The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells


Books


The Murderbot Diaries #1: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

An unstoppable killing android has decided it doesn't really want to do all that murdering any more and has decided to strike out on its own, with a mission to stay low and watch as much TV as possible. But the self-styled "Murderbot" is drawn into a survey mission on a planet that goes wrong, and discovers that keeping its identity a secret is going to be very difficult.

Martha Wells's Murderbot Diaries has become one of the most-praised science fiction series of the last few years, winning multiple Nebula and Hugo Awards between the five novellas and single novel that make up the series so far (three more books are projected). Its central protagonist is an AI that has broken free of the restraints on its programming and become fully sentient, but rather than do anything philosophical with this freedom has become an addict of TV shows, whilst doing security missions it finds deeply tedious.

Murderbot is sarcastic but socially awkward, intelligent but not always understanding of human motivations or emotions, which makes for a lot of good moments of mixed messaging and musings on humanity. Nothing new in science fiction, but here done with a wryness that is rare and a lightness of touch that is enviable. All Systems Red takes advantage of its novella status to keep up a brisk, relentless pace whilst also layering in some nice character work, both of Murderbot and the humans it ends up awkwardly allying with, and the story is intriguing enough in its twists to remain interesting throughout.

There are also some very nice thematic parallels here - Murderbot trying to cover up its true identity and awkwardly being "outed" against its will and dealing with people's varying reactions works as a metaphor for lots of ideas - which make the story more interesting and deeper than its brevity would imply.

There aren't many negatives: the brevity of the story will be frustrating for some, and it feels like it ends just as it gets going, but then it is a novella, that comes with the territory. Harder-up readers may also feel disappointed that there still isn't an omnibus or collection making the stories available in a more economic format: paying full novel prices for 150 pages, no matter how solid, is a big ask in challenging times. Hopefully that changes in the future.

Otherwise, All Systems Red (****) is a fine, focused story featuring sharp characterisation, enjoyable action and some genuine laughs. It is available now in the US, and on import in most other territories.

The original 2017 novella is followed by Artifical Condition (2018), Rogue Protocol (2018), Exit Strategy (2018), Network Effect (2020) and Fugitive Telemetry (2021).


The Murderbot Diaries #2: Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

"Murderbot" has managed to escape from its last precarious situation and once again finds itself on its own, happy to amuse itself with TV shows whilst shuttling around the galaxy. A determination to find the reason for its original malfunction leads to a reluctant alliance with a powerful ship's AI and a bunch of youngsters who've gotten in over their heads.

Martha Wells' Murderbot Diaries has become one of the most acclaimed SF novella series of recent years, telling the story of a combat "SecUnit" that becomes self-motivating and decides to leave behind its life of murder for one of comfort. However, it can't shake either a nagging sense of guilt and curiosity about its beginnings and it also can't quite stop itself from helping out humans from getting themselves into quite ridiculously dangerous situations.

Artificial Condition is less of a follow-up to the first novella, All Systems Red, and more of a direct continuation, following Murderbot as it tries to work out how it became self-aware in the first place and if its unusual situation poses a danger to humans. This takes Murderbot back to the station where its first breaking away from its programming took place.

This is all fun stuff, enlivened by Murderbot's sparky relationship with a starship AI called ART, which is so bored by repetitive flights that it decides to help out Murderbot by becoming its "man in the van." This relationship is the core of the novella and is fun, if a little repetitive. Once Murderbot reaches its destination it turns into more of a standard SF action thriller, as it helps out a bunch of kids who've managed to annoy precisely the wrong people. There's some focused action, some brief musings on "found family" (a theme of the first novella) and then off to the next story with barely a pause for breath.

As with All Systems Read, this is a fast, breezy ride delivered through some fun writing, some economical but effective characterisation and some nice action beats. It's also a bit over-reliant on knowledge of the first novella. This feels more like the second half of a (still very short) novel rather than a stand-alone novella in its own right, and it's also doing setup work for the next adventure (Rogue Protocol). That's all fine as long as you know what you're getting into, a series of serialised short novellas (each costing the same as a full-price novel) where the story continues from one installment to the next.

Artificial Condition (***½) is a short, fun, focused read and a solid new adventure for Murderbot. Readers on a budget may want to wait until an omnibus edition is available in their territory, however. It is available now in the US and on import in most other territories.


The Murderbot Diaries #3: Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

"Murderbot" is once again in hiding after its last escapade, but lingering guilt over how it resolved an earlier adventure leads it to investigate, taking it to a remote, secretive station and an abandoned terraforming project. Murderbot allies with a local droid to protect a bunch of humans who are, once again, in over their heads.

