Although I saw all of the rave reviews (‘saw’, not ‘read’), it took me a while to get this lovely novella. Part of the blame is on my library system, as it took several months before All Systems Red, by Martha Wells, was available, but mostly the blame lies with me. Although I have read some fantastic science fiction over the years, I am very cautious when it comes to this genre – perhaps because my older brother was a huge sci-fi nerd? (Certainly he has informed many of my preferences, usually by me resolutely rejecting them – but we are very close! Go figure!) Enough navel gazing: I was thrilled when this finally came to me and I went into it mostly blind; I knew there was a robot, or, more accurately, a murderbot. If you are more of a laggard than me, please do read this charming book and please do not read any synopses, spoilery reviews, etc. Going into it knowing there is a murderbot (well, Murderbot) and nothing else is the perfect way to meet the shy, engaging, homicidal protagonist.
Broad strokes, the self-styled Murderbot is a security android provided to a research team by ‘The Company’ for their safety as they carry out missions in a corporate-dominated galactic exploration future. At some point in the past, our Murderbot (see, I feel so protective!) hacked its governor module, and, thus, is self-aware. Apparently becoming a self-aware android means you like soap operas and do the bare minimum to get through the day – see, a very relatable Murderbot! Through the course of this mission, however, the Murderbot begins to engage more closely with the research team, and it becomes clear that the hard, manufactured exterior (with guns built into the arms) covers a marshmallow heart. Opening up to the research team puts Murderbot’s identity as an independent entity in terrible danger, since they could report back to the Company. Like so many of us, Murderbot notes: “I don’t want anyone to tell me what I want, or to make decisions for me.”
The key theme of the book is a riff off of this issue. Murderbot chose self-determination and then had to fight for it. Murderbot’s chosen activities weren’t always (or even usually!) glamorous, but I can’t criticize choosing to watch 35,000 hours of a space soap opera while half-assing security gigs to protect an identity so hard won. Self-determination can be a heavy handed topic, but Wells handles it beautifully, creating a fully formed, cranky, introverted, shy, tough Murderbot whose greatest threats are the soft, weak humans it has to protect; Murderbot is a realist (if a pessimist), noting: “I liked the imaginary people on the entertainment feed way more than I liked real ones, but you can’t have one without the other.”
I will Bingo categorize this as Bodies, partly because there is a body count, but also for a spoilery reason that I won’t share. If you’ve read it, I think this should make sense! And you should read it!