Science fiction and fantasy                                            

All Systems Red

by Martha Wells

In Martha Wells' far future world, planetary exploration is big business, and it is done with the help of humanoid robots with organic elements, fast regeneration, and artificial intelligence. They're brought in to provide security and advanced capabilities for the humans who explore, map, and exploit uncharted territory on strange planets.

All Systems Red is written from the point of view of one such robot, who thinks of themself only as Murderbot. This is partly because they (they don't have a gender, nor a proper name) have hacked their governor module, the software that ensures they have to obey the human PreservationAux crew. The humans are unaware Murderbot is a rogue, and if Murderbot wants to stay free that secret must remain hidden from the rest of the team and the outside world.

Murderbot can regrow organic flesh in a matter of hours, but is mostly made up of robotic parts. But they are also socially aware and extremely awkward around humans, hating to socialise to the point of having a horror of human interaction. Instead, they like to watch hours of entertainment feeds on the sly, such as soaps. Far from being murderous, Murderbot is too much of a slacker to be genuinely intimidating.

Things start to go wrong as unexpected hostile aliens explode out of the ground, and team members need rescuing. Information on the dangerous fauna is suspiciously missing. Then the nearest exploration group to them stops reporting, so the PreservationAux team launch a rescue expedition to discover what has happened to them.

All Systems Red has the appeal of an unfolding mystery on an alien world where danger and discovery is all around. It's different because the main character isn't human, yet Murderbot is endearing, and even cute, and filled with a tangle of relatable emotions: guilt, shyness, anxiety, social phobia, confusion, and fear of being found out. We get glimpses of how the rest of the team see Murderbot, in interesting contrast to the way Murderbot sees themself.

The crew, which includes mostly academic researchers with doctorates, has its share of likeable and sympathetic characters with enough difference between them that they're not bland. It's easy to root for them to survive, yet also to question whether or not some of them will go out of their way to help a mostly-robotic security guard if the tables are turned and if they have the choice. The augmented human, Dr Gurathin, is an interesting character in this respect whose motives are quite open to question. Dr Mensah is also intriguing as the one human who gets closest to Murderbot, in spite of initial resistance to having them on the expedition at all.

This is a charming tale of planetary exploration, aliens, hacking, vicious killers, and learning to trust others. It's a fast-paced, quick read of novella length, with a surprisingly likeable main character. I plan to be continue with the sequels.

28th February 2020

Book Details

Year: 2017

Categories: Books

  Science fiction

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Review ©

Source: own copy