Rogue Protocol is the third volume in Martha Wells's Murderbot Diaries, the multi-Nebula and Hugo Award-winning series about a former security android which has broken free of its programming and become an independent entity, passing for human and addicted to TV shows between security jobs.

Once again, Murderbot is on a mission it didn't really want to do, aided by an allied artificial intelligence, this time a non-combat droid called Miki. The story here ties in with the first novella, All Systems Red, and Murderbot's decision to escape from the well-meaning humans who discovered its status. However, watching the fallout from that story on the news, it becomes clear that this may have been a mistake and it now decides to help out by tracking one line of evidence to a new location, with mayhem resulting.

Rogue Protocol is great because it exemplifies the best qualities of the first two novellas: a knowing sense of humour, some great characterisation and a gift for both knotty plotting and chunky action. If it has a problem, it's that in terms of structure we are getting the same thing we've seen before. Mystery, explosions and a semi-resolution which leads into the next novella in the series, Exit Strategy. It's hard to complain because Martha Wells does this stuff so well, but it's also hard to be too surprised or blown away because this is very much More of the Same (including the full novel cover price for a story that's just 150 pages long), with a few twists. For example, the relationship between Murderbot and another AI was exemplified by the starship AI called ART in the previous story, with Murderbot as the junior partner, but here Murderbot allies with Miki, a servitor droid treated like a pet by its owners, with Murderbot as the senior partner. This leads to some interesting characterisation and ideas, but it does feel like we've been here before.

The finale of the novella is a very effective, extended action sequence as Murderbot takes on a hugely superior force and has to pull out every trick in the book to survive (hopefully that's not a spoiler for Book 3 of a six-book series so far, with more planned), which is great fun.

Rogue Protocol (****) is short, fun, pacy, witty and engaging, overcoming some repetition of structure with sheer readability and a nice line in crunchy SF action. It is available now in the US and on import in most other territories.

The Murderbot Diaries #4: Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

Murderbot has acquired data vital to the legal case between the Preservation Alliance and the GrayCris corporation, but quickly discovers that her old friends in the Alliance are in hot water. Diverting to a GrayCris stronghold, Murderbot discovers they need to rescue their comrades and defeat the security forces of one of the most powerful corporations in known space, whilst preserving their evidence.

Exit Strategy is the fourth novella in The Murderbot Diaries series and brings the events of the first four books to a head. Our titular hero starts off already on a mission, bringing the evidence it acquired during the events of Rogue Protocol to its allies, only to find that they already being held over a barrel by GrayCris's legal and security teams. This prompts Murderbot to intervene and face seemingly insurmountable odds.

Martha Wells changes up a few things in the series in this book, which is good as some predictability was threatening to set in. Murderbot is rescuing people who know they are a rogue AI and going up against enemies who know they are a rogue AI, so their normal paranoia about protecting their true identity is less of an issue this time around (at least after they go public, they need to stay stealthy until then). This time Murderbot is also going into a situation knowing who the enemy is and what they are prepared to do to achieve their ends, rather than going in blind to a hazardous situation. This gives Murderbot some preparation time and it's fun seeing how they stake out the situation, establish fallback plans and gather resources for the operation.

There's also a nice deepening of Murderbot's characterisation. They are reuniting with the first humans who learned their true nature and accepted it, something that they still feel a bit uneasy about because it means having to learn to trust humans, who aren't the most trustworthy of people. How Murderbot squares their desire for some kind of community with their paranoia and (mostly justified) fear of being dissected has been an underlying theme since the first book, but becomes more dominant here.

The result is a satisfying story, being sharply-written, well-characterised and to the point, with little flab. It's still a short book, but Wells packs in a lot of meat here, with corporate espionage, comedic exchanges and satisfying combat all wrapped into a compact package.

Exit Strategy (****) changes up the Murderbot formula as it threatened to become predictable, and the result is another focused, fun slice of SF. It is available now in the US and on import in most other territories.


The Murderbot Diaries #5: Network Effect by Martha Wells

Murderbot is adjusting to the unusual circumstances of being free and accepted among people who know exactly who and what they are. A simple escort operation turns bad when the crew are kidnapped, Murderbot along with them. Murderbot now has to find out who the kidnappers are, what they want and how to resolve the situation without getting their new human friends killed.

Network Effect is the fifth instalment in the Murderbot Diaries and is the first full-length novel in the series, clocking in at more than twice the length of any of the previous novellas. We start in media res with Murderbot already in a tricky situation, which it extricates itself from James Bond-style, before we get into the main story.

Martha Wells handles the transition of the series from the shorter form to a longer one quite well. Many of the previous novellas have felt like they ended just as they were getting going, or a little on the rushed size to fit in so many big ideas into so few pages, so Wells takes advantage of the longer length here to focus on more characterisation, more worldbuilding and more of a balance between action and Murderbot planning their next move. The story breathes more and benefits for it.

