After reading the latest novel in Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries, I decided I wanted to reread the whole series, which I originally reviewed for CBR14. I had thought of doing this before reviewing System Collapse, but I told myself it wasn’t necessary and I should focus on all the books on my TBR list. But I love this series so much and going back through the whole run was fun. I expect this is the kind of thing I will do with every new Murderbot release. It honestly doesn’t take long. Most of the novels are less than 200 pages, and the stories, characters and writing are so engaging and entertaining, I got through the reread quickly. Too quickly. This is a series that I just don’t want to end.
Book 1 All Systems Red introduces the reader to the rogue SecUnit that calls itself Murderbot. SecUnits are robotic creatures with some human parts that work as security agents rented out by a bond/insurance type company. They might be rented out to corporations engaged in colony development or to researchers who are going to remote dangerous areas. SecUnits are controlled by “governor modules” that prevent them from acting autonomously; if they fail to follow orders they might receive an immediate physical punishment from within, or they might have their memories deleted and be restarted, or they might be “fried” and their parts sorted for recycling. SecUnits are viewed by many who use them as disposable but also as terrifying weapons that need to be governed by a higher power. Murderbot knows that in its past, it engaged in some sort of mass murder of humans but it cannot remember the details; it also figured out how to hack and override its governor module, making it independent. The thing about SecUnits and Murderbot in particular is that they have incredible tech abilities and can access/read/manipulate information systems, which exist all around everyone in this world. Murderbot has essentially made itself independent but continues its routine work; its one great expression of independence is to use its incredible power to download as much media as it can, and while it works on contract labor, it also watches TV. Murderbot is completely annoyed by humans, since they tend to not be careful or listen to its advice, but in this book, MurderBot finds itself attached to a party of researchers from Preservation Colony, an unusual planet that is not run or owned by any corporation. The researchers, including leader Dr. Mensah, recognize the equality and value of all persons, including augmented humans (mostly human with some enhanced robotic ability) and SecUnits. Their kindness to Murderbot and desire to engage it in conversation freaks it out! But MB gradually learns to really care about these people, especially Dr. Mensah, who is one of the smartest humans MB has met. While doing research, MB and the Preservation Colony researchers discover that a company called GrayCris, which is doing some kind of work in the same area as the researchers, has been engaging in potentially illegal and dangerous work on “alien remnants,” an illegal, highly controlled substance that GrayCris authorities wish to exploit for financial gain. This book is short but action packed and full of humor and excitement as Dr. Mensah and her crew learn more about MB and work together to stop GrayCris and to get out safely.
Book 2 Artificial Condition picks up with Murderbot released from its company and under the guardianship of Dr. Mensah. While Mensah and her crew are eager to introduce MB to a life of freedom on Preservation Colony, MB has other ideas. First, it does not wish to be stuck on a planet somewhere with nothing to do. It hates planets. Second, it wants to figure out what happened in its past, the past in which it was a SecUnit under a governor module working on a mining colony when it went ballistic and killed a bunch of humans, leading to its memory wipe. Since SecUnits have some human body parts, including brain matter, when they are “wiped,” not all memory is erased. While on a busy station with Dr. Mensah and her crew, who are speaking to the press about GrayCris and their potentially illegal activity, MB decides to leave without notice. Using its superior tech ability and access to information, it programs itself to “walk human’ and try to blend in. It also contacts a research transport ship in dock that seems to be crewless to see if it can hitch a ride to RaviHyral Mining Facility, where MB knows it went on its murderous rampage. The ship’s bot pilot agrees to let MB ride along in exchange for MB sharing all of its media with it. What MB finds out quickly is that this bot pilot is incredibly smart and powerful; MB is intimidated at first, but the bot, whom MB dubs ART (Asshole Research Transport) knows exactly what MB is and when it finds out what MB wants to do, actually helps MB with its task. ART helps make physical modifications to MB so that it looks more human and creates an identity that will allow it to “pass” on the mining station more easily. ART and MB antagonize each other but actually like and need each other. On the mining station, MB creates an identity as “Eden” the security consultant and agrees to help some young researchers whose work on alien remnants has been stolen by the corporation overseeing them. MB understands, as these young humans do not, that this is a potentially deadly situation and while it investigates its past, it also helps protect these folks (whom it begrudgingly cares about) and their research.
