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Science fiction. There, I just lost about half the readers of this column. No, I joke, but I’ve seen far too many readers shut down at the first hint of spaceships or robots. What those readers don’t understand is that the best science fiction may contain far-flung planets or future technology, but it uses that fanciful backdrop to tell very human stories. And oh, how delighted I have been to meet one of the most humane Inhumans I’ve encountered in fiction, the biomechanical protagonist of Martha Wells’ Hugo-award-winning “All Systems Red.”
Meet Murderbot. That’s not its name — it doesn’t actually have a name, because it’s just another piece of equipment — but even a self-aware artificial entity has to call itself something. It’s basically a human-shaped weapon, a security construct owned by The Company that contracts it out to protect planetary exploration parties.
But Murderbot is hiding a secret; it has hacked The Company’s controlling software and no longer has to follow human orders. At this point you probably think you know where this story is going — a crazed cybord, finally free of human control, out for revenge, etc., etc. But that’s where the “human” part of this character comes in because Murderbot discovers instead that it’s far, far easier to pretend to do its job while using its inbuilt computer to stream human entertainment media all day. It turns out that for an introverted cyborg, world domination just doesn’t have nearly the appeal of a good Netflix binge.
The one drawback to this plan, of course, is that humans keep wanting it to actually do its job. As the story opens, it’s stuck on yet another boring planet, on yet another boring mission, guarding yet another boring group of humans. But even as a simple planetary exploration unexpectedly turns deadly, this group of explorers turn out to actually be nice, and Murderbot finds itself pushing the bounds of its function to keep its team alive. This is taking a big risk; if people find out that it has hacked its controls, they could destroy it, reprogram it, or — even worse — talk to it about its feelings. What’s a poor murderbot to do?
If you haven’t tried much science fiction before and want to experiment with a new genre, this is an excellent place to start; not only are the characters and story engaging and fast-moving, but at 160 pages this novella is a perfect bite-size that doesn’t require a big commitment. And if you do like it? Rejoice in the fact that there are currently three more novellas in the “Murderbot Diaries” series, with a full-length novel on the way!
“All Systems Red” by Martha Wells and its sequels are available at the Wilson County Public Library.
Genevieve Baillie is the extension services librarian at the Wilson County Public Library.