I was so charmed by this little novella. People (including our very own emmalita) have been giving it great reviews, but I don’t normally get very emotionally involved in shorter pieces of fiction. I was emotionally involved with this one after about fifteen pages.
All Systems Red is the first novella of four (the rest set to be released by the end of the year) in the Murderbot Diaries series. Our narrator is Murderbot. He calls himself that ironically. In reality, he is a SecUnit, an android that is rented out by corporations, and who has hacked his own system to give himself control over his thoughts and actions. (I keep calling him “he,” but really, Murderbot is gender neutral. But I can’t seem to help myself.) The humans who have rented him out for their expedition have no idea that their SecUnit is rogue. Mostly because he still does everything they need him to, and only uses his freedom to watch hours and hours and hours of downloaded entertainment. Sometimes he is doing this while pretending to do something else. He particularly enjoys what seems to be a nighttime soap called Sanctuary Moon. He finds this easier than dealing with the world.
I was already enjoying myself thoroughly because Murderbot is so sarcastic (sample line: “The hostile that had just exploded up out of the ground had a really big mouth, so I felt I needed a really big gun”), but I just melted all over inside when Murderbot takes off his armor and is revealed to be a human hybrid, and not a full robot, like the humans have assumed (it becomes clear that is an assumption Murderbot wants them to make, but more on that later). The specific thing that made me melt is that he was cold and had to wrap himself up in a blankie, and the contrast between a cold, robotic killing machine that you expect, and the actual living being that has feelings and likes to be warm and comfy almost made me lose my mind out of immediate and intense affection for the lonely little guy. (Again, very well may be feminine or completely androgynous, but he doesn’t seem to care one way or the other. Gender seems to be something humans do, not Murderbots.)
“So, I’m awkward with actual humans. It’s not paranoia about my hacked governor module, and it’s not them; it’s me. I know I’m a horrifying murderbot, and they know it, and it makes both of us nervous, which makes me even more nervous. Also, if I’m not in the armor then it’s because I’m wounded and one of my organic parts may fall off and plop on the floor at any moment and no one wants to see that.”
“Gurathin, I told you. It’s shy.”
So I want to talk about what feels so fresh about this story, and that’s how it upends our expectations about what types of stories are told about robots and humans existing together. I mean, I’ve been around the block. I’ve seen BSG, iRobot, etc. Robots, we’re people, too! And that can be a very compelling narrative. But that’s not what Wells seems to be interested in. Her protagonist is shy. He likes the humans to think of him as a thing, to forget he has organic parts. He doesn’t like when they are reminded of his existence as more than a tool at their disposal. He keeps his faceplate down at all times. And when he’s forced into situations in which the humans are confronted with his personhood (seeing his face unarmored, seeing him wounded, etc.) he becomes SO UNCOFMORTABLE.
I am fascinated by this. And you can come at it from different ways. You could argue that Murderbot has been conditioned to see himself as a things as well, and that he doesn’t know how to be a person because no one has ever treated him like one. But what really interests me here is the burden of other people’s expectations, and how much Murderbot hates them. As a thing, Murderbot has never had to deal with anyone looking at him and seeing HIM. It makes him uncomfortable to be looked at because he isn’t used to it. He’s used to hiding behind his faceplate and his thingness, and there’s a freedom in that. It’s lonely and demeaning, but also safe. No one has any expectations of him, no one is watching; he can do what he likes. I’ve never seen a robot/human/what is a person? story where the robot has resisted being treated like a person before.
I highly recommend this, maybe even if you don’t normally like sci-fi.
“It’s wrong to think of a construct as half bot, half human. It makes it sound like the halves are discrete, like the bot half should want to obey orders and do its job and the human half should want to protect itself and get the hell out of here. As opposed to the reality, which was that I was one whole confused entity, with no idea what I wanted to do. What I should do. What I needed to do.”