Book 3 Rogue Protocol In this book, MB hitches a ride on another transport ship, acting as security over its rowdy passengers (a bunch of people going to work as indentured laborers for 20 years on some remote outpost — a shitty future guaranteed). MB’s goal this time is to get to Milu, an abandoned terraforming site. Based on info gleaned from newsfeeds, MB understands that evidence of GrayCris’ corporate criminality is on Milu but will be lost forever as the abandoned site deteriorates. Given how remote and abandoned Milu is, MB doesn’t necessarily have to create an identity for being there ; it just has to evade any security cameras (easy) while snooping around. One complication that arises is a “pet” named Miki that is traveling with and helping its human Don Abene. Don Abene is a researcher and a good person who treats Miki with love and respect, which makes MB feel a lot of different things; it hates the idea of “pet bots” but it is reminded on Mensah’s kindness and goodness, too. And MB has very complicated feelings when it comes to Mensah. Miki can sense MB’s presence on Milu, and MB realizes it might actually need Miki’s help to achieve its own objectives. Miki agrees to keep silent about MB as long as MB agrees to try to keep Don Abene safe. As usual, though, things go pear-shaped when some kind of violent creature attacks Don Abene’s team and MB’s status as a rogue SecUnit comes out. Ultimately, MB gets important evidence that can be used against GrayCris but doing so results in some rather spectacular and explosive results. So much for flying under the radar, Murderbot!
Book 4 Exit Strategy After getting away from Milu and securing the evidence against GrayCris, MB discovers that GrayCris security forces are looking for it and that Dr. Mensah has been kidnapped. MB knows that GrayCris is behind that since they have accused Mensah of “corporate espionage,” and that is when MB has the “aha moment” of realizing that its activity on Milu looks like Mensah sent MB there herself. MB goes to the busy corporate hub known as Have Ratton Station, the headquarters of many big corporations including GrayCris, because it makes sense that that is where Mensah is being kept. As usual, MB has to find ways to blend in and hook into information systems. In some ways, being on a very busy station makes it easier to hide; there is a lot of “commercial” interference (ads and such) that clog up other people’s information streams but not MBs. The downside is that there is a lot of security, including other SecUnits. MB will reconnect with old friends from Preservation Colony as they make a plan to free Mensah and escape Have Ratton. This book has a great fight sequence near the end and important information for future books about how technically advanced adversaries might be able to inhabit bots to take control of them.
Book 5 Network Effect and Book 6 Fugitive Telemetry Chronologically, the events of Book 6 happens before Book 5, and I opted to read them in chronological order this time. It honestly makes no difference that I can tell. Fugitive Telemetry takes place on Preservation Colony after Mensah, Murderbot and the crew secure evidence of GrayCris’ wrongdoing and make it home safely. Preservation Colony is not part of the “corporation rim,” and has its own rules. They tend to be the kind of laws and rule most of us would recognize as humane and civilized: equal rights for all, the right to privacy, freedom of movement, and so on. MB’s identity as a “rogue SecUnit” is now well known, and while Mensah and her crew respect MB and treat it as a friend and colleague, many people, even on an advanced planet like Preservation Colony, are still freaked out at the thought of a “killing machine” running around without control or supervision. At the top of the list of the freaked out is Senior Indah, who is the head of security for the colony. Mensah and her staff are working on getting citizenship and rights for MB and MB is working as personal security for Mensah while GrayCris tries to stop her from stopping them. But MB must agree to work by the rules of the colony, meaning it may not freely access all the information feeds and watch private citizens or interfere with them. MB must subordinate itself to Indah and her security team even though MB finds their work to be lax and insufficient for the threat Mensah faces. When a dead body is found on the colony, Mensah asks MB to help Indah and her team find out who did it and why. This book is a good old detective story with more information about freedom and the status of refugees in the Murderbot universe. The story also deals with the effects of PTSD/trauma on its characters and the importance of getting help — a theme that will carry over into subsequent MB books.
Network Effect opens with MB providing security for a Preservation Colony research team, including Mensah’s daughter Amena, on a research mission that goes from bad to worse. After their ship is attacked by pirates, the crew escape into space only to find themselves under attack from a large ship. While most of the crew make it onto the escape shuttle, MB and Amena get pulled onto the attacking ship. Shortly after getting on board, MB makes a few startling discoveries: there are some kind of gray skinned hostiles who have taken the ship, there are two other injured humans on board, there is some kind of alien remnant substance on the ship, and the ship is ART. Network Effect goes deep into many of the themes covered in previous books: corporate greed, abandoned colonies and refugee rights, the danger and power of alien remnants, and trauma/PTSD. MB goes through a lot of feelings in this book when it thinks that ART has been deleted, when it finds out who/what ART and its crew are, when it understands what has happened to ART and its own feelings about ART and the other important people in its life. What happens in this book regarding a lost colony that has been found will be important for the next book, but as usual its the MB/ART relationship (MB hates that word!) that really hooks the reader.
Rereading this series was not only a lot of fun and a treat (the way rewatching Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon or Worldhoppers is for MB and ART), it reminded me that these books are about MB and its growing “humanness” and about a world where freedom is not extended equally to all, where capitalism has overridden basic human rights, and taking a stand for the unfree will put you in harms way. Each book is full of exciting action and humor, but they also deal thoughtfully with matters of trauma, grief and regret. I wish I could have them running in the background while I go through my day they way MB runs its favorite shows.