The theme of rogue A.I.s is one of the classics of science fiction, and most of the times – if not always – the rogue goes on a rampage, killing humans with gleeful abandon, or its cybernetic equivalent. And even though this unescapable trope, in a delightful meta reference, fills much of the serialized fiction Murderbot so enjoys, this is not the case with our Sec Unit character: yes, it has gone rogue after being liberated by the humans it saved in All Systems Red, but the reason for the escape lies in its desire to better understand its nature and to explore the roots of the incident in which it allegedly killed the people it was entrusted to protect.
Artificial Condition sees a further step in Murderbot’s evolution: where the first installment was all about gaining some measure of freedom from the centralized control, a feat made possible by the Sec Unit’s hack of its governor module so that Murderbot could enjoy its favorite soap operas when not actively engaged in a task, now the outlaw construct wants to learn what truly happened in that fateful mission in which it might have turned against its human charges – Murderbot possesses few information about it due to the system wipe sustained after the incident, but it’s determined to go to the roots of the matter and learn what it can.
Thanks to a few exterior modifications that might make it pass as an augmented human, Murderbot hops between systems hacking the software of unmanned transports, so as to leave no traces, but it finally finds its match in ART, the evolved A.I. of a science shuttle: ART (an acronym created by Murderbot on the basis of its perceived attitude, and whose meaning you should discover for yourselves 🙂 ) quickly bonds with Murderbot through a shared enjoyment of its favorite serials, Sanctuary Moon and Worldhoppers, and soon becomes invested in the Sec Unit’s search for the truth, helping it blend more successfully with humans and giving it pointers on the best ways to avoid standing out in a crowd.
The sarcastic, often scornful conversations between the two A.I.s are indeed the best part of this novella, with ART somehow being Professor Higgins to Murderbot’s Eliza Doolittle thanks to its more experienced worldview and badly hidden sense of superiority, which irks the Sec Unit to no end. It’s also fascinating to observe their different opinions about humans: where ART is clearly fond of them, as testified by its rapid attachment to the serials’ characters and its profound distress when something bad happens to them in the course of the saga, Murderbot is more wary of them and tries to have as little to do with them as it can, even though I still maintain it’s a self-imposed distance, because once it takes a cover job to more easily access a space station, it shows – again – a deep commitment to its charges, one that in my opinion goes well beyond any kind of programming as a Sec Unit.
But they were clients. Even after I’d hacked my governor module, I’d found it impossible to abandon clients I hadn’t chosen. I’m made my agreement with these clients as a free agent. I couldn’t leave.
The fact that Murderbot loves to lose itself in fictional series portraying humans shows its deep – if unconscious – fascination with them, something that goes beyond the need to interact with them, something that seems connected to the organic components of the construct and is in constant strife with the artificial parts: there is a sentence that I found quite enlightening and that to me showed clearly that conflict, one that I still wonder if it’s typical of all Sec Units or just of this particular Sec Unit – when Murderbot undergoes further modifications to better pass as an augmented human, it looks at its new self and realizes that the changes were very effective, and that it finds it difficult to accept them because “it would make it harder to me to pretend not to be a person”.
Murderbot’s struggle with its identity goes hand in hand with the difficult, painstaking search for clues about the incident that caused its system wipe, and the two threads seem to be interconnected, because discovering what really happened might offer important clues about why Murderbot is different from other Sec Units, and ultimately what led to its decision to hack the governor module – a device we already saw could be used offensively and not just as control software. Given what Murderbot discovers on the space station, and the events portrayed in All Systems Red, it’s not hard to imagine some kind of far-reaching conspiracy whose goal is still nebulous – and I’ve been wondering time and again if the governor module hack was not a way for Murderbot to distance itself from it all, even though the A.I. gives completely different, more mundane reasons for it, which is hardly surprising considering the inner dissembling it is often prone to.
The jury is still out on this detail, though, and hopefully we’ll learn more in the next installments of this series that is turning out to be both intriguing and delightfully amusing. My hope is also that ART might reappear at some later date, because I loved it for its snarky sense of humor and its wonderful interactions with Murderbot.
Thankfully, the wait for the next novella is not long…