mass murder and watching stories and picks stories: that’s my kind of robot.
Murderbot is a construct, machine parts inextricably combined with cloned human parts, a mash-up that leaves it in constant existential crisis because, as it explains, its not two halves working together, its one whole in conflict with itself. Designed to augment computer services to humans working on strange planets, it has decision-making capibilities but is in total thrall to the Company, which can break it down for parts if it doesn’t obey orders. (This is where I should say that calling Murderbot “it” is dehumanizing and bothers me because Murderbot is in my mind entirely and delightfully human, but it has no gender identity which it’s pretty forceful about, so “it” it is.). Then one day, the humans who have taken a contract with it as part of the equipment are hacked, and the hack goes wrong, and Murderbot, helpless to refuse an order, murders fifty-seven people. Shortly after that, it gives itself a name–Murderbot–hacks its governor so it’s no longer controlled by outside forces, and quietly begins life as rogue but still obedient AI. It’s just not going to kill anybody because of human error again. That’s all back story, neatly taken care of in the first novella and built on later. Have I mentioned that Wells is a terrific writer?
There are many things I love about this character–its self-deprecation, its wry humor, its character arc, its essential goodness–but one of things I love most is that its character arc is fueled by the TV series it watches constantly, mostly adventure shows, in conjunction with what it learns by reluctantly interacting with humans. (Okay, it doesn’t watch TV, it downloads the series directly into its memory bank, but it’s pretty much watching Battlestar Galactica while munching metaphorical popcorn every chance it gets.) Its education is sketchy since the Company cheaps out on that, but watching thousands of story hours about heroic humans in tense situations has made it, by osmosis, a competence porn hero in its own way, fed up with the clusterfuckery around it but dedicated to preserving life (or as it says in exasperation when it realizes how bad the situation is in the first novella, “I’ve got four perfectly good humans here and I didn’t want them to get killed”). It knows the story series are ridiculous, not realistic in any way, and it appreciates that because its had enough reality in its life (yeah, me, too, Murderbot, that’s why I read fiction). Another thing I love about Murderbot: it takes in its experiences across the books, examines them carefully, and rejects anything it considers bad code and accepts the useful, even if its uncomfortable. It’s a beautiful character arc for a fascinating character that just happens to be Artificial Intelligence that’s also human from its opaque helmet to its manufactured feet.
“All Systems Red” (novella):
Murderbot is standing around bored on a planet whose name it doesn’t know and doesn’t care about when a monster erupts from the bottom of a crater and snatches one of the people Murderbot is responsible for. Murderbot immediately leaps into the monster’s mouth, saves the woman who is horribly injured, and takes her and her stunned-and-going-into-shock partner to safety. That’s in the first two pages. The rest of the novella is about Murderbot working with the survey leader, Dr. Mensah, and her small crew to get the hell off the planet before another survey team, dubbed EvilSurvey, can murder them all. It’s a great adventure story, a great introduction to a great character, but above all the story of Murderbot integrating into a group of very human people it comes to trust (some of them) and who come to understand it as one of them. In other words, it’s my kryptonite: a team story with a competence porn protagonist who has a lot to learn and learns it. In fact, the entire series is about Murderbot’s character arc, while fighting off really evil, greedy bad guys and defending the humans its been hired to protect. No wonder I’ve read these books over a dozen times. (This novella is $3.99 right now on Amazon. You should buy it. No, I don’t know Martha Wells. I just love Murderbot.)
“Artificial Condition” (novella):
Murderbot is now on its own, traveling the galaxy but hitching rides on empty ships with robot pilots, giving them access to its tremendous collection of stories (35,000 hours worth) as payment for the ride. That goes well until it meets the ship Perihelion, who allows it on board, takes off, and then reveals itself to be an AI of tremendous power. After its first moments of terror, Murderbot calls it “Asshole Research Transport” or “ART” for short, and while the story is about Murderbot researching what made him kill fifty-seven people and also about saving very young programmers from an evil, greedy employer, what it’s really about for me is the beginnings of its relationship with ART, a testy, wrangling, exasperated interchange that evolves into mutual respect and connection. It’s probably pushing it to describe it as a romance, but that’s how I see it: two intelligences connecting on both an intellectual and emotional level. Murderbot can deny it, but later on, everybody else will see it. And it’s great.
