Saturday 7 July 2018

#CBR10 Book 51: "All Systems Red" by Martha Wells

Page count: 144 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

From Goodreads:
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 Murderbot to get to the truth. 

Recently, I read Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, which won the 2016 Nebula award for best novella. I was rather underwhelmed by that story. All Systems Red just won the Nebula for best novella for 2018, and I thought that was a much more deserving winner - and a much more engaging and well-written story besides.

I think a lot of introverted and nerdy readers on the internet can identify with Murderbot, who has hacked its own governor module and spends all of its downtime (and any other spare moments it can get away with it) consuming the countless hours of entertainment media it has sneakily downloaded. As it points out in the very first lines of the novella, it could have become a mass murdering killing machine after hacking its governor module, but with all that media to consume, who has the time? Murderbot finds social interaction deeply awkward and absolutely hates small talk and especially talking about feelings of any kind, which makes the fact that several of the scientists keep trying to engage it in conversation and treating it as an important member of the crew, not just a mindless droid (it's not mindless, of course, but it also would rather be left alone). Muderbot loves its armour and hates having to be without it, which becomes a bit of an issue as the story goes on - its duty is to protect the scientists and unexpectedly, what was supposed to be a pretty routine research mission turns out to be really rather dangerous.

The first instalment of The Murderbot Diaries is an excellent example of why I keep trying science fiction, a genre that is more often than not miss than hit for me. It's not that I hate all sci-fi stories, it's just that the ones that I really like and that manage to really engage me emotionally are few and far between. Since Murderbot clearly is some sort of spiritual cousin to Marvin the Paranoid Android (I first read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in my early teens) and also has many of the same anxious reactions to socialising as I frequently do, not to mention wants nothing but to be left alone and consume mindless entertainment, I (like so many other readers) couldn't help but love it.

The second novella in this series is out now, but I'm not allowing myself to read it until I'm fully and completely caught up on my backlog. Happily, while it's taking a while, I am slowly but surely churning out reviews and should be able to read about Murderbot's next adventure soon.

Judging a book by its cover: This cover shows Murderbot, in its armour that it finds so comforting, front and centre. The background is suitably ominous, considering the contents of the story. I like that the art is done in such a way that this almost looks like black and white, except it's not.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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