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BREAKING NEWS: Tons of people love All Systems Red by Martha Wells, a new novella from Tor. Probably not a spoiler due to my fondness for robot pals: I'm among their number. It's got an uninhabited planet and a strong space thriller vibe. It also boasts a security bot who we can identify with deeply, because all it wants to do is download and watch television shows. The main conceit is that the bot—SecUnit like the humans refer to it, or Murderbot, as it calls itself—has a hacked governor module, granting it its own will and agency. All Systems Red is about what it chooses to do with that agency.

cover for All Systems Red


Murderbot is the entire security force for a small team of scientists researching a planet. Instead of turning to murdering it spends its time watching serialized television and being a combination of annoyed and embarrassed when it has to interact awkwardly with the humans under its care. Murderbot is having a bad week, too. The story opens with everything going wrong in a very foreboding, "we're alone on a faraway planet and weird/deadly things are happening" way. Yet All Systems Red puts a clever twist on a familiar trope. It's exactly the kind of story I needed right now: people caring about each other (sort of IN SPACE), hope, and (very important) resolved narrative tension.

All Systems Red is juggling several ideas: autonomy, how good people can still uphold a troubling status quo, corporate greed and irresponsibility, murdering (obviously), social anxiety, and the politics around culture. But two main things stood out for me.

The first is the embarrassment and humiliation that Murderbot feels around humans. If Murderbot isn't wearing its armor or hiding away in security spaces communicating through feeds, it's having a serious crisis. It doesn't like when humans look at it too long or attempt to learn about it. I, an anxiety-ridden Millennial: same same same. The way Murderbot describes its discomfort with humans in social situations—even when protective of them—was so similar to the way I experience social anxiety it was eerie, but perfect. My empathy for Murderbot was tied up in my experience of those moments where people have placed social expectations on you but you're not sure how to react so you react by panicking. Do you escape? Do you make eye contact? Where do your arms go? How do you human again? But Murderbot handles all this the best it can since there are no other options besides murdering. And Murderbot hasn't used its free will to do much more than gorge on media without much social interaction, so its reactions to humans makes sense. It serves the story, but also gives you a brilliant way to understand how Murderbot sees and experiences the world.

The media addiction Murderbot has operates on a few levels. Of course, Murderbot doesn't mind humans so much since they create cool stuff for it to watch. But there are some fascinating undertones to how Murderbot approaches humans based on the media, too. Uncontrolled by the governor module, the Murderbot slowly comes not just to value the humans it protects, but to care for them as people. This is fueled in part by the massive amount of media it consumes. The media isn't just a cute quirk of a entertainment addicted security robot, but instead an example of how watching visual media can change how you approach the world, other people, and develop empathy for everyone around you even if you disagree with them. As the marginalized have been saying forever now: the media we watch matters.

Spoilers in the comments.

Other reviews

Natalie Luhrs, Liz Bourke, The Book Smugglers, Dina, Fangirl Nation, Paul Weimer, James Nicoll

Date: 2017-05-15 06:12 am (UTC)
stardreamer: Meez headshot (Default)
From: [personal profile] stardreamer
I read it last week, and I agree -- it's fabulous!

Another aspect of "the media stories we consume shape us" is that Murderbot's taste for action/adventure dramas comes in handy when the shit starts to hit the fan; it has some idea of what's likely to happen and what to do about it, when most of the humans are WAY out of their depth.

And the twist at the end... I won't spoiler it, but it's both fascinating and absolutely in tune with Murderbot's character as it's been drawn throughout.

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