2018’s Exit Strategy is the fourth volume in Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries series of novellas.
Returning from its field trip to Milu, Murderbot covertly accesses local security networks and discovers that there is a security detail waiting for the ship on which it has stowed away. Further probing verifies that, yes, the detail is waiting for Murderbot.
It’s not the worst news Murderbot has ever heard. In fact, it’s not even the worst news Murderbot has heard that day.
In All Systems Red, Murderbot rescued Doctor Mensah’s team from certain death at the hands of SecUnits subverted by the GrayCris Corporation. In return, Mensah treated rogue SecUnit Murderbot as a person (to the extent that the laws of Mensah’s planet allowed). While Murderbot chose to go its own way rather than accepting second-class citizenship, Murderbot regards Mensah and her team as friends.
Murderbot has just learned that Mensah has fallen into GrayCris’ hands; it is almost certain that she has been kidnapped. Murderbot suspects that it was its own activities (investigating GrayCris activities on the planet Milu) that has triggered Graycris’ latest crime. Murderbot made some of the corp’s murderous actions public; it has also held in reserve a data chip full of damning info. Is Graycris planning to use Mensah as a bargaining chip with Murderbot? Probably.
Having got Mensah into trouble, it’s up to Murderbot to retrieve Mensah and her team from the heart of enemy territory.
One of the legacies of Murderbot’s rough-and-tumble life is a defective risk assessment module. The module lowballs the risk of catastrophic disaster.
(I sympathize. This is more or less the same kind of executive function issue one can acquire thanks to sleep apnea, say, or repeated head trauma. Though it can be useful; diminished executive function is a legitimate superpower, one that allows persons to undertake tasks at which others would balk.)
Murderbot eventually turns the nagging module off, which seems perfectly reasonable to me. Also a boon to readers. An inability to assess risk is a necessary but insufficient prerequisite for interesting adventures.
In addition to poor risk assessment, Murderbot is also troubled by a tendency to befriend humans. It wasn’t built that way. Perhaps its big heart can be blamed on all those soap operas it loves to watch. If its friends are in trouble, Murderbot is going to use its talents, from hacking to improvised mayhem, to help its friends.
Murderbot isn’t the only personable machine we have met in the course of this series of novellas. SecUnits and Combat Units aside, many machines seem more personable than their owners1. It’s as if owning thinking beings has a morally corrosive effect.
There are branches of both speculative fiction and mystery whose lineages can be traced back to the pulp magazines of the previous century. Exit Strategy makes this shared legacy plain. Philip Marlowe might be a bit surprised to encounter a fellow detective who was largely a machine, but Murderbot embodies Marlowe’s creator’s thesis that
Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor — by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.
Although Murderbot is no mere man. It is Murderbot.
I believe this has been pitched as the final Murderbot book. I hope that is not the case, that public acclaim inspires the author to keep us up to date on the grumpy introvert. Murderbot is an endearing, funny narrator and the series is addictive.
1: Even Mensah’s planet isn’t all that accepting of AIs; it treats them as though they had diminished capacity. The machines have formed their own covert networks. One wonders if out beyond the Corporate Rim there might be a community of escaped
slaves machines. And underground shipping routes thereto?