After reading Artificial Condition earlier this year I decided that I shouldn’t wait too long before reading the next Murderbot novella. This is my first time reading one of these books in hard copy as opposed to an ebook!
Murderbot has decided to travel to a remote planet where GrayCris claimed a terraforming operation failed. This is likely a cover story for something more sinister, such as research into alien synthetics! If Murderbot can find evidence of that, it might help out Dr. Mensah, whom Murderbot now feels a little sorry for leaving in a quagmire of legal questions. But it isn’t the only sentience interested in this planet: an investigative team from another organization has been sent to survey the station GrayCris left in orbit. Murderbot inadvertently finds itself posing as a SecUnit controlled by a remote security consultant and helping this team, including its pet robot, out of corporate-induced mortal peril.
If you want to get all thematic—and you know I do—then Martha Wells is exploring, with each of these novellas, the idea of how an artificial sentience might relate to other sentients. In the first Murderbot Diaries book, we’re introduced to Murderbot and understand what it thinks of the humans it tends to get assigned to protect. In the previous book, Murderbot teams up with ART, an intelligence inside a ship. Now in Rogue Protocol we see Murderbot relate to Miki, a robot far more constrained in many ways yet also very tender and personable in a way Murderbot is not.
Wells asks us: what is it that makes us human? Miki looks less human than Murderbot, and Murderbot disparagingly at one point compares Miki to a pet dog. Yet Miki’s traits of loyalty and caring for its human companions are arguably traits we would associate with humanity. There’s an interesting level of anthropomorphization happening, both on the part of Don Abene but even Murderbot itself has to remind itself that Miki is “just” a bot and doesn’t feel things like pain. Murderbot does feel pain (even if it can turn that pain down) and looks more human. However, it faces an essential paradox in that it keeps insisting it doesn’t want to be human, sees itself as apart from humanity … yet it keeps ending up in situations where it poses as a human or is humanized.
So in this way, Wells continues the long tradition of using robots and artificial sentients in science fiction to get us thinking about the nature not just of identity but of belonging. If Murderbot is not human, then what community can it belong to? No longer governed by GrayCris commands, it isn’t really a SecUnit anymore. It is unique, alone, rogue … and that is lonely.
As far as the plot of this novella goes, my opinion is roughly the same as the previous ones: it’s fine. Evil corporations, double-crosses, etc. I’m not yawning but I’m not jumping up and down with excitement either. With each installment, Wells adds layers of interest to Murderbot’s personality, and that is keeping me reading. But the stories themselves are still lacking something more compelling to them.