While browsing through the rows of books in English in the Swedish library I frequent, I came across Martha Wells’ All Systems Red, a novella whose cover I dimly recalled seeing years before on Tor.com. I looked through my To-Read list and – surprise! – this one was nowhere near it…as if that would stop me. I grabbed it, stole away Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning as well, in case someone thought this thin novella too conspicuous. Long live sci-fi!
By the end of the night, I’d read through the first of these titles with barely any effort.
All Systems Red offers a fun story from the point of view of an anxiety-riddled robot with several biological components and a touch of misanthropy: “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”. This SecUnit calls itself Murderbot and seeks to avoid all direct interactions with its human wards, interested only in watching the tv, music and game programmes on entertainment channels. If this isn’t enough to make the Murderbot relatable, I don’t know what will.
Stuck on a planet with a band of scientists performing geological studies, our protagonist hopes to avoid any sort of excitement; unfortunately for him, this is a sci-fi novella intent on putting Murderbot on the spot and testing its mettle! A few action scenes are only to be expected – and they were well handled and entertaining.
The prose is serviceable – not quite excellent, but it doesn’t need to be. There’s plenty of great interactions, the dialogue never tends towards the heavily expositional and the personalities of all the scientists, led by team leader Mensah, shined through. Oh, and the humour? Golden: “Yes, talk to Murderbot about its feelings. The idea was so painful I dropped to 97 percent efficiency. I’d rather climb back into Hostile One’s mouth.”
In terms of antagonists, the architects behind our protagonist’s woes don’t make for anything especially memorable; they’re rather archetypal, presenting rather the depths to which human greed tends to go when a group of people goes off the deep end. It works well and keeps our SecUnit and his group of scientists on their toes and pushing themselves as hard as they can to survive.
Once embroiled in a crisis, Murderbot is willing to put its life on the line for the band of humans it has been tasked with protecting – despite it hacking its governance module. The same module that allows anyone who’s signed a deal with the Company – like the scientists – to command Murderbot. By working to save Mensah and the rest of her team from a shadowy enemy, then, Murderbot is exercising its free will – and this is at the heart of what’s examined in Wells’ novel. The question is one of freedom and compassion and examination of the self, and the text goes a long way in showing how Murderbot exercises all three.
My score for All Systems Red is a 4/5. This is a legitimately enjoyable adventure in a science fiction setting with plenty of good zingers and a socially awkward Robocop – what’s not to love?! I’m looking forward to reading more about Murderbot in the future! I’ll definitely be picking up his story when I’m next in my local library!