Since there’s a lot of travel involved for me over the winter holidays, I like to take along a variety of reading so I can adjust to time and genre/style I feel like at a given time. All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries was an unexpectedly good choice. This is volume 1 of a series of novellas, and I was not totally sure I’d like it because I haven’t had awesome luck with that type of story before. Usually I end up dissatisfied with lack of character or world-building; not the case here. The story relies just enough on tropes so that I can kind of fill in things (head-canon is the best) I need to, and I have plenty of things to look forward to as I get my hands on the several sequels so far.
The basic premise is pretty standard: a machine becomes sentient (exactly what and how this happens is totally ignored, but that kind of thing is so well-established in sci-fi that the basic gist is easily figured. SecUnit is a security robot assigned to some sort of scientific expedition, but no-one knows, not the scientists or the rental corporation that this particular model has become self-aware enough to override its connection with the master server which would otherwise control it. The SecUnit calls itself “Murderbot” but the details of exactly why are left unknown until the end of the story. Murderbot narrates its own story, and that perspective makes things interesting because Murderbot has some personality so it’s relatable but it’s also mostly a machine which does not enjoy or understand interacting with humans, although it seems to intuit more than it admits. The scientists are attacked and then realize another team on the same planet has disappeared and probably met a bad end. Investigation and fear ensues, with Murderbot forced to interact with the team of humans more and more, and it starts to take a liking to a few of them.
The main “bad guy” in the end is a little vague and the resolution to the disappearance is not totally explained but that’s not even the point. The point is more about some of the issues about machine-human interaction and the relevant ethical questions, since Murderbot has some organic parts and is definitely sentient. One of the scientists is an “augmented human” meaning he’s human but has a computer interface implanted in his skull, and there is some consideration about the potential for distinguishing between him and the SecUnit, as well as Murderbot’s quirks such as enjoying human entertainment in the form of binge-watching what sounds like a scientifically themed drama of some kind but also contemplating how humans think and feel about machines like itself. A few of the humans have a little personality and backstory, alluding to the state of human civilization in this universe, but none of that is really the point. I don’t even miss most of that since Murdebot itself is more interesting and more the point. It’ll be interesting to see what Murderbot gets up to in the sequels as it continues to evolve and hopefully mostly keep its secrets safe.