“Rogue Protocol” (novella):
Having put the mystery of the massacre behind him, or at least understanding it now, Murderbot secretly hitches a ride on a transport going to a site last worked by the EvilSurvey company that tried to kill him and his team in the first novella; its looking for evidence that EvilSurvey did something horrible here, too. But when it reaches the planet, it realizes the new team there is about to be wiped out by treachery and greed–Murderbot sees a lot of treachery and greed–so it makes friends with a little bot named Miki that has bonded with its team, as they have with it. Murderbot tries to dismiss it as a pet bot, but the relationship there is clearly more than that, and while it’s dealing with this new input into its own confused response to its original team, it has to keep moving to save Miki’s team. As in every Murderbot story, the action is non-stop, the plot is twisty, but the real power is in Murderbot, doing what it does best while wondering why the hell it’s doing that.
“Exit Strategy” (novella):
Murderbot’s been keeping an eye on the news feed to find out what’s happening to his first team from “All Systems Red” and especially on what’s happening with EvilSurvey when it sees a newsfeed item that makes it suspicious that Dr. Mensah has been kidnapped. So of course it goes to save her, meeting up with the rest of team and coming full circle from its beginnings in “All Systems Red.” Again, exciting, funny, and full of heart, with the kicker that Murderbot finally accepts that it is part of a group it truly cares about and (so much worse) that truly cares about it. Great character arc over four novellas.
Tor is not stupid; having given me the first four novellas for free, it informed me that the next book was a novel (YAY!) and it wasn’t cheap. I didn’t care, I loved Murderbot so much I bought it without blinking. And it was marvelous.
Network Effect (novel)
I remember thinking at one point while reading the novellas, “I wish these were novels.” When I finally got to the novel, I could see why Wells had started with novellas: Network Effect isn’t just a terrific story, it keeps its narrative clean and its subtext layered and complex as all hell, and while I devoured it the first time as a reader, later re-reads evoked in me that greatest of writer reactions: “God, I wish I could write like this.” Every time I read Network Effect, I see more layers. It’s just brilliant. Murderbot is back with its team, and as the story opens, its just been shot (no worries) and has fallen off a boat into the water (really, no worries) and has swum around to board the other boat from which the shot was fired (the people on that boat should worry) and things move rapidly on from there, Murderbot working with its team to escape danger, another job well done– Oh, wait. Murderbot and Dr. Mensah’s teenage daughter have been snatched from space by an evil, greedy unknown entity and now are captive aboard . . . Listen, this plot moves fast (that’s probably the first chapter) and the twists keeps coming, but all you need to know is that Murderbot meets new people and comes up against a powerful evil, greedy force, and oh yeah, ART’s back. I love this book.
Fugitive Telemetry (novel)
The newest entry in the series drops on Monday; I pre-ordered it last May, and I cannot wait.
Look, I know the Murderbots are expensive, but the first one is $3.99 right now, so the entry level is affordable, and great fiction is priceless. I think of it as cost-per-read, and I’ve read them so many times I’m down to pennies a re-read. Start with the first one. One of two things will happen: You’ll decide they don’t appeal to you or justify the price and move on to another author or you’ll be so hooked you’ll work your way through the novellas and the novels and then start over again at the beginning. Or maybe that’s just me. No, it’s not just me, Murderbot is really that good.
I’m re-reading them all right now, having finished my Dick Francis binge, but mostly, I’m just getting set up for Monday’s release. There’s a murder on Murderbot’s new home planet (the planet his team lives on) and of course Murderbot’s exasperated–“No, I didn’t kill the dead human. If I had, I wouldn’t dump the body in the station mall”–and I’ve got my fingers crossed that the whole team and ART will be back . . .
Hurry up, Monday.