Review: The Murderbot Diaries
“It’s pulpy, but it’s good,” my brother said as he handed me All Systems Red. I didn’t understand the distinction, but I was on board regardless. As he predicted, I read that quickly and went on to read the other three novellas in the series, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, and Exit Strategy.
Not for nothing, these really ought to have been published as a single novel. They were released over the course of about a year and a half, so it’s not as though they individually required substantial research or revision. Even today, two years after the publication of the final book, they can still only be purchased separately. The e-books will run you $36 USD. I can’t comment on the economics of the science fiction industry (“pulpy” indeed!), but I couldn’t completely ignore the motives as I moved from book to book. Borrow these from your library (or your big brother) if you can.
Anyway, Murderbot is a compelling character: a privately-owned security robot (“SecUnit”) which has secretly gained autonomy by hacking its “governor module.” From the beginning, it’s clear that the books are as much as character study as an adventure story.
I thought I had a handle on the thing’s personality initially: an assassin with Asperger syndrome. “Maybe this series will be a kind of dystopian Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time,” I remember thinking. But it quickly became clear that Murderbot’s perspective couldn’t be summarized even in the rarefied terms of a human neurological disorder. It’s self-aware in more ways than one; it frequently breaks the fourth wall to comment on its own actions and emotions:
I wish being a construct made me less irrational than the average human but you may have noticed this is not the case.
Reading these books is as much about trying to build empathy with the character as it is about learning the events of the narrative.
Unfortunately, some important details of the backstory are missing. It’s not that we never learn why Murderbot subverted its own programming (Murderbot doesn’t know itself, so uncertainty there is appropriate). It’s that Murderbot doesn’t say when that happened. That makes it hard to understand the relative significance of the events of these books. Are they just “a day in the life,” or are they the first hours of freedom? That makes a big difference, especially when it comes to discerning character growth.
Author Martha Wells also skipped commentary on the relationship between sentience and free will. She goes part way there with a super-intelligent research transport along with some passing references to slavery, but for the most part, Murderbot takes its unique position for granted.
The book includes other science fiction concepts superficially, but since they’re not central to the story, their casual handling feels more agreeable. They’re mundane to Murderbot, but they’re fun to consider alongside the action. For instance, Murderbot’s learned experiences are augmented by “education modules,” and it occasionally blames its ignorance on the shoddiness of those components. It feels appropriate (that is, both rational and inhuman) for the character to think about knowledge as a physical attribute. Another example: Murderbot occasionally regulates its perception of pain. It’s fun to guess about why a robot would be designed to experience pain as unpleasant even though the answer isn’t particularly relevant for the story. These details give some depth to Wells’ fictional universe.
While omitting those details on the setting seems appropriate, some aspects of Wells’ writing are just distracting. Murderbot nests parenthetical comments. Prior to reading this series, I’d only seen this done in lazy technical writing in my day job. There, it’s clear that writers are typing out a stream-of-consciousness and can’t be bothered to reconsider the structure of their prose. Instead, they pile the concepts on top of each other and force their reader to climb up and down the layers of context. I’ve been trying to come up with a more nuanced explanation for why the fictional character in this series would write in this way, but maybe my imagination’s failed me because it still feels lazy.
I’ll admit that it’s a pedantic complaint. There’s less than a handful of occurrences over the course of all four novellas, so you can probably chalk my criticism up to a pet peeve. Though there’s another strange pattern that I’ve been hard-pressed to look past: inconsistencies in tense.
The books are written in first person, with Murderbot itself reflecting on the events from some unknown point in the future. In many cases, it makes sense for the tense to switch between past and present: Murderbot felt one way about some event, and it feels another way now that it is reflecting. But that distinction often gets a little murky. “There was nothing I could do about it now.” Unlike the nested parentheticals, this is pervasive and subtle. “I didn’t know if I could trust them. I wanted to. But I want a lot of things–freedom, unlimited downloads, new episodes of Drama Sun Islands–most of which I wasn’t going to get.” This never directly interferes with the narrative, but it’s distracting for reasons beyond the pedantic. When a story’s told retrospectively, the “present day” writer is liable to drop hints and foreshadowing in any number of subtle ways. You’ll read their words carefully, looking for clues. It’s really difficult to understand what, if anything, the narrator is trying to say with statements like those above.
For example, Murderbot “wants” a lot of things, but it “wasn’t” going to get them. A really close reading of that phrasing suggest that it also wanted those things in the past. Going further, it seems that while they were impossible at the time, they may be feasible now… But by the time you’ve developed that interpretation, you’ve probably also convinced yourself that this was not what the author was trying to communicate.
Like I said, distracting.
Despite that, I’m happy to recommend this series to folks looking for a quick distraction. The character is compelling, and the flaws aren’t enough to get in the way of that desire for empathy. You’ll find yourself rooting for Murderbot before you understand it because you want to understand it. And you’ll come to understand it (a little) through a fun space adventure, told with a relaxed, sarcastic voice. It’s pulpy, and it’s good.