All Systems Red, by Martha Wells, is the first of four “The Murderbot Diaries” novellas feathering the SecUnit who calls itself Murderbot. It won the 2018 Nebula and Hugo Awards for best novella.
I don’t read a lot of contemporary science fiction, or indeed the science fiction of any era these days. Except for a few authors I know and like, I may sample just a book or two a year. So, given my limited exposure to modern science fiction, and as writer myself, what do I think of All Systems Red?
It was okay.
Damned by faint praise?
What may be more damning, in my view, is all the novellas that didn’t win. All Systems Red does not, in my opinion, set a high bar of excellence. So what does that say about the rest? Maybe there were not a lot to choose from, so the best of the lot didn’t have to be brilliant. I can't say.
Or it may be just me. I like novels, so a cut down novel, or an extended short story doesn’t fit my preferred style of story. That said, it was okay enough for me to read it to the end. I don’t read bad books to the end.
Since this is a famous four year old story, most science fiction fans have already read it, so I’ll skip the story summery, and just share my thoughts on the story.
The story opens with giant worm breaking out of a crater to threaten a survey team. The team’s hired security bot, “Muderbot” acts swiftly to save several members of the survey team from the jaws of this worm. It reads like an opening action scene straight out of lesson one of How to Write a Thrilling Story 101. In short, while it gets the job done of introducing the character, it is pretty standard, unoriginal fare.
And speaking of unoriginal fare, a planetary survey team facing danger on a planet is one of the most well worn tropes in the first three or four decades of science fiction, to the point were it is almost a cliché. No points for originality so far.
There is no real sense of place in the story. The planet is so generic that there are episodes of the original Star Trek with more convincing locales.
As for the story that follows… Well, Jason Sheehan says in his review for NPR, “The story itself is simple to the point of nonexistence.” It is certainly rudimentary. A series of unexplained computer system failures leads to finding another survey team on the planet massacred, which sends our team fleeing the unknown killers. The mystery of why the killers were acting this way, and how they were saved seems to have been pulled, more or less, out of the hat. Not that it matters. None of this stuff matters.
All this doesn’t matter because the story is a character study of the first (non)person narrator, Murderbot, a half mechanical, half biological “SecUnit.” It is sort of an introvert Bender – snarky, indifferent, haunted by its past, or rather what it can remember of its past, but, unlike Bender, very shy and uncomfortable around humans. Why a security bot is part machine, and part organic is not clear. It seems a weakness, not a strength, as there are pure sentient machines in the stories as well. I assume it is because Wells wanted to explore what a person is. Is this half machine a person?
Murderbot is, however, a special SecUnit because it had, somehow, managed to hack its control unit, its “governor,” giving it free will. It can no longer be controlled. I find it hard to imagine how it even knew how to disable its interior control governor without giving a hint to all the systems that monitored it, or how it reached it to alter it. And if it knew how, you’d think every other SecUnit, would know as well and be able to do it too. Just what makes Murderbot so extraordinary, and apparently unusual is not explained. Murderbot also seems to be able to hack any, or almost any, computer system. Not only is one is left wondering how it learned how to do so with relative ease, but you’d have to wonder why these systems wouldn’t be more secure than they apparently are. However, in a world where everything is connected and surveillance omnipresent, I suppose that being able to hack these systems to defeat them is a necessary skill for the stories in the series to work.
The story, as told by the SecUnit, Murderbot is largely concerned with the various procedures it implements to protect the humans in its charge from danger. During the story, Murderbot finds itself caring for its human charges, and they show concern for it – which makes it very uncomfortable. It prefers being treated as a machine rather than as a person, and finds it unnerving when they treat it like a person, and especially when they see it without its armor as basically a human. Jason Sheehan, whose review is actually very positive, sees the story as a “coming out” story – of a constructed entity finding its personhood, with the awkwardness and fear such a step entails for a very “shy” SecUnit.
Be that as it may, you still have to put up with the trite setup, almost nonexistent story line, the generic setting, and all the techno-procedural mumbo-jumbo that makes up the bulk of the story. I did, hence my “It’s okay” rating.
Martha Wells is an experienced writer, so you should probably assume that she knows just what she’s doing. And in that case…
I also write first person narratives. My approach is that the narrator tells the story from his point of view. (All my stories use male narrators, hence the “his.”) A number of reviews have said that my stories need an editor – presumably to eliminate nonessential wordage. I would reply that it is the characters in the story who are telling the story and they are not professional writers. These characters may include details that are unnecessary for the story’s plot, from a professional writer’s point of view, but are, nevertheless, significant to the character. I think that these non-essential details make the story feel more authentic. I believe that Martha Wells is doing the same thing. Since she has the SecUnit Murderbot tell the story, it would, naturally, tell the story from its point of view. It may well be blind to the beauties of the planet. It may well view the human characters as flat, two dimensional more or less standard humans. And main focus of its story would be its techno-procedural actions that it used to protect the humans in its charge. Seen from this point of view, the limitations of the story that I outlined above, are simply the limitations and priorities of the story’s narrator, Murderbot. Which is clever.
Still. It took me four days to finish the story. And so it is still just okay.
I have some additional thoughts after reading the three subsequent novellas in the Muderbot Diaries series, Artificial Condition, Rouge Protocol, and Exit Strategy. Since the series focuses on, and comes back around to the events of in All Systems Red, I can’t help but wonder if Wells and her publisher decided to take what would have been an episodic novel and divide it up and sell it as four novellas.
In any event, the three novellas that follow, are, in my opinion, much better stories. Murderbot becomes a more interesting character at as it continues to explore is personhood and its relationship with humans and other constructed entities. Not wanting to be a pet of the humans it saved in All Systems Red, it runs away to find its own life. In these stories Wells casts Murderbot as a Philip Marlowe type of hardboiled private eye, since now, without its armor, it can pass itself off as an augmented human. In Artificial Condition it hires itself to a group of people looking to hire a security consultant to ride shotgun on an iffy rendezvous with a dubious and dangerous person. And if Murderbot is now Phillip Marlowe in this story, it has acquired a new sidekick, a sentient ship who acts like a Nero Wolf type of character who can pull techno-strings and provide support in the background. All of which makes this story a much more compelling read. In Rouge Protocol, Murderbot is searching for evidence to help the people it saved in All Conditions Red, in their continuing fight against the evil corporation that tried to murder them. In doing so, it ends up saving another group of people from this evil corporation which is trying to protect its illegal activities. And in Exit Strategy, we find Murderbot once again saving the leader of the first group, who had been kidnapped by the evil corporation.
In all of these stories there is a ton of techno-procedural mambo-jumbo – hacking this system and controlling those drones or that machine. They are thriller/military sf stories set in a high-tech dragon and dungeons maze within large space stations. In many cases I didn’t get a clear picture of the locales, but I guess that doesn’t matter in the end. The stories are about Murderbot, and if you like the character, you’ll enjoy the stories. I like character focused stories and so I enjoyed these stories, especially the last three. I’d give the series an almost four star rating as a whole, the opening story giving the series the "almost."