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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Martha Wells – Emilie and the Hollow World

I planned to make the Books of the Raksura my first Martha Wells books because so many people have raved about them. But, as these things go, Strange Chemistry (Angry Robot’s YA imprint) offered e-ARCs of Wells’ young adult novel on NetGalley and I couldn’t resist.

emilie and the hollow worldEMILIE & THE HOLLOW WORLD
by Martha Wells

Published by: Strange Chemistry, April 2013
ISBN: 1908844507
ebook: 320 pages
Series: Emilie #1

My rating: 4,5/10

First sentence: Creeping along the docks in the dark, looking for the steamship Merry Bell, Emilie was starting to wonder if it might be better to just walk to Silk Harbor.

While running away from home for reasons that are eminently defensible, Emilie’s plans to stow away on the steamship Merry Bell and reach her cousin in the big city go awry, landing her on the wrong ship and at the beginning of a fantastic adventure.
Taken under the protection of Lady Marlende, Emilie learns that the crew hopes to use the aether currents and an experimental engine, and with the assistance of Lord Engal, journey to the interior of the planet in search of Marlende’s missing father.
With the ship damaged on arrival, they attempt to traverse the strange lands on their quest. But when evidence points to sabotage and they encounter the treacherous Lord Ivers, along with the strange race of the sea-lands, Emilie has to make some challenging decisions and take daring action if they are ever to reach the surface world again.

dividerIt is rare that I can’t make up my mind whether I liked or disliked a book. I suppose one emotion always outweighs the other and if you pinned me down I’d have to go with “rather disliked it”. Emilie and the Hollow World is a nod toward the wonderful Jules Verne adventures, discovering new worlds hidden within our own, meeting strange peoples and making new friends. The idea is wonderful and adding magic to it seems like a nice bonus. But there were many little things wrong with this book that add up to a rather unengaging reading experience.

It starts with a minor qualm – the protagonist’s age. Emilie is supposed to be 16 but from the get go, I though of her much more as a 12-year-old, maximum. She acts and speaks like a much younger person and if her age hadn’t been mentioned, I would have happily continued imagining a little girl. But the fact that we are told how old she is, bothered me. Emilie runs away from home, intending to buy passage on a ship. Instead, she realises she’s spent too much of her money on food, has to run away from people who suspect her of being a thief, and ends up as a stowaway on the Sovereign.

Of course, that much fancier ship has its own crew but just when they disocver Emilie, chaos ensues. I assumed the issues of her being a runaway and hiding on their ship would be talked about when the characters were out of immediate danger. But no, people just seem to take things the way they come without asking questions. The author seems to expect a bit too much suspension of desbelief here and while I am willing to believe pretty much anything for the sake of a good story, it needs to work within that story. This tale is set in a world that seems to believe in reason and science and rules. So it should strike somebody as odd that a young girl has run away from home, and even though Emilie explains her reasons, there were still two points that annoyed me. First of all, her reasons sound very good but unfortunately we are told them, never shown them. If the book had opened with Emilie suffering from her uncle and aunt’s treatment, her entire character would have been much stronger. Secondly, even if I accept that the ship’s crew feels empathy for Emilie and there’s not much to be done about her (now that she’s on the ship) it strikes me as very unlikely they would involve her so quickly and deeply into their venture and lay open all their plans. If anything, it would have been believable for her to become a kitchen maid on the ship to pay her passage and cleverly overhear these plans.

emilie and the hollow worldOnce they arrive in the Hollow World – via aetheric engine (read: magic) – a lot of stuff happens but nothing of real consequence. Of course, there are things afoot that will have consequences for the people of the hollow world, but since they aren’t the main characters of this story, there was not much for me to engage with. At that point, the focus of the story shifts from Emlie to the politics of the Hollow World – since we don’t get enough time with any of the parties involved, I had a lot of trouble working up enough interest to keep reading. This not very thick novel took me a good two months to finish. It just lacked drive, after the initial action-packed moments with Emilie running away from home.

The characters, including Emilie, were flat and underdeveloped. There would have been so much potential for this young girl to realise she can take things into her own hands, that she doesn’t have to depend on other people. But Emilie comes out of this story pretty much the way she entered. The only exception to this was Kenar, the most interesting character in the entire book. Unfortunately, we get see very little of him in the second half, which made it even more tedious to read. Another problem I had with the characters was that there was no real bonding between them, despite being through quite a lot of adventures together. If the protagonist doesn’t seem to truly care about her companions, why should I? Again, we were told that they were sad to say goodbye, but we’re not shown why.

The bottom line for me is: Reading this book felt more like a job, something I had to do, instead of a story I couldn’t wait to get back to. Whenever I put it aside after half a chapter, it took a lot of willpower to pick it up again. A novel, especially a novel aimed at children, should at least get the entertainment factor right.

