Bite-size Books: All Systems Red

Book cover: All Systems Red - Martha Wells (a battle droid)SecUnits are standard issue, one per ten humans on a corporate deal that you can’t opt out of if you wish to survey a new world. They’re not well equipped and they’re not very clever, but they’ll rip themselves apart to protect their clients.

Well, most of the time.

Murderbot is different. Murderbot hacked its governor module and is a free agent pretending to still be enslaved. All Murderbot has to fear is someone noticing – in which case it’ll be junked for parts, at best – so it’s best if Murderbot keeps its head down and gets on with doing the half-assed job everyone expects it to do.

All Systems Red had me at hello – Murderbot’s inner monologue is snarky, grumpy and entirely too candid to resist. Completely jaded, it’s more than happy to lay out the bare facts of this dismal corporate future. Its leased by a company that controls access to new worlds, making its money by selling exploration and exploitation rights (rather than exploring and exploiting themselves) – and by insisting on outfitting every survey team to qualify for insurance. It’s a licence to make profit, and it operates with little thought for quality or safety – just fulfilling bare minimum requirements.

Murderbot is just as disdainful about the survey teams it works with. There’s no affection or loyalty here; Murderbot would much rather be back in its cubicle watching the hours of entertainment feeds it religiously downloads under the radar.

But this time, things are different. These humans are nicer than most, and Murderbot is developing feelings. Which is awkward, because this planet seems pretty keen to kill them all.

When a random monster nearly kills two scientists taking samples, Murderbot saves their lives and gets everyone back to the habitat – barely aware of the actions it takes to do so, and utterly unprepared for the response of the rest of the survey team. They’ve never worked with a SecUnit before, but now they’re starting to look at this one a bit differently: awkwardly, because nobody’s really sure how to classify something that’s got a recognisably human body underneath all that inorganic enhancement and programming. That’s fine – awkward describes Murderbot perfectly. The last thing Murderbot is equipped for is actually holding conversations, let alone looking people in the eye.

I really liked that we see the crew’s shock when Murderbot takes off its helmet, but we never actually find out what they see. Murderbot doesn’t care what it looks like, after all. It just wants them to stop looking at it. The social discomfort was both recognisable and adorable; as was the underlying urge to protect and help these friendly organics, in spite of the gruff narrative voice. Who doesn’t like a grumpy antihero with the heart of gold?

Because Murderbot is no angel. It has done terrible things for the company in the past – all in the line of work – and hacking its governor module means it can choose to do as it likes. It chooses to keep a low profile, because it doesn’t want to get spotted. But the team are right to have their qualms about how far they should trust it.

Ultimately, this is a story of self-discovery and a thriller – it didn’t quite go where I expected it to, although it kept me engaged and delighted until the climax, which felt weirdly under written. I want to think it was Murderbot’s acute anxiety getting in the way of it relating the tale, but honestly it just felt a bit rough and rushed out. Which is a shame, as it means I ended a story that had been a sheer delight feeling a little awkward myself.

But I’ll be back for the sequel.


(rating increased from 3.5 stars as I can’t get past just how much affection I’ve got for Murderbot)