There's also some nice subplots as Murderbot befriends the daughter of her main client and helps her adjust to being in a dangerous situation, as well as Murderbot being put in the position of having to help other AIs become as independent as it has, and working out if that is a good idea or not.

That said, the ending feels a bit under-developed. Potentially big ideas (like alien technology interfacing with humans) that just kind of peter out without much closure (in this book, anyway). This is a shame as Wells sets up the mystery of what's going on superbly, so the resolution being lacking is a disappointment.

Still, those who've enjoyed Murderbot so far should still enjoy this one. The writing is fun, the characterisation sharp, there's a welcome return for one fan-favourite older character and Wells also delivers some great action sequences. Network Effect (****) handles the transition to the novel format well, despite the abruptness of the conclusion. The novel is available now in the US and on import in other territories.


The Murderbot Diaries #5: Network Effect by Martha Wells

Quote:

Murderbot is adjusting to the unusual circumstances of being free and accepted among people who know exactly who and what they are. A simple escort operation turns bad when the crew are kidnapped, Murderbot along with them. Murderbot now has to find out who the kidnappers are, what they want and how to resolve the situation without getting their new human friends killed.

Network Effect is the fifth instalment in the Murderbot Diaries and is the first full-length novel in the series, clocking in at more than twice the length of any of the previous novellas. We start in media res with Murderbot already in a tricky situation, which it extricates itself from James Bond-style, before we get into the main story.

Martha Wells handles the transition of the series from the shorter form to a longer one quite well. Many of the previous novellas have felt like they ended just as they were getting going, or a little on the rushed size to fit in so many big ideas into so few pages, so Wells takes advantage of the longer length here to focus on more characterisation, more worldbuilding and more of a balance between action and Murderbot planning their next move. The story breathes more and benefits for it.

There's also some nice subplots as Murderbot befriends the daughter of her main client and helps her adjust to being in a dangerous situation, as well as Murderbot being put in the position of having to help other AIs become as independent as it has, and working out if that is a good idea or not.

That said, the ending feels a bit under-developed. Potentially big ideas (like alien technology interfacing with humans) that just kind of peter out without much closure (in this book, anyway). This is a shame as Wells sets up the mystery of what's going on superbly, so the resolution being lacking is a disappointment.

Still, those who've enjoyed Murderbot so far should still enjoy this one. The writing is fun, the characterisation sharp, there's a welcome return for one fan-favourite older character and Wells also delivers some great action sequences. Network Effect (****) handles the transition to the novel format well, despite the abruptness of the conclusion. The novel is available now in the US and on import in other territories.


The Murderbot Diaries #6: Fugitive Telemetry

Murderbot is settling into their role providing security for their client Dr. Mensah on Preservation Station when they are asked to do something they've never done before: investigate a murder. Murderbot is more at home providing security in high-risk combat situations, rather than the finesse and subtlety that a homicide investigation requires. Still, with a potential killer or killers loose on the station and the inexperienced station security slow to find them, Murderbot takes up the case.

The sixth and (at this time of writing) most recent entry in The Murderbot Diaries returns to the novella format of the first four books, after the novel-length experiment of Network Effect. Fugitive Telemetry is set before Network Effect and sees a shift in format, with Murderbot going from security consultant to murder investigator, a task they initially seem ill-suited for but soon get to grips with. It's not a complete left-field transformation for the series - Murderbot has had to piece together mysteries and incomplete pictures before - but it's enough to freshen up the series when familiarity might be setting in.

As with the earlier books, the novella format means a tight, focused structure and an excellent pace (like the earlier books, you can easily finish this off in a single sitting). Wells writes the mystery with panache, providing enough misdirection to make it intriguing. However, she does not provide enough information for the reader to solve the mystery themselves until quite late in the day, which is a shame.

The twists and turns, brief action bursts and nice pacing make this as fiendishly readable as earlier books in the series, but arguably it's lighter on character than prior books in the series. Murderbot continues their development nicely, but there's a lack of a great foil for Murderbot like ART in prior books. Security Chief Indah has some promise, but they don't really get enough time in the sun to really fulfil the same kind of role. There's also some repetition in Murderbot, once again, having to prove its capability and volition to people keen to dismiss it as just another robot.

Fugitive Telemetry (****) is Martha Wells doing what she does best, delivering a witty, well-written slice of SF, this time more of a thriller than an action novel. The book is available now in the US and on import in most other territories. Three more Murderbot Diaries books are under contract, with the first anticipated for 2023 or 2024.

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