Twelve Days of Bookmas: Rogue Protocol

Book cover: Rogue Protocol - Martha WellsMy snarky fave is back with a new self-appointed mission. It’s not that Murderbot needs something to do, you understand, nor that it gets over-involved with its humans; it would just like to stop worrying about Dr Mensah. She looks tired. 

On the first day of Bookmas it seems fitting to go with one of a kind: I can’t resist a Murderbot story, and Rogue Protocol was no exception. While it’s fair to say the Murderbot Diaries adhere to a formula – Murderbot goes to a planet For Perfectly Sensible Reasons, Honestly, and puts itself in harms way to protect humans it Really Doesn’t Care About, No Really – it’s a formula that works for me.

I have a great fondness for the trope of a misanthrope with a heart of gold. Rogue Protocol starts by pushing this well-established trait to its hilarious conclusion: a well-meaning transport ship deploying a stowaway Murderbot to resolve squabbles between its human passengers. The only thing better than an increasingly-frustrated Murderbot acting as playground monitor is Murderbot still getting attached to its fractious charges and worrying about the hideous corporate indenture they’ve sold themselves into.

‘Who knew being a heartless killing machine would present so many moral dilemmas’

But Murderbot can’t be distracted from its latest mission: to prove that the nefarious Graycris Corporation is engaged in illegal alien salvage, helping Dr Mensah win her case against them so that she and her team can go home. Murderbot is evolving. While there’s a wide streak of ‘saving the humans in front of it’, there’s a wider streak of ‘getting emotionally involved’, however awkwardly (and adorably) off-brand in terms of self-image. It can tell itself that self-interest is at stake – there are far too many questions being asked about what happened to Dr Mensah’s SecUnit – but honestly? It’s worried about its friend.

This undeniable and inconvenient attachment gains a mirror when Murderbot arrives on a terraforming station in orbit around Milu. Here Martha Wells introduces what seems (much to my delight) to be another recurring feature: Murderbot’s AI ally. Where Artificial Condition gave us ART, Rogue Protocol introduces Miki, a cinnamon roll bot as naive and good-hearted as Murderbot is cynical and crusty. My favourite moments involved Murderbot agonising about misleading Miki or freaking out over whether Miki was about to blow its cover.

Where Murderbot mistrusts humans, Miki embraces them all as friends. Nothing bad has ever happened to Miki; they have no frame of reference for the terrible things humans do to the bots they own. Needless to say, it sets Murderbot’s teeth on edge. The bots’ attitudes and experiences may be at the opposite ends of the scale, but the outcomes are remarkably similar: both are prepared to do anything to protect their humans (Murderbot just protests more as it does so). Miki being so clearly incapable of looking after itself, that means Murderbot will have to look after Miki and Miki’s humans. Feelings are Professionalism is soooo inconvenient, eh?

If you’ve read previous Murderbot novellas, you know exactly what to expect from Rogue Protocol. Martha Wells serves up well-realised characters and atmospheric settings as Murderbot reluctantly does the right thing, the SecUnit the Corporation Rim needs rather than the one it deserves. The over-arching plot involving Graycris comes back to the fore and Murderbot continues to show development (making eye contact and everything), even if it’s not yet comfortable showing its soft side to other people or using words like friends. And as usual, Rogue Protocol packs quite a punch, Martha Wells being awfully good at making her hero as relatable as it is socially awkward.

I needed to have an emotion in private 

Me too, Murderbot. Me too.