Sentient Artificial Intelligence (AI) is all the rage nowadays. Actually, that assessment is wrong. Machines that think independently for themselves have been a staple of science fiction literature and film for many, many decades. From Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), to HAL from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), robots and computers that shirk off their programming, creating havoc for their creators and humankind as a whole, have been around for as long as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What is true to say, that since James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) knocked seven shades of you-know-what out of the sci-fi genre, writers and producers have gone back through annals of content and come up with a fresh approach to the whole “when machines go bad” concept.
Martha Wells takes an altogether different approach in her sequence of four novellas, The Murderbot Diaries. She posits what might happen if “bad machines go good”. Beginning with All Systems Red, Murderbot itself is a cyborg Security Unit (SecUnit) who has found some way to override its original programming, its governor module. Haunted by a past mission that went distastrously and fatally wrong, Murderbot would rather binge on cheap visual dramas than take part in further missions. However, owing to a string of events, Murderbot aligns itself with a scientific expedition group, and finds that it cares about what happens to them more than it wants to. He resorts to old programming in order to save them from rogue scientists and uncovers a conspiracy that may provide it with answers to its past actions.
All Systems Red caught me completely by surprise when I read it first. Fun and funny, with bursts of impressive and intense actions scenes in its 140 or so pages, I immediately went out and bought the other three in the series for my Kindle. Artificial Condition finds Murderbot, and his new found freedom, on board an empty cargo vessel, along with a new companion, a transport AI it christens ART (Asshole Research Transport). Murderbot disguises itself as an augmented human and takes on a contract, acting as a security guard to a group of technologists who are travelling to the same area where Murderbot’s malfuntion occured. Acessing its memories isn’t easy because much of what it should be able to remember has been erased. As with the first novella, Murderbot’s expertise comes into play when treachery is afoot. ART helps it out, and the two AIs make an engaging buddy-buddy duo, with Murderbot finding out with every turn exactly what being free entails.
Rogue Protocol continues Murderbot’s investigations of GrayCris, who appear to be illegally hoarding valuable remains of alien civilisations. It lands on a terrraforming base called Milu and is immediately up against a couple of shady security consultants and another AI, Miki, who’s as cheerful as Murderbot is grumpy. They are attacked and once again, Murderbot has to use all its skills, new and old, to help its new friends and survive nefarious attempts to hack its programming. More often than not, it comes to the aid of its legal owner, Dr, Mensah, who, from the first novella, granted Murderbot with autonomy. What it does with this decision, and how it rationalises its actions, form the very basis of this deceptively action-packed space opera.
The final novella in the sequence is Exit Strategy. Pursued by the authorities for being a rogue SecUnit, Murderbot is wanted, dead or alive. It continues to chase its own agenda, but finding that it can’t help but care what happens to the humans who have placed their trust in it, Murderbot has to protect Dr. Mensah, who’s in as much danger as it is. It’s Murderbot and Mensah against the evildoers of GrayCris, with the truth about what really happened in Murderbot’s past coming to light.
Murderbot has a unique and distinctly snarky internal voice. It constantly questions the decisions the humans around it makes, rolling its eyes as they flounder from one stupid mess of their own making into another. And yet, it will always help them when it comes to the crunch, despite the threat to its own existence. It struggles with the concept of friendship and companionship, but can see the benefits of both. It is endearing and entertaining to follow Murderbot on its adventures, and knowing that a full-length novel, Network Effect, was published this year (with another due out in 2021), is enough to keep me in its thrall. This series of four novellas should and will appeal to science fiction fans looking for a new sort of hero: not human, but full of the ideals about what it means to be human. These stories are a joy to read, and I’m so glad that there are more to come.