I love Murderbot: Martha Wells – All Systems Red

Let me talk to you about Murderbot, the delightful protagonist in Martha Wells’ novella All Systems Red. If you’ve been reading a surprising amount of tweets professing their undying love for something called Murderbot, and asked yourself what the hell was wrong with people, I can assure you everything’s fine. We are simply all completely enchanted by a fictional character, who is also a robot with human parts and feels awkward in social situations. You see, it all makes sense.

ALL SYSTEMS RED
by Martha Wells

Published by: Tor.com, 2017
Ebook: 144 pages
Series: The Murderbot Diaries #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites.

A murderous android discovers itself in All Systems Red, a tense science fiction adventure by Martha Wells that blends HBO’s Westworld with Iain M. Banks’ Culture books.
In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.
But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.
On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.
But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

If you manage to read that opening line and not continue, you have more willpower than me. You are also about to miss out on a great story with a stand-out protagonist. I haven’t read a lot of books narrated by an artificial intelligence (if any), but if I had to pick a favorite AI, Murderbot is definitely it. The moment it realizes it is no longer bound by its usual restrictive software – which basically forces it to do its job and nothing else – it uses this newfound freedom not to go on a rampage, but to download thousands of hours worth of soap operas. Because why not?

After the lovely introduction to my new favorite robot hero, it’s time to learn a bit more about the science fiction world of this story and the mystery that kicks off the plot. Murderbot is a security unit, there to protect a group of scientists on a mission to check out a new planet. Murderbot has all sorts of opinions about its humans, and the mix of fondness and awkwardness makes it all the more relatable. Sure, it’s a machine, but there is definitely something human there as well. I can’t really describe it, you simply have to read it yourself, but Murderbot felt so very real to me. If you’ve ever been at a party where you only knew one person and suddenly you had to make small talk with complete strangers but aren’t very good in social situations, you know what Murderbot feels like. Never mind the fact that it’s got weapons that could kill the entire room in a matter of seconds.

The mission is interrupted by an unexpected attack by… something. As the scientists try to scout out new areas, they find out that their maps aren’t complete and maybe even false. Something is definitely not right and Murderbot is doing its best to help figure out the mystery. The pacing of the plot is spot-on, going effortlessly from Murderbot’s introspection (and its hope for a few quiet hours to continue watching its entertainment) to action scenes. I also loved that the world building was done so well. No info dumps, just some tidbits here or there, leaving the reader to put the pieces together for themselves.

While Murderbot is the heart and soul of this novella, the human cast was pretty interesting as well. It’s not just about figuring out why things are going wrong with the mapping system, it also asks questions about free will, trust, and what makes a human human. Murderbot is mostly machine but capable of human emotions, of preferring some people over others, because it finds them more likable. And the people it’s assigned to become aware of that, they see that it’s not just a machine and have to make decisions accordingly. You wouldn’t feel any emotional attachment to your coffee machine (unless you’re as dependent on caffeine as I am) but a walking, talking machine that watches TV shows and protects human lives of its own free will, that’s a different story.

Since this is a very short book, the mystery is solved quickly and I wondered what kind of ending Martha Wells had chosen for this story. As lighthearted as it feels, this is a complex read that asks many questions and lets the readers reach their own answers. The ending could have messed it all up (spoiler: it didn’t). I am already giddy with excitement for the next instalment of this series and I hope we’ll get many more adventures with Murderbot. Because I love Murderbot!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Second opinions:

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Review: Catherynne M. Valente – Silently and Very Fast

February has just started and I felt like a nice, quick Valente snack. Her award-winning novella seemed like a good story to read, as I don’t feel ready for another big adventure yet. Deathless is still too close to my heart.

silently and very fastSILENTLY AND VERY FAST
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: WSFA Press, 2011
Online: Clarkesworld (text + audio)
ISBN: 1936896001
Hardcover: 127 pages

My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Innana was called Queen of Heaven and Earth, Queen of Having a Body, Queen of Sex and Eating, Queen of Being Human, and she went into the Underworld in order to represent the inevitability of organic death.

Fantastist Catherynne M. Valente takes on the folklore of artificial intelligence in this brand new, original novella of technology, identity, and an uncertain mechanized future. Neva is dreaming. But she is not alone. A mysterious machine entity called Elefsis haunts her and the members of her family, back through the generations to her great-great grandmother-a gifted computer programmer who changed the world. Together Neva and Elefsis navigate their history and their future, an uneasy, unwilling symbiote. But what they discover in their dreamworld might change them forever . . . 2011 Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novella 2012 Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novella

dividerThis is the first time I will not completely gush about a Catherynne Valente book like a little fangirl. Silently and Very Fast is a difficult story to get into. The story of Elefsis, an artificial intelligence, and how he/she came to be is interspliced with scenes set in a strange dreamworld where Elefsis deals with the girl who is dreaming, Neva. In turn, these two plotlines make way for retellings of fairytales and fables, always revolving around humanity’s relationship with their creations, especially robots – these little bits of AI mythology were my favorite part of the book and they always taught us a little bit about Elefsis as well as just being great vignettes.

