2017’s All Systems Red is the first instalment in Martha Well’s The Murderbot Diaries.
The Company cares (<3 <3 <3), which is why every one of their survey teams is required to have at least one Sec Unit. This is a construct: part machine, part organic, a guardian bound by programs stored in supposedly unhackable governor units. Its duty: to protect its squishy human charges. Of course, the Company is also profit-oriented, which means that the Sec Unit has been assembled from the cheapest components available, which in turn means that those governor units are, in fact, easily hacked.
Dr. Mensah’s team is small and it has just the one Sec Unit. That seems sufficient for a world without any significant known hazards. But appearances can be misleading. There is an undocumented giant predator in the team’s assigned territory. And the team’s Sec Unit is a Murderbot. Its governor has been hacked and disabled. Murderbot refrains from murdering its humans mainly because it can see no good reason to kill them. Not as long as it has new entertainment material to amuse it.
There is another, far greater, threat to the team than a soap-opera-obsessed Murderbot in the offing.
A narrow escape from an undocumented predator alerts the team to the fact their Company briefing was woefully unreliable. A much closer look at the briefing files reveals that they are incomplete. Someone has edited the files to remove references to certain locations, clumsily enough to be obvious to anyone who takes the time to examine the files rather than skimming them and trusting that they are complete. Whether this was done by the Company or by some other party is unclear.
When Dr. Mensah’s team contacts DeltFall, the other sanctioned team on the planet, there is no reply. Only ominous silence. A trip to DeltFall base reveals that the silence is not a harmless communications failure: the entire team is dead. DeltFall was slaughtered by their own Sec Units.
Mensah’s team has an unseen enemy somewhere out in the wilderness. An enemy who could turn Murderbot against the humans it grudgingly tolerates.
If you buy this book from amazon.com, the paperback is $9.60 US. If you buy it from amazon.ca, it’s $20.99 Canadian, which works out to $15.56 US. That’s quite the price hike, given it is the same book sold by different branches of the same vendor. That sort of opportunistic corporate malevolence is just the sort of behavior on which the novel’s plot relies.
I thought the book oddly reminiscent of an old Joan D. Vinge story, “To Bell the Cat.” Both stories involve a survey team that relies on the services of an expendable slave. The difference is that in the Vinge story, the slave is a war criminal being punished. In this novel, the malfunctioning Murderbot was created to serve squishy humans.
One of the benefits of late capitalism is that companies, believing resistance is futile, are not really concerned that works of fiction might stir the masses into revolutionary fervour. Not an effective fervour. There’s no need to suppress works that might make people unhappy with the current state of affairs, because their unhappiness won’t affect the outcome. As a result, Wells can be up front and explicit about how off-handedly malevolent the Company is without fearing that the Holtzbrinck Publishing Group will take personal offense.
In the Company’s defense, they are merely pursuing their corporate ethic to its logical end: profit above all, so cut corners where you can and listen only to the screams of victims whose demise might affect the bottom line. This focus on profit is a useful tool for knowledgeable people trying to co-exist with the Company; it allows Murderbot and its allies to rule out the Company as their primary foe, because the death of a survey team will cost the Company’s insurance arm considerable money.
We eventually learn that the organic component of the Murderbot is a person, a trapped and enslaved person who has managed to disable their governor unit. Like present-day semi-educated, media-numbed wage slaves, the person in the Murderbot was intended to be controllable. This isn’t really a secret. At least one polity admits that the bots are people. Even that polity only grants them second class citizenship, but it does underline the fact that the bots’ creators have designed the bot around a person. Legal recognition of personhood would get in the way of profit, so organizations like the Company make sure the bots are classified as equipment. And most humans go along with this because it’s convenient.
What keeps this from being an unrelentingly grim tale of slavery and dismemberment is Murderbot itself. Murderbot might note that rending the puny humans limb from limb is well within its operational parameters, but this is a purely theoretical observation about performance capabilities. Murderbot has no desire to have its personal body count go any higher. Despite the name it calls itself, Murderbot is not very murder-ish at all. It’s really quite pleasant, if you get to know it.
Please direct corrections to jdnicoll at panix dot com.