Book Review: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

I’ve been in something of a rut lately, not reading as much as I probably should. I’ve just been busy– though it’s also easy to blame Ready Player One for putting me off the written word in general. But here’s to hoping this is just a temporary slowdown! Or if nothing else maybe I just need to start reading some shorter books.

Enter Martha Wells’ All Systems Red, the first in her Murderbot Diaries series. When the ebook popped up for free on Tor.com a few days ago, I went and scooped that up right away and read it over a couple of days. Fun stuff!

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All Systems Red is about a robot that’s named itself Murderbot (but still goes under the designation SecUnit to the outside world). Murderbot has hacked its own governor module, allowing it to ignore the orders its given and otherwise act with free will. The thing is, Murderbot doesn’t use this freedom to murder everyone– it’s more interested in slacking off at its job and watching space-TV. Given I read All Systems Red on my phone during down time at work, I find this to be a ridiculously relatable character motivation. Wryly humorous, Murderbot kind of reads like Marvin the Paranoid Android with a plasma rifle.

Unfortunately, Murderbot doesn’t get much time to catch up on Sanctuary Moon reruns– the book opens up with a giant monster attack, and soon afterward Murderbot finds out that someone’s trying to sabotage the scientific expedition it’s guarding. And so, Murderbot has to protect the delicate, foolish humans (out of professional pride, if nothing else) while still maintaining its secret identity.

While there’s plenty of laser-blasting action, the focus of All Systems Red is centered on Murderbot’s personality. Wells puts a ton of personality into a literal corporate drone, making All Systems Red easy to dig into. Murderbot lives in constant fear of being found out as a ‘free’ drone, giving the robot a constant desire to just be left alone. There are a lot of ways to interpret the novel: you could argue it’s about social anxiety, or that it’s a metaphor for being in the closet (Murderbot does have a repair cubicle), or even make a trans reading of it. Transgender, that is, not Transformer. Though Murderbot has the makings of a halfway decent Autobot (though Optimus Prime would probably ask it to change the name).

And again, while there’s a lot of deeper stuff to unpack, All Systems Red never forgets it’s an adventure story about a killer android with lasers built into its arms. The action is snappy, and the various themes of identity and social anxiety never get too preachy, making All Systems Red a perfect example of science-fiction providing social commentary and rollicking adventure in one neat package. This said, the book isn’t perfect– though I suppose it says something that my main issue is that I would’ve liked to see more of it. All Systems Red is a novella, not a proper novel– which leaves some room for expansion. For example, it might have been fun to get a better look into Murderbot’s tastes in entertainment, and maybe even how the space-TV it watches influences its outlook on things. There are a couple of mentions here and there, true, but I get a kick out of fictional, er, fiction.

The other place where All Systems Red stumbles a little are in its antagonists– they’re just kind of … there. Admittedly, Murderbot is more concerned with how the antagonists want to kill everyone rather than the why, but even when their motive’s revealed, it’s just a bit too pat, and things get wrapped up a bit too easily. I imagine Wells started writing All Systems Red with a shorter length in mind, as ‘TV obsessed vaguely Asperger’s robot’ isn’t the sort of pitch that immediately screams for a novel length.

But, lucky for me, several more installments of The Murderbot Diaries are going to be released in the next couple of months. So I guess this free ebook’s done its job of making me want to read the rest of the series. Go figure.

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