The reviewer’s bias: I prefer stories with well developed, pleasant characters. I like writing that is clever and witty – entertaining in itself. I prefer first person narratives, or close third person narratives. I dislike thinly disguised fanfic and stories with gaping plot holes.
Network Effect won the 2021 Hugo Award for best novel. Murderbot won the 2021 Hugo Award for best SF series. Artificial Condition won the 2019 Hugo award for novella. All Systems Red won the 2018 Hugo Award for best novella.
Murderbot stories are popular. Everyone loves Murderbot.
I found Network Effect to be okay.
Murderbot is an original and entertaining character. It is also the first person narrator of the stories. The thing with first person narrators, as a writer who uses them, is that they narrate the story from their perspective within the story. They tell the story as they see it, they tell what is important to them. And they tell it as they want to. In short, good first person narrators stay in character. Or more accurately, a good writer keeps his or her first person narrator within the story and the character. Wells keeps Murderbot within its character, which is good – until its not.
For me the Murderbot stories fall off a cliff as soon as you get beyond the internal dialog. I’ve identified several reasons for this. The first is that Murderbot doesn’t much care about scenery or mood, and so both are lacking in its narratives. To be honest, the stories generate little to no visual imagery in my mind. For the most part its just a series of corridors and doors – an interior dungeon and dragon landscape that I can't seem to picture. For example, in this story I have no idea what the space ships look like. Or what sort of platform could float on water, have decks to greet traders, fly into space and become an intricate part of another space ship. And it seems that for Wells/Murderbot, it doesn’t matter. While she does set out some details of settings, they just don’t seem to gel for me to create an image in my mind. They may work for other readers, but for me, they’re just a string of techno-jargon words that can be ignored because these sorts of details apparently aren’t important to either Wells or Murderbot.
Which brings me to my second problem with these books. The story structure is a loop of the same elements slightly rearranged every time the come around. Danger. In response, Murderbot use drones, hacks systems, gets semi-destroyed, but at the end of the loop, saves its clients. Again and again within the story and within series as a whole. Reasons and details may change, but given the limited narrative focus of Murderbot, it all just blurs together. And gets old.
The third issue is that the human characters are more or less interchangeable. While she does make an effort to make them distinct, you’d have to be paying very close attention to them to notice that, since, after all, they’re all only minor characters. It’s been a while since I had read the first three novellas, so I wasn’t up to speed who was who when starting this novel, and I don’t think it would’ve made any difference to me if I had read the stories back to back.
The fourth issue, a minor gripe, but still... I have a problem with the mega-setting. Everyone’s an indentured worker of one corporation or another. Whole planets of indentured workers? I know that its a popular concept these days. I’ve run across it before, but I doubt that its possible. And even if it is, it’s an unpleasant world to spend time in.
So to sum it all up for me – while it may be a failure of my imagination to attach images of locales to descriptions in the book, the repetition of the same plot over and over again has made Murderbot, despite being an interesting character, become a rather tedious read for me. I couldn’t wait to finish this book and that’s not good. A good story is one that you don’t want to end.
Still, I will be the first to admit that the perceived failings of Network Effect may be mine rather than Martha Wells. Indeed, given the popularity of the series, this is likely the case. Oh well.
While there is a one Murderbot novella out that I haven’t read, which is set before Network Effect, that may describe the basis of the flashbacks told in this novel, I think I’m done with Murderbot, even if TOR offers any more Murderbot books for free.