Martha Wells’ 2020 Network Effect is the first novel and fifth installment in her ongoing series, Murderbot Diaries.
Having escaped from the mercilessly exploitive Corporation Rim for the comparative safety of Preservation System (and more remarkably, having not lost any of its human associates in the process, despite said humans having the self-preservation instincts of day-old rabbits), Murderbot is finally free(ish) to find a new place in life that doesn’t involve being an expendable slave.
This is quite the challenge. Rather conveniently, a real-world crisis intervenes before Murderbot gets too caught up in a crisis of self-definition for which it has few applicable tools. Space raiders!
The Preservation spacecraft carrying Murderbot and its human companions is ambushed near a wormhole. Murderbot very efficiently does its best to keep the humans safe and alive and out of the raiders’ hands. It’s mostly successful, but both Murderbot and disgruntled teenager Amena are captured by the raiders.
The raiders are a strange lot; they act funny and look funny. They seem to have been modified in some way; how, by whom, and for what purpose is unclear. They don’t have any idea that Murderbot is more than it seems. They offhandedly admit that they’ve casually murdered one of Murderbot’s oldest AI friends; violent death follows. For them.
Murderbot and Amena manage to take control of the raider spaceship, but not before the ship arrives in the raiders’ home system. Before the pair can make it home, they have to deal with a lost colony and a mysterious entity discovered in one of those dangerous archaeological digs. Everything is immensely complicated when the rest of their crew attempts an unnecessary rescue.
But first, a digression:
Murderbot is explicitly property, as low on the social pecking order as a thinking entity can be in the Corporation Rim. Humans have it better — but only very slightly. Corporation Rim humans are subject to lifetime indenture; they are effectively slaves to their corporate bosses. Presumably someone somewhere is sitting pretty thanks to this system, but what we see in the series is that even powerful corps are vulnerable. They are secure only until someone more powerful decides to crush them.
Corporation Rim does not appear to have any region-wide governance, yet the corps do seem to take contract law very seriously. Which led me to wonder: who exactly enforces the contract law if there is no authority all the corporations acknowledge? The answer seems to be that the various rules are enforced only to the degree that the companies with the power to enforce them can be bothered to do so. You might think this is a recipe for disaster. And yes, it is a recipe for incessant inter-corporate war and brutal exploitation of the weak.
Any resemblance to the current state of the world is entirely coincidental.
This novel delivers everything one wants from a Murderbot installment; life-and-death conflicts; Murderbot’s running commentary on said conflicts; its efforts to keep its humans alive; Murderbot’s never ending social discomfort as it is forced to interact with people in ways that challenge its original programming.