It took me almost half the novella to truly get into it. The beginning was as beautifully written as all of Valente’s fiction but I was desperately looking for some kind of anchor to hold on to, some time or place to ground the story in. We get nothing. We are disembodied creatures, floating around in a dreamworld where everything is possible and where nothing much makes sense. It becomes clearer later on what this dreamworld is and how Elefsis came to be there but until then, it was a bit of a struggle and I suspect certain scenes and sentences that were supposed to be meaningful just didn’t hit home as hard as they were supposed to.

Once I learned a bit more about what kind of AI Elefsis is and how he/she was created, the story became more interesting. I cared about Elefsis and I especially wanted to know the little secrets that are often alluded to. Ravan – Elefsis’ former companion – has met a mysterious fate that even Elefsis doesn’t know about. By following his/her past through the generations of Elefsis’ human family of companions, he/she hopes to learn this secret him/herself. It is in these flashback chapters that we have the chance to care about Elefsis and the Uoya-Agostino family who have been with Elefsis since his/her creation. I shouldn’t be surprised by anything Valente does, but it still amazed me how much she brought the characters to life on so few pages.

The prose is beautiful. Poetic and flowing, quotable and engaging readers to think for themselves, it has captured me yet again. I am unsure how I feel about the ending. It felt a little rushed and too open for my taste, although the melancholy tone hit the mark.

THE GOOD: Beautiful language, food for independent thought, a sort of mythology for robots.
THE BAD: Very confusing in the beginning, I wasn’t a fan of the ending.
THE VERDICT: Recommended for fans of Valente’s style – really anything she writes has a beautiful ring to it – but I wouldn’t recommend it as a Valente starter-novel(la).

RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good

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Second opinions:

Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter – The Long Earth

Only recently turned into a true Pratchett fan, I couldn’t keep my fingers off this newest of his books. It’s the second collaborative work of Pratchett’s that I ‘veread. While I enjoyed Good Omens (written with Neil Gaiman), I found that I could pick apart the ideas that stemmed from each of the writers and I preferred Gaiman’s writing to Pratchett’s humor. In The Long Earth, I couldn’t tell at all. The book feels more uniform in its style, but also more scattered in its plotlines…

THE LONG EARTH
by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

published: Harper Collins, June 2012
ISBN: 0062067761
pages: 400
copy: ebook

my rating: 6/10

first sentence: In a forest glade: Private Percy woke up to birdsong.

1916: The Western Front. Private Percy Blakeney wakes up. He is lying on fresh spring grass. He can hear birdsong and the wind in the leaves. Where have the mud, blood, and blasted landscape of no-man’s-land gone? For that matter, where has Percy gone?
2015: Madison, Wisconsin. Police officer Monica Jansson is exploring the burned-out home of a reclusive—some say mad, others allege dangerous—scientist who seems to have vanished. Sifting through the wreckage, Jansson find a curious gadget: a box containing some rudimentary wiring, a three-way switch, and . . . a potato. It is the prototype of an invention that will change the way humankind views the world forever. The first novel in an exciting new collaboration between Discworld creator Terry Pratchett and the acclaimed SF writer Stephen Baxter, The Long Earth transports readers to the ends of the earth—and far beyond. All it takes is a single step. . . .

What a hugely interesting premise. Humankind can “step” from one world to a parallel world next door. This opens an infinity of worlds and possibilities to Datum Earth’s population. People seek a way out, it’s the Wild West all over again. Except you can step west or east and you can go as far as you like. Each parallel Earth is a little different than our Datum Earth, there are creatures and plants similar but not quite like ours – and only our Earth has humans.

Pratchett and Baxter start out well enough and had me intrigued from the very beginning. They quickly lose themselves in countless mini-chapters, explaining the Long Earth from different characters’ points of view. Most of these characters never show up again and merely serve to show different aspects of the same thing. That is fine. For a while. Our protagonist Joshua, who I was most interested in (as I was supposed to be, I’m sure) has to wait a long time to get any real screen time.

This posed severe problems for the pacing of the novel. The plot only really gets driven forward by Joshua and Lobsang, the awesome human/AI, and at the point when we follow those two on their exploration of the Long Earth, the authors seemed to have run out of ideas. Sure, we do meet interesting creatures eventually and even other humans who have ventured far out into the Long Earth. But the real big surprise comes up about 85% into the book and we never get to discover that one properly. The ending is as abrupt as it is anti-climactic. And I didn’t appreciate the cliffhanger at all. As the blurb says, this is the first in these authors’ collaboration, so I’m assuming we’ll get a second volume soon.

