A SecUnit assigned to the exploratory group PreservationAux has a problem. Two in fact. As an android, it’s supposed to serve the small exploratory mission to which it has been assigned. The SecUnit’s entire function is to support the exploratory mission’s investigation of a local planetary environment that it has placed a bid on to look at. Androids like SecUnit are a safety precaution from the Company because, well, alien planets can be rather hostile. And of course, they are handy recording devices, too, for the Company that is. A mandatory helper and a spy for anyone looking to explore the wild frontier in space.
Given that planets are not monolithic single-biome worlds, having multiple teams from competing groups spread out across a newly found world is a pretty regular thing. Who knows what you will find over in the next valley, down the river a bit, from another team. One team can’t find everything on a planet. So when a neighboring team to SecUnit’s goes dark, that’s a bad sign for its team, a major concern. What disaster befell them? Environmental? Natural? Something else? Given the proximity, is it a threat to PreservationAux, and to SecUnit itself?
The other problem is a more personal one. The SecUnit has managed to hack its own governor module, make itself independent, autonomous and capable of disobeying orders. It’s not going to reveal this of course, for fear of termination and worse, but this SecUnit is new to the idea of being able to make decisions for itself. New to the concept of being able to do what it wants to do. New to trying to come to terms with its own identity.
Like for example, a designation for itself. A name. Inside, secretly, the self-hacked SecUnit calls itself … Murderbot.
The inhuman but relatable to humans point of view, something that Wells has made a trademark with the Books of the Raksura series, gets a science fictional workout in All Systems Red. Here, the author goes into a deep dive into the character with a strict first person setting. Right from the get go, we are in the mind of Murderbot, relatively freshly hacked and free, struggling to juggle the questions of who it is, what it wants, and the needs of the team. There are only hints at the beginning of why Murderbot would call itself that, even as it wishes it could watch an online drama all day long, but the teasing out of Murderbot’s story and why it decided to hack its governor module is part of the backbone of the backstory revealed in the novella and I would not dream of spoiling it. The novella works superbly on a character-revelation level … I grew to love Murderbot as a character and empathize with its plight and situation.
The first person point of view does dilute the stories of the other characters, putting the focus firmly on it. We only get to see the other characters through its alien perception of what humans are and what they do. This leads to a fair amount of the humor in the novel, as Murderbot has to try and really grok humans in a way that it didn’t need to before hacking its governor module. It’s the powerful myth of Galatea or Pinocchio, when something not human suddenly has to deal with human concerns for the first time.
Aside from the strong character-based focus to All Systems Red, I was fascinated with the lines of the future world that the author shows us. The chassis of a world where SecUnits are routinely created and used, and clearly yearning to be free (Murderbot states that it’s not the first of its kind to try and become autonomous) raises a lot of questions about its world. We mostly get to see the planet from the point of view of Murderbot and the PreservationAux group that it’s assigned to, but there are layers of details here about the groups, their goals, their strategies and even their corporate structure. There are interesting ideas on the use of technology, surveillance, planetary exploration, communication and more. Weapons, too, of course, but you expected that with a Murderbot, I imagine. The iceberg-tip of detail in the novella beckons me to want to know more about the future world on display here.
I found parallels in this novella to a small 2014 movie called Automata, with Antonio Banderas. A very devastated and depopulated future earth is the setting of that movie. There are many SecUnit-like proto-AIs in this world, as a way of supporting the remnants of humanity. The greatest fear this society has is having its automata learn to program and change and upgrade themselves, and thus break their controls, and possibly reach for a singularity. The plight of the automata in that movie resonated with my reading and understanding of Murderbot’s central conflict and plight.
Finally, it should be said, that the cover art for the novella, by Jaime Jones, is absolutely gorgeous and fantastic, yet another example of the excellence in art that the publisher, Tor, brings to its novella line.
There is planned least one more Murderbot novella, and based on this first one, I already want to see where Murderbot goes. The author is employing and deploying powerful ideas and themes in a new subgenre for her, and I want to see more in this vein, on an authorial, worldbuilding, and most especially character level. More Murderbot, please!