THE GOOD: A good premise and a nice tip of the hat to Jules Verne.
THE BAD: Emilie came over much too young, despite non-stop action, there is very little development or emotionally engaging moments.
THE VERDICT: It’s a gamble. Maybe if I were 10 years old I would have liked this book more. This way, it was neither horrible nor good. The few elements I enjoyed didn’t get enough screen time and most of the time, I didn’t care enough to pick the book up and continue reading. And I certainly won’t be back for more of this series. Wells’ other books though… probably.

RATING: 4,5/10 – Bad but not terrible

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Other reviews:

Books in the Queue – The Currently Reading Edition

Hello, fellow lovers of books. This month I believe I have taken on a bit too much. What with various challenges, my ever-changing mood and the poor books that have been queueing for a while, my current Books in the Queue is almost identical to my Currently Reading list.

China Miéville – Un Lun Dun (finished March 9th)

un lun dunChina Miéville is the guy I would like to have discovered when I was a teenager. I’m not sure my 14-year-old self would have made it through Perdido Street Station, but this young adult novel is just so  much fun. I picked it up because I wanted a nice big book that I could nibble at a little each night (and it’s on my TBR-challenge list). A mere couple of days later, I find I’m halfway done with the book. What? How did that happen? So I’m reading what feels like a little every day and just having fun discovering UnLondon. I am especially in love with the sentient empty milk carton, Curdle.

dividerJuliet Marillier – Daughter of the Forest (finished 19th March 2013)

daughter of the forest1I have owned this book for so long, I can’t even remember. A few days ago, I finally picked it up (again, that TBR-challenge got to me) and found myself liking it quite a bit. I notice that I am reading this very slowly. I had a few hours at my disposal on the weekend and read, and read, and read. In the end, I saw that I had gotten about 50 pages into the book. It’s the opposite Miéville effect. That said, I really don’t mind. I like large books that slowly build an entire world and let me get into the characters’ heads. Sorcha, the protagonist, is a likable young girl, whom I enjoy following around. I am looking forward to the part where The Six Swans retelling begins, though. Also, I find myself looking for good music to go along with this book. It feels like it needs a soundtrack… any recommendations?

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Martha Wells – Emilie and the Hollow World (finished 29th March 2013)

emilie and the hollow worldI got an e-ARC of this and have been reading on and off in it for several weeks. For a short book, it’s taking me an enormous amount of time. And it’s not bad at all. Emilie runs away from home to catch a ship to her cousin’s place. She ends up on the wrong ship and has to join an expedition to the inside of the Earth (vie aether current). I enjoy the adventure quite a bit. My only problem was that Emilie, in my mind, is about 12 years old and behaves as such, but in the book, it is said she is 16. I’m just ignoring the author and imagining my 12-year-old anyway. Right now, I’m about halfway through this Jules Verne-esque YA adventure book.

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Here’s the actually queueing books (that I haven’t started)

Caitlín R. Kiernan – The Red Tree

red treeWhy do I want to read this? If you haven’t read my gushing review of The Drowning Girl, you won’t know how much I need to read another one of this author’s books. I have no idea what this one is about (and I don’t need to), except that there is another unreliable narrator. And I do love me some of those. If Caitlín Kiernan’s books are at all alike in style, theme, or darkness level, I believe I have a new favorite author on my hands. An author I would never have picked up because I find the covers unappealing. Thank you, Worlds Without End.

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Dubravka Ugrešić – Baba Yaga Laid an Egg

baba yaga laid an egWhy do I want to read this? It’s all Catherynne M. Valente’s fault, really. She tore my heart out with Deathless and gave me a taste of Russian mythology. Ever since I read Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana,  I wanted to learn more about rusalki. Then Cat Valente comes along and introduces me to Baba Yaga. I now know that I have been missing out on Russian fairy tales for a long time. I will start my journey of discovering Russian mythology with this book here. I heard very mixed things about it and am not sure at all that I will like it – but I’ll give it a shot.

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And the rest…

You may think these aren’t all that many books, right? But of course, I’m still trying to read as many of the Nebula nominees as I can fit into my free time (I do have that annoying time killer called work to think about, after all. Plus another semester at university.) as well as some other books I’ve started and am somewhere in the middle of:

  • Connie Willis – Blackout
  • Tina Connolly – Ironskin
  • John Crowley – Engine Summer (finished April 21st)
  • Meljean Brook – The Iron Duke
  • Stephen King – Wolves of the Calla
  • Leo – Betelgeuse (The Worlds of Aldebaran cycle 2) (finished April 19th)

Other than that, I still have a lot of catching up to do for my older Books in the Queue. Patrick Ness’ Monsters of Men is eagerly awaiting to be read, Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone has been jumping at me for months now, Jean-Cristophe Valtat’s Aurorarama just looks at me with sad puppy eyes from my shelf. And I won’t even mention The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood (edit: Ha! Finished it. It was awesome.). It gives me a serious case of guilty conscience for being in my late twenties and not having read it yet.