What bothered me was that descriptions of the millions (literally!) of Earths took overhand. I loved the introduction of the characters and immediately fell in love with Lobsang, whom we first meet as a soda machine. However, later when characters are sparse and there would have been room and opportunity to delve deeper into their pasts and motivations, we skim on the surface and get a few funny conversations out of it. That’s all. For a writer like Pratchett, who can create a vivid, three-dimensional character with just a few lines, I was surprised at how superficial Joshua was left in the end.

To mention the great bits: The style was fantastic. This book almost reads itself. Short chapters, but not too short, concise language and appropriate expressions for Lobsang made it a very quick and easy read. Even when the lack of plot should have bored me to death, the style kept me going because it was just so smooth. Is that enough for a great book? Well, no. But it’s better than a badly written book. I wouldn’t want to read a second volume right away but when it does come out, I’ll give the Long Earth another shot. And who knows, maybe next time the editor will dare give such famous authors a few tips on how to write a better book. The ideas, especially the big revelation in the end, are brilliant and I would have loved to see more of that.

THE GOOD: What an idea! The possibilites are endless and political and economical points are well made.
THE BAD: Interesting points are left sadly unexplored, the pacing is off, characters could have used more developing.
THE VERDICT: Great potential that was mostly left unused. I have high hopes for a second volume, though. Quick read.

RATING: 6/10  Good book with quite some room for improvement

Other reviews:

Orson Scott Card – Speaker for the Dead

After an amazing book like Ender’s Game, it must be hard for an author to come up with something even remotely as awesome. But Orson Scott Card has earned all my respect and admiration with this second volume in the Ender series. Because while it is very different from Ender’s Game, it is as good, if not better!

SPEAKER FOR THE DEAD
by Orson Scott Card

published: Tor, 1986
ISBN: 0812550757
pages: 382
copy: paperback
series: Ender  #2

my rating: 9,5/10

first sentence: In the year 1830, after the formation of the Starways Congress, a robot scout ship sent a report by ansible: The planet it was investigating was well within the parameters for human life.

In the aftermath of his terrible war, Ender Wiggin disappeared, and a powerful voice arose: The Speaker for the Dead, who told the true story of the Bugger War. Now, 3000 years later, a second alien race has been discovered, but again the aliens’ ways are strange and frightening. Again, humans die. And it is only the Speaker for the Dead, who is also Ender Wiggin the Xenocide, who has the courage to confront the mystery…and the truth.

From the beginning, it is obvious that this is a very different story from the one told in Ender’s Game. Three thousand years have passed, the setting is a planet called Lusitania and the protagonsits are scientists – xenologers, xenobiologists. Ender Wiggin, the original Xenocide, is only 35 years old. Constant space travel at nearly the speed of light has made it possible for him to see his own name spoken with hatred by everyone. And at the same time be praised as the Speaker for the Dead who wrote The Hive Queen and the Hegemon. Before Ender is called to Speak the death of several people on Lusitania, we get to know a whole new cast of characters.

The xenologers and xenobiologists may have been sent to discover and study the piggies’ culture but, by law, they are not allowed to intervene or, in fact, give away any information about human life, in order to preserve the natural behavior of the alien species. I found the idea intriguing to try and learn about a strange culture without being allowed to ask direct questions, lest one give too much away of one’s own culture. From a science point of view, that is absolutely devestationg. And incredibly fun to read!

I was stunned by Orson Scott Card’s story-telling. Going from a beloved book like Ender’s Game into something (almost) entirely new felt a bit like leaving an old friend behind for someone fresher – I was reluctant, to say the least. But then I fell in love with this novel immediately. There isn’t a single boring or unnecessary page in The Speaker for the Dead, the language is on point and the pacing is fantastic. In the piggies, Card created a very original and strange alien race which is used to explore themes of cultural understanding, philosophy and scientific work.

How the author managed to fit character development in this story – for every single person, I might add – is unbelievable. But it’s true. There is a range of characters, human, piggy, and even an incredibly likeable artificial mind, and each of them feels utterly real and grows throughout this story. I still can’t decide what aspect I found more interesting – learning about the piggies’ culture, watching the protagonists’ family tragidy, or seeing how Ender will act.

There is not a single bad thing to be said about this book. It feels well-rounded, has a satisfying end (that leaves room for the sequel of course) and could even be read as a stand-alone novel. There are lots of hints and mentions of the things that happened in Ender’s Game, but they’re not vital to get an amazing story out of this book. Both the Hugo and Nebula were awarded to this (and Ender’s Game) and they are as deserved as they can be. Orson Scott Card has managed the almost impossible. To write a follow-up to a pretty much universally beloved story and make it – while entirely different – just as good.

THE GOOD: Engaging characters, interesting alien race, quick pace (took me two days to read) and great themes.
THE BAD: Uhm… I don’t know, you tell me.
THE VERDICT: There is no reason why this book shouldn’t be read by everyone. Pick it up, sit down and don’t expect to get up before you’re done.

RATING: 9,5/10

The series:

  1. Ender’s Game (German review)
  2. Speaker for the Dead
  3. Xenocide
  4. Children of the Mind