Bite-size Books: Exit Strategy

Book cover: Exit Strategy - Martha WellsPursued off Milu by GrayCris and their agents, Murderbot realises that its actions may have put Dr Mensah in jeopardy – and it can’t just leave its humans in peril, can it? It’s time to put a stop to the nefarious corporation once and for all, however big the risks.

The fourth Murderbot novella closes out the arc started in All Systems Red: confronting the villainous corporation happy to sacrifice civilians in the name of illegal profits. Our heroic rogue SecUnit has developed from antisocial grump to highly-involved socially awkward grump, unable to stand back when its humans are in trouble – especially when it suspects the trouble is of its own making.

Dr Mensah has disappeared after travelling to the supposedly neutral station where GrayCris is headquartered to negotiate a settlement in the ongoing litigation brought by Preservation Aux. Murderbot is quite certain she’s being held for ransom, with a side serve of suspicion that she’s being dangled as bait to tempt Murderbot in for an ill-advised but daring rescue attempt.

Must be time to plan an ill-advised but daring rescue attempt (and yes, I adored that the penny finally drops for Murderbot that its risk assessment is suboptimal. Not that being certain you’ve underestimated the risk is any reason to adopt caution, you understand).

Exit Strategy deviates only slightly from the tried and tested model of the Murderbot Diaries: for once, Murderbot isn’t reluctant to get involved. Other than that detail, you can strap in and enjoy the ride you expect as it hacks, shoots and mimics its way across a hostile environment to save its humans from their bad decisions.

With each novella, we’ve seen Murderbot step a little further out of its shell (quite literally: its been a long time since it had armour and a face-obscuring helmet) and pretend increasingly successfully to be nothing more than a rather dangerous augmented human. Here, we see its discomfort at being told how convincing its act has become, because – rather delightfully, given familiar tropes – Murderbot doesn’t want to be human. It’s fair enough: outside of the Preservation Aux team, most of the humans we meet in Exit Strategy are amoral at best (and incompetent, obviously; Murderbot’s disdain is unflagging), willing to do terrible things (if not always very well) in service to the corporations they’re employed by.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed meeting the Preservation Aux team again – I didn’t have strong memories of them, but Exit Strategy gives both no-nonsense Pin-Lee and competent hard-ass Gurathin space to shine. I was endlessly amused by the amount of shit Gurathin dishes out to Murderbot (and, unlike Murderbot, can see the underlying affection in play) and by Murderbot’s signature sulky responses. While Murderbot remains understandably mistrustful, the Preservation Aux team are as devoted to saving its ass as it is to saving theirs – and to finding a way for it to live freely on its own terms, rogue SecUnit or no. All the feelings? You bet.

If there’s one element of the series that has begun to wear thin for me, it’s the ease with which Murderbot has been able to subvert pretty much every system it has accessed and while I can’t fault Murderbot for focusing on activities its comfortable with, I also find myself a little bored by the repetitive catalogue of hacks. Business is very much as usual in Exit Strategy – so, slightly tedious by the end – but with two nuances that I really appreciated. The first is that Murderbot acknowledges how much its competence has increased since we first met (turns out problem-solving and taking action is way more formative than following orders and watching media). The second is a heart-wrenching scene in which out of sheer desperation it tries to persuade a CombatUnit to let Murderbot help it hack its governor module and claim its own freedom.

This is a narrative I am always here for (why yes, I did finally watch Humans recently and no, I am not okay) and I live in hope that we may see this idea revisited in future. AI rights are clearly on Dr Mensah’s mind; whether broader cyborg emancipation comes to be on Murderbot’s remains to be seen (I doubt it, but I’d welcome it).

Exit Strategy is a solid finale to Murderbot’s initial arc, bringing plots and characters full circle with plenty of action, feelings and some entirely relatable confusion about arms. If it’s my least favourite Diary to date, that’s mostly because I loved the last two so much (although I do feel it flagged a little in the middle, bogged down by its daisy-chained action sequences). It is also an exit point for the series – if you want one – although I’m delighted that Murderbot’s adventures have begun a new chapter, and will be racing on to read Fugitive Telemetry (out on April 27th).