Review: All Systems Red – Martha Wells

Review: All Systems Red – Martha WellsAll Systems Red
by Martha Wells
Series: The Murderbot Diaries #1
Publication Date: May 2, 2017
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 155
Source: Library

My rating: One StarOne StarOne StarOne StarOne Star

A murderous android discovers itself in All Systems Red, a tense science fiction adventure by Martha Wells that interrogates the roots of consciousness through Artificial Intelligence.
"As a heartless killing machine, I was a complete failure."

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.

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5 stars icon scifi icon

Look, I love Murderbot so deeply that it is very hard for me to explain why without just devolving into a squeeing mess. When my local library’s genre book club picked this as its monthly selection, I was overjoyed, but a bit wary of how the, uh, older and more critical members would take it. But I vastly underestimated Murderbot’s appeal!

“As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.”

It’s just another routine contract for Murderbot, until a creature attacks the scientists he’s supposed to protect. Injured – but with the scientists retrieved – it’s clear that somehow the maps for this survey have been compromised. But is it an accident or intentional?

“So, I’m awkward with actual humans. It’s not paranoia about my hacked governor module, and it’s not them; it’s me. I know I’m a horrifying murderbot, and they know it, and it makes both of us nervous, which makes me even more nervous. Also, if I’m not in the armor then it’s because I’m wounded and one of my organic parts may fall off and plop on the floor at any moment and no one wants to see that.”

Most robot stories are a sort of scifi Pinocchio where the robot wants to become human. In direct contrast, Murderbot is frankly disgusted by humans. All Murderbot wants to do is be left alone to watch TV (God I feel that), specifically soaps like Sanctuary Moon. It prefers to stay in its armor when it absolutely has to be around humans (to further the misconception that it’s a robot and not made out of biological matter), and it hates, well, being perceived. Murderbot’s adorably awkward, especially when it’s trying to struggle with how kind and understanding Dr. Mensah and (most of) the rest of the team are of its awkwardness. But Murderbot has reasons for avoiding contact. A previous mission resulted in the death of most of his charges due to company directives, and after that, it hacked its governor module so that it no longer had to follow those orders. And rather than going on a murdering rampage, it just uses its freedom to… watch more entertainment feeds. Which turns out to be a good thing, since its knowledge of action & adventure movies helps it plan out how to help the trapped humans.

“So you don’t have a governor module, but we could punish you by looking at you.”
I looked at him. “Probably, right up until I remember I have guns built into my arms.”

One of my favorite things is Murderbot’s voice in this novella. It’s snarky and dryly sarcastic, such as when it freely admits it didn’t look at the mission briefing and deleted it in favor of more space for TV shows. This is a novella, so besides Murderbot, the characterization is a bit sparse. Honestly, besides Dr. Mensah, it was hard for me to keep the other characters straight. But there’s a bit of a found family thing going on there, as well, as besides the usual devil’s advocate character, no one in the Dr. Mensah’s group is actively evil or anything. Sure, they’re a bit worried at first about Murderbot going rogue, but once they figure out that it actually wants to help them (not that Murderbot knows why, exactly, it wants to do that, gosh feelings are annoying)? Murderbot becomes as much a part of the team to them as a human colleague.

In conclusion, it’s a novella, it’s great, go read this.

Content notes: View Spoiler »

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