Review: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice. And I give absolutely no fucks.

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May 10, 2017

The single quickest way to get me to buy a book is to tell me that the main character is an android and calls themselves Murderbot. Both the concept and execution of All Systems Red by Martha Wells is exactly my sort of thing.

Murderbot is a security unit—a SecUnit—attached to a small group of planetary explorers. They’re part of the equipment required by the Company for both security and snooping purposes—the Company monetizes the information they glean from the recordings, but this “feature” isn’t disclosed to the clients.

Murderbot isn’t your usual SecUnit though: they’re independent, having hacked their governor module which is supposed to keep them operating within a narrow set of parameters. Murderbot’s also really into online dramas and would much rather watch them all day than actually do their job—Murderbot, I feel you, I really, really do. They’re alternatively apathetic, annoyed, and  awkward and I found the expression of traits to be endearing.

Told in first person, this is a well-paced—I don’t want to say romp, because no one’s really having much fun here—cascade of events that culminates in Murderbot being able to make their own decisions about their future.

The journey to get there isn’t smooth, of course: there’s a conspiracy targeting Murderbot’s humans—they may not like humans very much and may only wish to do a half-assed job protecting them, but when things become truly dangerous, Murderbot is an admirably effective SecUnit. Their lack of a governor module is likely what saves them and their humans in the end. I really liked that the program that was supposed to make Murderbot behave ultimately turned out to be so dangerous–and the reason why they disabled the module is a compelling bit of backstory, too.

Since this is told in first person, we don’t get much insight into the other characters in the story, but I really didn’t feel that this was a weakness. I found this to be essentially a character study and the other characters are there to put Murderbot into context and to highlight both the similarities and differences between them. Murderbot may have guns in their forearms, but they also have strong feelings about their entertainment.

I also found the choice of point of view to be really interesting from a theory of mind perspective: Murderbot is clearly a person, but those around them don’t recognize them as such until they are helmetless and until they nicely push Murderbot into any number of awkward conversations. Most of the humor in the story comes from the juxtaposition of the humans going out of their way to be considerate or kind and Murderbot flinching away from the kindness and consideration. They reminded me a bit of a person with a history of abuse in that respect–and one could say that they do have that kind of history.

The worldbuilding is superb and I’d like to read other stories in this setting. Planets seem to be some degree independent, but then there’s a Company that controls access to new frontiers and they act much as corporations did during the industrialization of this planet: they control the access and the resources and they’re going to skim as much as they can off the top while providing the lowest level of equipment and service required (kind of like Murderbot, now that I think about it: except Murderbot is a person and companies aren’t).

The moment I finished the book, I was pretty sad that it was over and that the next volume won’t be out until next year. In the meantime, I will have to haunt AO3 looking for crossover fic between this and Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series. I would like to see how Murderbot and Breq get along. With Translator Zeiat and Sphene helping.

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Highly recommended.


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"It's chaos, be kind."
Michelle McNamara