Title: All Systems Red
Author: Martha Wells
Genre: Science Fiction
Publication Date: May 2017
Ebook: 144 Pages
A murderous android discovers itself in All Systems Red, a tense science fiction adventure by Martha Wells that blends HBO’s Westworld with Iain M. Banks’ Culture books.
In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.
But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.
On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.
But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.
Stand alone or series : Book 1 in the Murderbot Diaries
How did we get this book: ARC from the publisher, Bought
Format (e- or p-): ebook
Right off the bat, I wanted to say that All Systems Red has one of the best, funnest narrative voices I’ve read of late. It is, for lack of a better word, delicious and I consumed this story in one go.
In a distant future, a team of scientists is conducting a research on a distant, uninhabited planet, their mission approved and supplied by The Company. As part of their deal with The Company, each team gets a Company-supplied security android, a SecUnit, complete with weapons and a governor module. But this particular team not only got a self-aware unit who calls itself Murderbot but also has a (self)hacked governor module, a penchant for consuming TV shows and a disdain for humans.
Part SciFi thriller, part coming-of-age, All Systems Red follows the (mis)adventures of Murderbot as it tries to protect its humans, when those humans get in trouble after the sudden disappearance of another team on the other side of the planet.
It is from Murderbot’s perspective that this novella is told and its voice is incredible: not only because of the snark and snide remarks – and its desire to constantly keep themselves apart to watch media (a desire I wholly understand and sympathise with) – but also because of the evolving nature of its sense of identity. Part and parcel of that evolution is directly linked to the media it consumes: from understanding stories and recognising tropes, to empathising with people and applying that knowledge in real-life situations. It speaks highly of the positive power that consuming media has.
The other aspect of its coming-of-age is learning to use its free will. The first step is taken when it decides to hack the governor module (for reasons best left unspoiled) and then learning to make decisions without an outside mandate. It’s interesting to note that Murderbot often feels embarrased by and around its humans, and I often wondered about social anxiety when reading about that. There is a certain aspect of possessiveness toward “its” humans in itself, a hallmark of their evolving feelings toward its charges. A relationship that starts fraught with misunderstandings and that evolves beautifully on both sides. That relationship shows not only a deep sense of caring and compassion but also works as a great way to reflect on good people and good intentions don’t necessarily mean that those choices upturn the status quo. To that end, the ultimate resolution of the novella was perfection.
I don’t think the novella ever refers to Murderbot (either through other or through its own narrative) as anything other than “it” but considering everything, I hope the next entries will change to addressing Murderbot as “they”.
“A Murderous android discovers itself” is a succinct and accurate description for this novella and yet it doesn’t entirely capture its tone, verve and depth. It’s definitely one of the best novellas I read of late.
Sometimes, being a murderbot isn’t all its choked up to be.
At least, for this particular murderbot–narrator of All Systems Red–otherwise nameless and known simply as “SecUnit” by the human clients in its care. (I’m going to call it Murderbot, note the capital M, in this review.) Murderbot isn’t quite like other security units purchased, owned, and employed by the Company. For one thing, it’s figured out how to hack its governance system, which means it doesn’t have to obey direct commands or abide by the Company’s stringent (and, as Murderbot will tell you, cheap) objectives. For another (and far more important to Murderbot), being gov-free means that it can download and binge watch human television programming at will.
At least, that’s what it does until everything goes to hell.
Murderbot’s latest clients, a low-bidding survey team from a distant world (but who Murderbot respects and actually likes), run into a series of mishaps under Murderbot’s watch. First, there’s an attack from local fauna that renders one of the team members seriously injured. Then, there are other “glitches” and mishaps–autopilot shutting off mid-flight, map coordinates and safety perimeter mishaps, that sort of thing. Murderbot is suspicious–especially when its clients can’t make contact with the only other research survey on the planet.
Someone or something is out for blood. It’s up to Murderbot to save the day… you know, so it can get back to its hours of premium serial television programming.
Ah, All Systems Red. You were not what I expected from your synopsis–which makes it sound like a rogue A.I. decides to go all Maeve from Westworld on its makers and human interlopers. Thankfully, this novella is nothing so simple or didactic. No, All Systems Red is the unreliable narrative of a curmudgeonly Artificial Intelligence organic-machine cyborg who largely wants to be left alone. It’s an interesting and powerful narrative choice, having Murderbot chronicle its time with its new clients and the overall mystery-threat that plagues them. Murderbot is the star of this novella, and its contradictions make its narrative all the more powerful: it insists it wants to be left alone and that it doesn’t really care about anything, but is that honesty or is it a protective distancing mechanism? Is Murderbot curmudgeonly and begrudging to its human clients, or is it afraid of scrutiny and being seen as something more than a SecUnit/machine because it would have to come to grips with its own reality? These questions, and others, arise through the protagonist’s (often hilarious) narration, and I absolutely loved it.
Beyond characterization, All Systems Red also scores top marks in terms of overall worldbuilding and execution. The pacing of the novella is superb, and I loved the gradual reveals regarding the survey team, the planet they are currently occupying, and the cheap-o Company that supplies their excavation. (In the future, why would companies operate in any other way?)
Most importantly, I loved the character beats and reveals regarding Murderbot–why does it call itself this? Why did it hack its gov module?–and its genuine choice to help these humans despite the most obvious and likely outcome. The only part of the novella that falters, in my opinion, concerns the final justification for the antagonists in the story (the explanation given comes fast, and is thin overall)–but I don’t hold that against Murderbot. Not when I know there are more volumes in this particular diary.
I loved this novella–heck, it’s the best novella I’ve read in 2017 to date. Absolutely recommended–now let me get back to my binge watching.
Ana: 9 – Damn Near Perfect
Thea: 8 – Excellent
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