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All Systems Red by Martha Wells

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.
AIs and personhood are issues which have a long science fictional heritage, one that is again in the air as AI appears to be an ever-more-achievable goal; what would the implications of the personhood of AIs be? All Systems Red is Martha Wells’ injection into that discussion, although there’s more to this novella than just an ontological discussion.

Before we go further, it should be noted that Murderbot is a person who appears to prefer the pronoun “it” for itself, hence I will refer to Murderbot by that pronoun in this review.

All Systems Red is narrated by the titular Murderbot, who hacked its own AI governor unit to give it a fully independent, rather than externally regulated, intelligence; it has to keep this carefully under wraps because the society Wells has created isn’t keen on AIs as independent, self-directed beings, only as property. Murderbot’s own sense of self is somewhat defined by that: while seeing itself as sentient, and even self-directed, it also sees itself as not human, not a true person, and has social anxiety about itself. Wells writes Murderbot sympathetically and interestingly, and the obsession with serials – shared with a number of other similarly liberated AIs, such as Ancillary Justice‘s Breq – provides some brilliant comic moments.

The rest of the cast of All Systems Red, seen through Murderbot’s eyes, is brilliantly vivid too; each one has a very distinct character and role in the group, from the leader and the one who has most sympathy towards the particular psychology of Murderbot to the augmented human who is deeply suspicious of Murderbot and doesn’t trust it. Wells drops in humanising details all over the places, such as characters randomly testing Murderbot, or their discussions among themselves which we overhear snatches of revealing their own fears and neuroses. What Wells also does is background a very queer world; there are a mix of sexualities on display in relationships that are mentioned between people on the mission, and with those they’ve left behind; and polyamory is a perfectly accepted life, with multiple marriage and extended complex family units something mentioned completely without comment.

The plot of All Systems Red is almost secondary to all the character moments and gracenotes, but it’s also what enables all those things. Wells has constructed a locked room mystery on a survey planet, and Murderbot has to simultaneously solve it while protecting its charges; the way Wells balances the plot between high drama and light moments is exquisite, and the way they can heighten the tension is incredible. The plot is a little contrived and doesn’t ever really resolve – there is an extent to which the motives of the antagonists are opaque and ill-defined, and All Sustems Red also suffers from Wells’ tendency to hold back information for later revelation in a way that feels very contrived, especially given the apparent conceit of the novella as being written by Murderbot for someone who already knew all the events it contains.

In the end though, plot is really a secondary consideration for All Systems Red, which is really about Murderbot’s developing sense of itself, and in that particular regard, Wells has done a spectacular job. I really look forward to meeting it again in future work.

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