All Systems Red: The adventures of an introverted killing machine

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All Systems Red by Martha Wells science fiction book reviewsAll Systems Red by Martha Wells science fiction book reviewsAll Systems Red by Martha Wells

The narrator of All Systems Red (2017), the 2017 Nebula award-winning novella by Martha Wells, is a once-nameless cyborg security unit or SecUnit that has given itself the name Murderbot (for reasons disclosed midway through the story). Using its own unprecedented and highly unauthorized initiative, Murderbot has hacked the governor module software that controls its actions and obligates it to be obedient. But instead of going on a killing spree, as one might expect given the name it adopted, Murderbot elects to spend its spare hours watching countless hours of video entertainment and trying not to interact more than is necessary with the group of eight humans that it’s responsible for protecting, a survey group of eight scientists called PreservationAux that is exploring the natural resources on an uninhabited planet.

Murderbot’s self-isolation and studied lack of caring starts to break down, however, when potentially deadly accidents start to occur with suspicious regularity. Dr. Bharadwaj is almost killed by an alien creature that explodes out of the bottom of one of the many craters along the coast, and the group finds that data has been deleted from the warnings and fauna sections of their planetary survey package. The autopilot of their “hopper” aircraft cuts out without warning, which could have led to a fatal crash. And then there are the automated data updates that Murderbot is supposed to be uploading (and would have, if it hadn’t disabled its governor module).

Matters only get worse when the group decides to visit the only other survey group on the planet. Murderbot is painfully shy and vastly reluctant to get too close to the humans, and even more, to share their secrets. But it becomes clear that the group won’t survive without Murderbot’s help and active involvement.

All Systems Red is a breezy, fast-paced science fiction adventure wrapped in a light mystery. There’s not nearly as much murder and mayhem as the title and Murderbot’s name might lead one to believe. Instead, All Systems Red has something serious to say about the ideas of free will and autonomy, and about the difficulties faced by introverts in day-to-day life. Murderbot tells itself that it just doesn’t care about the humans, but its excruciating shyness soon becomes clear to the other characters and to the reader. Murderbot hides its human face behind helmet with an opaque faceplate, and awkwardly withdraws from conversations that become too personal, choosing to stand facing the wall instead.

Murderbot comments that it has no gender or sex-related parts; claiming that only sexbots in brothels have those. Understandably, it has an asexual personality, another unique aspect to this main character. Murderbot fast-forwards through all of the sex scenes in the serials it watches, finding them boring (“I think that even if I did have sex-related parts I would find them boring”). Murderbot also narrates this novella with a large dose of snark:

They had talked it over and all agreed not to “push me any further than I wanted to go” and they were all so nice and it was just excruciating. I was never taking off the helmet again. I can’t do even the half-assed version of this stupid job if I have to talk to humans. … At least Mensah and Arada had overruled the ones who wanted to talk to me about it. Yes, talk to Murderbot about its feelings. The idea was so painful that I dropped to 97% efficiency.

Murderbot is a unique, well-developed character but, other than the leader of the survey group, Dr. Mensah, and one other person who is somewhat antagonistic to Murderbot, the members of PreservationAux aren’t particularly distinguishable personalities. We learn that Overse and Arada are in a lesbian relationship and that Volescu is in a four way marriage back on their home planet, but Wells never really attempts to make them or any of the others fully fleshed-out characters. It’s possible that that is a deliberate approach, a feature rather than a flaw, meant to evidence Murderbot’s unwillingness to engage with members of the group on a personal level.

All Systems Red is an enjoyable, quick read, and a solid introduction to the new MURDERBOT DIARIES series. It’s a credit to Wells that the last chapter is such a solid conclusion to the story. I appreciated how Murderbot’s increased confidence is reflected in its ability to show its human face in public. It feels like it could have been a stand-alone novella, even though the ending leaves the door wide open for Murderbot’s further adventures. In fact, the second novella in this series, Artificial Condition, has just been published as of May 1, 2018, and I’m anxious to read it.

~Tadiana Jones


All Systems Red by Martha Wells science fiction book reviewsWhat Tadiana says is right on and I agree whole-heartedly. I loved Murderbot and look forward to reading more of its adventures. 

The audiobook version is produced by Recorded Books. I’m not convinced that the narrator, Kevin R. Free, got Murderbot’s voice right and I think I could have created a better voice in my head. He made Murderbot sound nice and bland, but I think Martha Wells was going for snarky, as Tadiana mentioned above. There was a touch of snark to Free’s performance, but not enough, I think. Wil Wheaton would have been a great (but probably too expensive) choice for this story. Still, Free’s version was okay and I’ll probably choose to read the sequels in audio format.

~Kat Hooper

Published in 2017. A murderous android discovers itself in All Systems Red, a tense science fiction adventure by Martha Wells that interrogates the roots of consciousness through Artificial Intelligence. “As a heartless killing machine, I was a complete failure.” In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety. But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern. On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is. But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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3 comments

  1. It’s creepy when I read your book reviews and they seem to have “Jana would love this” written all over them, haha.

  2. I want to read this one! Thanks for the great review, Tadiana

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