wrongtrainrighttime: (Default)
Wrong Train, Right Time ([personal profile] wrongtrainrighttime) wrote2017-06-09 08:23 am

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Wells, Martha. All Systems Red. Tor.com, 2017. eBook.

I've been looking forward to reading this novella since the preview chapter went up on Tor.com, and let me tell you, I was not disappointed.

The initial draw for me was the protagonist. Wells does an amazing job of sketching out Murderbot's core concept in a the few few paragraphs: security droid who is secretly self-aware but would rather watch soap operas than go on a murderous rampage. She also does an amazing job with Murderbot's voice, giving it life an personality as it makes its own (not terribly flattering) observations of the humans its charged with guarding. Wells is really careful to capture and leave out the things that Murderbot would and wouldn't care about, which gives its voice a very distinct flavor since its priorities are obviously different. It's an interesting take on "machine becomes self-aware"; Murderbot doesn't think about things in a human way, but also not in a mechanical way. There's so much personality in Murderbot that I actually wonder how self-aware bots are when they don't have cracked governors. It's a rather terrible thought.

Beneath the flippancy of Murderbot's voice, though, there is the subplot of Murderbot trying to figure out what to do now that it is self-aware. Honestly, avoiding the whole question with a 400+ episode soap opera sounds like a pretty good way to go about things. The way Murderbot describes its interactions with the humans its guarding is especially fascinating, due to the contrast with how Murderbot tosses off descriptions versus what the reader's reconstruction of the scene and awareness of how strange things like abruptly walking away to stare at a corner rather than people would be to the humans around it.

Mild spoilers for "All Systems Red" follow.

Wells uses Murderbot's discomfort with attention, assertion, and being treated as a free agent to pull off a narrative trick that I didn't figure out until the very end. The story is written in 1st person past, but at the very end Murderbot's voice switches abruptly to directly addressing the reader. The whole novella is reframed as a personal message to another of the characters. So Murderbot's been talking about the other characters in 3rd person the entire time while they've been reading about themselves being viewed in 3rd person the whole time. It's a surprising jolt but it makes SO MUCH sense that in trying to explain its very personal motivations for leaving Dr. Mensah and the team, Murderbot would start from a very remote place -- and only at the very end change, when it didn't have any choice, close that distance. It's SO good and so cleverly done.

Spoilers end.

In addition to all of this, the plot is an excellent intrigue adventure and really clips along. The novella totally flew by me; I read it twice in a row and loved it. So highly recommended for those in search of a sci-fi adventure with some really clever writing and entertaining voice work. I'm really looking forward to the next novella in the series.

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