All Systems Red by Martha Wells

The Blurb On The Back:

In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company.  Exploratory teams are accompanies 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 neighbouring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.  

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s the far future and mankind has colonised space thanks to corporate sponsorship from the Company.  Dr Mensah is leading a scientific team called PreservationAux on an exploration of a planet to determine whether it’s worth bidding on a full share of the planetary resources and because all of their surveys, habitat and equipment comes from the Company, included in their kit is a SecUnit – part android, part bio-organism – to keep them safe from planetary dangers.

This particular SecUnit, however, has hacked its governor module and become self-aware.  Referring to itself as a Murderbot, all it really wants is for the humans to leave it alone so it can watch soap operas on the HubSystem and continue working through the other entertainment channels.  But when the PreservationAux team lose contact with a neighbouring mission, they need the Murderbot’s help to work out what’s happened to it and why …

Martha Wells’s science fiction thriller novella (the first in a series and the winner of the 2018 Hugo for Best Novella) is a tightly written and entertaining affair that neatly sets up the Murderbot’s world and backstory although I thought that the ending was a little rushed, the side characters a little thin and the reveal disappointing although I would definitely read the sequel.

Although this book is short, Wells packs in an awful lot of worldbuilding, expertly sketching out how this universe of the future operates and offering a lot of world-weary cynicism on the rapacious nature of the Company as seen through the Murderbot’s eyes.  The Murderbot itself has a fantastic voice, cynical and knowing but also emotionally vulnerable (there’s a particularly good scene where the Murderbot is seen by the science team without its uniform suit skin and armour and there’s a definite anxiety there) and I especially liked how it is adamant that it doesn’t want to discuss its feelings and emotions, which is a shame because that’s exactly what the scientists want to talk about.  Wells also does a good job of setting up a mystery in the Murderbot’s past involving it having turned on a group of previous clients, which opens up the possibility of this having led to its sentience.

The scientists themselves are thinly drawn with the exception of Dr Mensah who’s compassionate and considerate, in part because she comes from a system where SecUnits are not regarded as mere property, although this in turn gives her a slightly paternalistic air.  I would have liked to have seen more scenes between Dr Mensah and the Murderbot, especially as the Murderbot’s secrets get revealed, but I am hoping there will be scope for this in the later books.

For all the good worldbuilding and the strong central character, the mystery element was rather weak.  The reveal was a particular disappointment for me given that it involved Wells dropping in a lot of information in quite late on, although it does add further detail to the worldbuilding.  That said however, there was more than enough here to hold my interest and the book ends with a set up for the Murderbot to have further adventures and engage in more self-discovery and I would definitely want to check them out.

 

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