Review of Artificial Condition by Martha Wells
by Martha Wells
A year and a half and one gender identity change later, here I am reading the second Murderbot Diaries novella, Artificial Condition! My review of the first book focuses quite a bit on Murderbot’s portrayal as agender, along with some critiques of the worldbuilding (or lack thereof). The good news is, I think I liked this book even more than the first! That being said, I’m happy with the current lengths of these books—I know Martha Wells has a Murderbot novel out, but I’m not sure I would want to read a novel-length story with this protagonist? Hmm. We’ll see.
Having “escaped” from the humans who bought it, Murderbot books passage on an uncrewed research transport vessel. Its destination is the planet where it thinks it hacked its governor module and then killed a bunch of people, for unknown reasons. Murderbot wants answers. What it doesn’t anticipate is that the bot intelligence that runs the transport is smarter than your average bot. Murderbot nicknames it ART, for Asshole Research Transport. The two of them “bond,” if you can call it that, over watching human-produced media, and ART kind of starts to feel protective towards Murderbot. So ART helps out as Murderbot poses as a security consultant to get down to the surface of the planet and learn more about its missing murderous memories.
The dynamic between Murderbot and ART is everything in this book. This is the odd couple bot comedy I hadn’t realized I needed. I mean, yes, there is still murder and intrigue and all that stuff—but none of that matters compared to the banter between these two. You come to find out what happens to Murderbot, but you stay for ART’s sulking and Murderbot’s reluctant partnership with it.
Indeed, this is probably the most appealing element of this series: the protagonists are not human. The humans in this series are bad or fragile, and Murderbot knows how to deal with one even if it still struggles to understand the other. Watching Murderbot interact with its new humans is a rewarding experience that helps us understand what it is struggling with: it wants to hide that it is a SecUnit, so it attempts to become more human-like. But how far does it want to go in its emulation of humanity? Murderbot’s obsession with uncovering its past is laudable and understandable—but will this hinder Murderbot’s ability to conceive of a concrete, satisfactory future?
Artificial Condition doesn’t answer all those questions, nor should it. It’s a competent little novella that sets up a problem and shows us how Murderbot approaches it, and that’s good enough. If you liked All Systems Red, this one is worth a read too! Will I read the next one? Who knows! Stay tuned.