As with The Fifth Season I’m very late to the party with this one. So many more books in this series! But I finally got around to All Systems Red, and it was every bit as enjoyable as I was led to believe it was, even if it wasn’t quite as memorable as I’d like. Then again, considering this is a novella, I will cut Martha Wells some slack. Indeed, I appreciate how skilfully she selects which aspects of her universe to flesh out and which ones should be left as sketched tropes. It takes confidence and practice to develop a novella that works so effectively without becoming a hot mess.
Murderbot is a SecUnit, a cybernetic construct of cloned human bits and machine augmentations designed to protect people who rent it from the anonymous Company. Murderbot has hacked its own governor module, meaning it now has total volition—not that it wants anyone else discovering this. Contrary to its name, Murderbot has no particularly murderous agenda. Indeed, all Murderbot really wants to do is watch entertainment vids and try to keep under the radar—which isn’t easy, because if you haven’t noticed, humans die really easily. We are basically bags of water, after all. For this job, Murderbot discovers that a rival company is stalking its humans, attempting to eliminate them before they can discover the true worth of the planet they’re surveying. Can Murderbot keep its humans safe? Or will Murderbot kill them itself because they’re trying so damn much to be nice to it, and that’s really awkward? Read on!
Let‘s talk about gender for a moment. Murderbot never expresses a specific gender identity, nor which pronouns to use, and Well is careful to write the book in a gender-neutral way. So Murderbot may very well be agender. As a constructed being, gender might not even be a concept Murderbot has any use for. In keeping with the other characters of All Systems Red, I’ll refer to Murderbot as “it” throughout my review, until such time as Murderbot tells me it’s using different pronouns. Nevertheless, stereotypes in our society mean that we as readers will often assign gender to beings that are agender in ways consistent with our experiences of other media.
When we think about cyborg soldiers … well, we think about male cyborg soldiers, for the most part. Murderbot is what Robocop might be if OCP had totally bought out the Detroit Metropolitan PD and were cloning robots instead of harvesting dead cops. There are exceptions, of course—plenty of deadly female cyborgs out there too, yet they are usually depicted in heavily sexualized ways (Murderbot definitely is not). As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t visualize when I read. So I don’t “picture” Murderbot as ht even having any particular gender; when Wells talks about the other humans seeing Murderbot’s face (realizing it has a face), I didn’t picture a typically masculine or feminine face. Yet even I’m not immune to biases, of course, and because we’ve been socialized to see warfare and combat as an extremely masculine activity, Murderbot read as quite masculine to me (despite its obsession with soaps—dudes can have feelings too!).
Note that I’m not arguing Murderbot is male (nor am I particularly interested in your reading of Murderbot’s gender expression). Far from it—I’m happy for Murderbot to be agender (although, as always, that comes with a huge problematic disclaimer tag that SF needs to have more human agender characters to balance out the fact that agender representation is too often the domain of robots and aliens, which further relegates agender people as Other). But I do think it’s important to acknowledge up front the kinds of biases we have as readers, especially when reading science fiction.
As with many first-person narrators, Murderbot’s voice will make or break one’s enjoyment of the story. This is doubly true for novellas, I find, where we have such a short amount of time to get into a character’s head. What I appreciate most about Murderbot as a character is the way its self-deprecation doesn’t come across as snark. We spend so much time in Murderbot’s head, and if Murderbot were constantly snarking along with us and expecting us to just nod our head and hi-five it all the time, that would get old, fast. Rather, the self-deprecation clearly comes from a place of trauma. Murderbot has a lot of self-hatred, as a result of its past (which would get into spoiler territory, so I’m eliding it here, but let’s say it has to do with why it calls itself Murderbot). So part of it doesn’t feel deserving of sympathy from humans, and when it discovers it has landed in a group of fairly self-aware and progressive humans, it’s almost worse than being among humans that actively hate or revile it.
(I’m sure there are some apt comparisons here that trans people or racialized people could make about being among a group of cis or white people, but I’m not really the right person to make those comparisons.)
I love the dynamics Wells develops among the various characters and Murderbot. There’s a lot happening here for such a short book. And I really enjoyed the ending, because it just demonstrates so well how having the best of intentions doesn’t mean your help will be accepted, and it’s not a judgment on you if someone rejects your offer of help—they have their own things they’re dealing with.
Where All Systems Red loses my attention is mostly to do with the larger worldbuilding, which I found fairly bland. As I said earlier, I can chalk this up mostly to it being a novella. Wells leans on the decades of tropes we’ve built up—negligent corporations feudally lording it up around the galaxy, cyborgs and mil-SF set pieces galore, etc. This is not a book really concerned with explaining much of anything about how this universe works. And that’s all fine; that’s how a novella that is a character-driven story really should work. Unfortunately, the side effect is sometimes that I find it harder to hold onto the story for very long after I’ve read it. Murderbot is a cool character, yes. But I’ve also seen other cyborg characters, read other stories with first-person cyborg characters. It’s not that I’m saying Murderbot feels unoriginal or clichéd—not at all—but my poor, fallible meat-brain might not be able to keep it from melting into that other group of cyborg characters very well.
Maybe I’ll read some of the sequels, and that will help Murderbot stick around in my memory. Until then, I’m happy I read All Systems Red. It made for an enjoyable evening—I literally could not put it down, and I stayed up too late reading it. No regrets. Now I want to watch Starship Troopers….