Artificial Condition: Murderbot returns

Book cover: Artificial Condition - Martha Wells (a suited figure stood against an amber cloud)Murderbot ventures out into the Corporation Rim. But how long can a rogue SecUnit with a hacked governor module escape the notice of the authorities?

I finished All Systems Red thinking I’d watch the hell out of Murderbot as a weekly TV serial in which each episode features our anxious hero being dragged kicking and screaming into the affairs of some humans it grows unreasonably attached to, so that it then saves their asses against its better judgement (and the odds).

…so, guess what format Artificial Condition adheres to?

Damn right.

Unsurprisingly, I loved every minute of it.

Murderbot may be off Company inventory, but humanity still expects it to have a human guardian (an owner by another name), and certainly won’t accept it being unleashed on its own cognisance – even if it did have a working governor module. While Murderbot knows it doesn’t want to return to Preservation with Mensah, it has had to think rather hard about what it does want to do with its unexpected – if fragile – freedom.

In a heart-warming twist, Murderbot is entirely clear what its first move will be. It wants to establish whether it deliberately killed all those people on a remote mining station 4 years ago, or whether it happened because its governor module malfunctioned. Yes, Murderbot has a conscience, and it’s looking to at least partially clear it.

So we find Murderbot using its knowledge of Company security systems to evade notice on-station, and bartering access to its excellent media library for a free ride from bored transport bots. However, Murderbot’s aspirations for a quiet trip are blown when the university research vessel it hitches a ride on turns out to be as sentient as Murderbot – and possessed of considerably more processing power.

ART – short for Asshole Research Transport, because Murderbot doesn’t respond well to intimidation, let alone to keen intervention in its affairs by bored supercomputers – is frankly a sweetie. It never quite acknowledges that life as a research vessel is dull as ditchwater when there’s nobody aboard doing science, but its enthusiasm for getting involved in Murderbot’s affairs is disproportionate to the tenuous relationship they strike up watching shows together.

ART is as patronising as Murderbot is snarky, and just as keen to enjoy a good show (preferably ones about exploration, so long as nobody dies; it’s not really equipped for the drama). It also shows an unexpected and effortless capacity for casual crime, with no moral qualms about the niceties of human rules. To be fair, given how few qualms all the humans on RaviHyral have about the rule of law, that’s probably just as well.

Needless to say, their interactions are priceless.

Once at RaviHyral, Murderbot needs to find clients to get it onto the mining station, and is soon swallowed up in their subplot of the week. While it’s an entertaining romp in its own right, the real joy for me was just how permeable Murderbot’s gruff exterior is. It can’t help itself: its function is to keep people safe. It may not think that brings it satisfaction, but give it a bunch of thoroughly decent, pleasant people who are out of their depth and it’s soon putting itself in harm’s way on their behalf. And now it has a choice, it wants to do right by its clients (awww) and is learning to be self-critical when it doesn’t do as well as it thinks it should have done.

This time, however, Murderbot has a mission of its own as well. The emotional stakes are even higher here: it may call itself Murderbot, but it’s clearly uncomfortable with the mass murdering it once committed. The sequence in which it finally confronts its past (no, I’m not telling you what it finds) is hauntingly effective. It has also left me with even stronger opinions about ComfortUnits than I had already (now running the full range from ‘ack, humanity, you suck’ to ‘UNSUNG HEROIC SEXBOTS YAS’). I love how this second novella expands the non-human world-building.

As with All Systems Red, Murderbot’s acerbic narrative is a delight; but I was even more pleased with its character development. Murderbot had deliberately small horizons in All Systems Red. Now they have broadened, and it must rise to the challenge of free will, self-determination and passing for human. This is one of those gems that delivers on every level, and I am ready to follow Murderbot wherever it goes.

Even if I’d like to give it a hug I know it wouldn’t appreciate.