My only encounter so far with Martha Wells’ works has been through the first volume of her Tales of the Raksura series, an intriguing combination of fantasy and science fiction that somewhat defies genre definition, and one I intend to return to as soon as I can. I was therefore very curious to read this novella that promised to be quite different, since I enjoy seeing authors flex their proverbial writing muscles in different environments, and I can now say that All Systems Red was a very intriguing experience.
On the surface, this novella looks like the deceptively straightforward story of a scientific team exploring an alien world that finds itself threatened by what looks like incorrect information and equipment failure, which is later revealed as an attempt to kill them all to prevent discovery of an unlawful operation. The team is assisted, as required by the Company – the corporate entity supervising every planetary survey – by a SecUnit, an armed and armored android tasked with their protection. This particular SecUnit, though, is different from the other Company-supplied bots, because it’s been able to hack its own governor module, and therefore to act independently from any directive it receives.
This mutinous act from the SecUnit, that calls itself Murderbot because of a previous incident, is what defines the whole narrative, taking it away from any predictable path and moving it in unexpected – and sometimes deliciously funny – directions. The story is relayed by Murderbot itself, and as unreliable a narrator as it seems to be, the android speaks in a delightfully cynical voice that sets the tone from the very start, since the SecUnit did not hack its governor module for any dark purpose: all it wants is to be independent from the Company’s nagging presence, with its annoying updates and checks, and be free to enjoy the huge cache of serialized shows it downloaded for its own enjoyment.
This is a surprisingly human desire (how many times have we wished to spend a day lounging in front of the tv, instead of having to go to work?), and it sets from the start the parameters for the android’s personality, one that is revealed bit by bit during the course of the story and that manages to make Murderbot a very sympathetic character, one that’s quite easy to root for. If on one side Murderbot is not very fond of humans and tries to avoid their company as much as its duties allow, it does so because of its underlying inability to understand them fully, and in the end its fixation with the serials it’s so fond of might be a way to work toward that understanding through vicarious, less hands-on means. In a way I was reminded of a painfully shy adolescent trying to grasp the finer points of social intercourse by watching tv….
What emerges from the fast-paced narrative is the progressive – and at times even unwilling – change in Murderbot’s psychological profile, which is not so surprising with some hindsight: a bot whose higher aspiration is to be free of superior directives so it can indulge in soap-opera binges is far too human to remain a detached machine for long. Not that our character does not try: we learn soon enough that it feels uncomfortable in the company of humans, that the necessity to lower its visor and show them its face makes it extremely nervous and exposed, which made me wonder how much aware Murderbot is of its difference from the basic SecUnit models, and convinced me of its partial unreliability as a narrator.
As the situation gets ever more dangerous for the science team, we see Murderbot change its attitude toward its humans – just as they change their own attitude toward it, accepting it as one of their own with surprising ease – so that it becomes not only their guard but their protector. The desire for freedom of choice, when paired with the need to safeguard the team’s lives (and incidentally its own), morphs into the first inklings of free will, that at first manifests itself in the ability of thinking up a scheme for the group’s survival and later becomes the desire/necessity to explore this amazing changes without further external influence.
It’s a fascinating journey from many points of view: because of the construct’s growing self-awareness, of course, but also thanks to Murderbot’s peculiar voice that is an irresistible mix of snark and logical thinking, of innocence (as far as interpersonal relations go) and craftiness. It was a delight following the unit’s journey, and I more than look forward to learning more in the upcoming novellas for this series, which I hope will also expand on the tantalizing details we just glimpsed about this future society.