Martha Wells’ Hugo Award winning novella All Systems Red, part one in The Murderbot Diaries is an action-packed tale set on a distant planet told from the perspective of Murderbot, a part organic, part artificial construct owned by an unnamed company and on lease to a planetary survey expedition. Murderbot hacked its governor module after a grisly malfunction on a previous contract and would now prefer to watch trashy soap operas than protect its clients from hazardous fauna. We follow Murderbot as it comes to terms with its newfound autonomy and agency whilst the expedition falls apart around them.
“It calls itself ‘Murderbot,’” Gurathin said. I opened my eyes and looked at him; I couldn’t stop myself. From their expressions I knew everything I felt was showing on my face, and I hate that. I grated out, “That was private.”
Despite the novella size, the world of All Systems Red is rich and intriguing. Humans have colonised a variety of new worlds, space travel has been mastered, and AI technology highly developed and integrated in everyday life. All this unfolds quite seamlessly and organically. Meanwhile, corporate greed and negligence remain ever present in society and serve as the main catalysts for much of the action, which is a common but wholly functional trope. Overall, it is a very human story, which is an interesting twist considering the AI protagonist. After freeing itself from its governing system, Murderbot has the same autonomy any human can enjoy, yet only wants to be left in peace to watch entertainment feeds. This is certainly a very human sentiment I believe everyone can relate to. Given limitless possibilities, we often choose to be self-serving and insular. Though this is more complicated in Murderbot; its simplistic actions are due in part to self-preservation. The discovery of an autonomous SecUnit would swiftly lead to dismantlement and recycling, so Murderbot is conscious to appear bound to its programming. As the plot unfolds, this autonomy becomes key to the survival of Murderbot and the researchers, but also attracts further attention and scrutiny.
“It’s wrong to think of a construct as half bot, half human. It makes it sound like the halves are discrete, like the bot half should want to obey orders and do its job and the human half should want to protect itself and get the hell out of here. As opposed to the reality, which was that I was one whole confused entity, with no idea what I wanted to do. What I should do. What I needed to do.”
The scope within which Murderbot functions is another point of interest. It could hardly be blamed for wanting to do nothing but watch media, since it has yet to grasp what else is even possible. The ongoing juxtapositions between what it can, should, and does want is another heartfelt and relatable feeling, made all the more interesting considering its main engagement with the human experience is through dramatized soap operas. Though obviously over the top, this media has exposed the AI to ideas of individuality, heroism, and a greater sense of purpose. In contrast to this uncertainty, what Murderbot does possess is a precise understanding of what it is; an organic/inorganic construct bound to an uncaring corporation and designed for security detail at the service of whichever company is paying. Its disposability is only outweighed by its production cost. Yet, Murderbot feels no inherent shame or limitation because of this. Though basic, its function and purpose are clearer than any human could hope to possess. I found such clarity really refreshing and gave a firm foundation for Murderbot’s self-discovery. Why it exists is never in doubt, but what can it do is the real question, another very human sentiment.
“I liked the imaginary people on the entertainment feed way more than I liked real ones, but you can’t have one without the other.”
Murderbot’s muted sense of pride and dedication to its intended purpose is also fascinating. This in fact was the reason why it hacked its governor module in the first place; to ensure its faulty programming does not murderously malfunction again. This even enables it to perform far better than its binary and glitchy programming would allow. Although seemingly indifferent or idle minded at times, Murderbot is not negligent and even under intense pressure it commits itself to perform to the best of its abilities, readily at its own expense. The lives of its human clients are more important than its own and that is never questioned. However, such heroism doesn’t stem from a particular fondness for its clients. In fact, it is rather indifferent about most of them, but a good SecUnit must do what it was made to do and that doesn’t diminish the quality of its actions.
“You may have noticed that when I do manage to care, I’m a pessimist.”
Objectively, All Systems Red is quite dire and depressing. Things on the expedition immediately go bad and only get worse, but within this, Murderbot is a source of positivity and even light heartedness. Its awkward and endearing up-close interactions with people, its dry reflections on the irrationality of humans, and a frank, pessimistic attitude towards life puts a humorous twist on all the gloom. Seeing Murderbot’s emotional awareness develop and it wholly exceed its limitations is a genuine and heartfelt triumph, giving the narrative a surprisingly optimistic overtone.
He finally said, “You don´t blame humans for what you were forced to do? For what happened to you?”
This is why I’m glad I’m not human. They come up with stuff like this. I said, “No. That’s a human thing to do. Constructs aren’t that stupid.”
We are left sympathetic towards Murderbot and can easily connect to its developing ‘humanness’, but contrary to our expectations, it outright rejects the notion that it does or should want to be human. The people around Murderbot that pry and probe it for understandings of what it could or should be feeling only exacerbates the differences between them. Murderbot doesn’t want to be questioned or instructed on what it should do, think, or feel. It only wishes to exist and find the answers to those questions for itself. Another simple yet profound and relatable sentiment to finish on, and one I look forward to discovering through the rest of The Murderbot Diaries.