The Emotions of a Killing Machine: Martha Wells – Network Effect

Oh Murderbot, how I love you! I think I may have started all my reviews for the Murderbot novellas this exact same way but that just goes to show how wonderful these books are. It’s rare that a sci-fi story with a bot protagonist is so moving, funny, and exciting all at the same time. But Martha Wells hasn’t shown any signs of slacking off or losing steam. Murderbot is as great as ever, if not better!

NETWORK EFFECT
by Martha Wells

Published: Tor.com, 2020
eBook: 352 pages
Series: The Murderbot Diaries #5
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: I’ve had clients who thought they needed an absurd level of security. (And I’m talking absurd even by my standards, and my code was developed by a bond company known for intense xenophobic paranoia, tempered only by desperate greed.)

Murderbot returns in its highly-anticipated, first, full-length standalone novel.

You know that feeling when you’re at work, and you’ve had enough of people, and then the boss walks in with yet another job that needs to be done right this second or the world will end, but all you want to do is go home and binge your favorite shows? And you’re a sentient murder machine programmed for destruction? Congratulations, you’re Murderbot.
Come for the pew-pew space battles, stay for the most relatable A.I. you’ll read this century.

I’m usually alone in my head, and that’s where 90 plus percent of my problems are.
When Murderbot’s human associates (not friends, never friends) are captured and another not-friend from its past requires urgent assistance, Murderbot must choose between inertia and drastic action.
Drastic action it is, then.

Okay, okay. There’s a very low chance of me staying in any way coherent in this review because when I think of Murderbot, my brain is this massive jumble of emotions and memories of cool moments from the series. And that’s exactly what makes The Murderbot Diaries so great. Our mostly robotic protagonist Murderbot is going on another adventure, mostly through no fault of its own, and has to juggle things like saving its humans from certain death, dealing with those pesky emotions that keep creeping up on it, learning more about its own identity, and of course killing enemy drones, infiltrating enemy computer systems, and handling an adolescent girl, all at once. But Murderbot is cool, Murderbot muddles through, and Murderbot has way more heart than it lets on.

So, what’s the story of this first full-sized Murderbot novel? Murderbot and some of Dr. Mensah’s family and friends go on a pretty regular mission looking at some planet for research reasons – I’m not trying to make it sound boring, it’s just that it really doesn’t matter what Murderbot does, as long as it brings its unique Murderbot-ness to the story. Seriously, I’d gladly read about Murderbot going shopping. Because you know with Murderbot, nothing ever stays standard, let alone boring. On their way back, the group’s ship is attacked and they end up – barely surviving – on a different transport ship. One that is oddly familiar to Murderbot and will be just as familiar to readers of the series.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you what I’ve seen mentioned in many synopses or short descriptions of this book: and that is the return of ART, everyone’s favorite Asshole Research Transport. Ever since Murderbot met ART in the second novella, I’ve been hoping for a reunion. Let’s just say it doesn’t turn out the way I had hoped but there is a reunion… which, of course, comes with a new mission. One that leads Murderbot, ART, and all their humans into pretty serious danger. Secrets need to be uncovered and Murderbot has its hands full. It’s not only that danger lurks around every corner, humans behave in supid ways (even the smarter humans who accompany Murderbot), but it’s also those damn emotions!

The plot is exciting and thrilling and takes you deeper and deeper into a whole new place with new characters, but I don’t want to tell you much more about it. Not because there is huge potential for spoilers but because the plot isn’t all that important when you’ve got Murderbot narrating. If you’re thinking about picking up Network Effect, chances are high you’ve read the four previous novellas in the series and are already as much in love with Murderbot as I am. If you haven’t – worry not, you can actually jump into the story here. There are several references to events that happened previously but if you decide to read the novel first and then pick up the novellas as a sort of prequel, that’s totally possible. You don’t absolutely need to know what happened before to understand this story. It’s self-contained, all the characters are introduced and the driving force behind the plot is something new as well.

So. Now for the part where I hope not to turn into a sobbing mess. Murderbot is a killer bot and it’s not a fan of the emotions it keeps having involuntarily. And that’s exactly what makes it so appealing as a character. Murderbot’s social awkwardness isn’t as present as it used to be – one could almost say Murderbot has grown as a person and is much more confident now when dealing with humans – but it’s still Murderbot. It gets annoyed at our irrational behavior, at how fragile our bodies are, and how often humans shot it accidentally (okay, sometimes on purpose). Murderbot’s narration is both touching and hilarious. It makes great observations of human nature but it never forgets to add its personal touch. I assume there are people out there (maybe two or three) who don’t enjoy this kind of narration, but if you like it at all you will love it dearly.

Add to Murderbot’s already funny voice the fact that it is confronted with the closest thing one could call a friend. ART and Murderbot may not have spent much time together previously but they definitely left a mark. Seeing how they come together again, in a very difficult situation involving murderous drones and dangerous software, was pure joy! And that goes for the whole book really. The action scenes are fantastic, again, because Murderbot assesses situations in such a cold manner but at the same time doesn’t want to get killed (again), the quieter moments are beautiful. I adored Murderbot’s interactions with Amena, Dr. Mensah’s teenaged daughter, and I especially loved how the story ended.

Murderbot is still finding its place in the world. It has found some humans that it likes (and who like it back) and it’s slowly learning that not everybody sees it as a machine, that it can, in fact, be a person! And people usually have a family or friends or simply other people who look out for each other. I spent most of the time reading this novel with a big fat smile on my face but by the end, there were definitely tears. Just a few. About as many as Murderbot might have shed if it let itself…

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Excellent!

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!

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