Cover image of "Network Effect," a disappointing Murderbot novel

Network Effect is the fifth of what are now six novels in the Murderbot Diaries, one of the most celebrated series in all of science fiction. Like All Systems Red, the novella that inaugurated the series, Network Effect won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. It’s one of only 26 novels to date that have been so honored in more than half a century. Though I enjoyed the first four books in the series, awarding each of them four stars, I was greatly disappointed by the fifth. If I hadn’t promised myself to read and review all the science fiction novels that won both major awards, I would have given up on Network Effect after the first few chapters. And if I were still a full voting member of SFWA, I certainly would not have voted for it on the Nebula ballot.

Too much action in this disappointing Murderbot novel

The book has its good points, of course. It’s funny at times, and occasionally hilarious. The universe in which Martha Wells sets the stories is intriguing. And the character of Murderbot, the protagonist, is beautifully developed. But the action in Network Effect is unrelenting, difficult to follow, and tedious to an extreme degree. Most of it takes place in complex settings that are impossible to visualize. As you may be aware, Murderbot is a robot of sorts who has committed mass murder but is doing its best to avoid killing more human beings. Other bots and artificial intelligences? Well, they’re less scrupulous, and Murderbot treats them accordingly. There’s a godawful lot of killing in the story. And it all happens at a speed that only an AI can tolerate. I certainly couldn’t.

Network Effect (Murderbot Diaries #5) by Martha Wells (2020) pages ★★★☆☆

Winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel

Image in red of a galactic rim, which might be like the Corporation Rim in this disappointing Murderbot novel
An infrared telescopic image of the galaxy NGC 1291, showing the older stars of its outer rim in red. While this is a circular galaxy, unlike the spiral of our own galaxy, the Milky Way’s rim should look like this from a great distance. Are these like the stars where the Corporation Rim in the Murderbot series is located? Martha Wells never tells us. Image: NASA

Set far, far away . . . somewhere

The Murderbot Diaries are set far in the future . . . somewhere. It’s unclear where. The human race has populated what appear to be hundreds of planets. Most of them are located in the Corporation Rim (although of what it might be the rim is nowhere stated). Within that populous sector, most people are enslaved to evil corporations, which seem to be at war with one another. There are a few worlds which lie outside the Corporation Rim and are free of corporate control, including Preservation, home of Murderbot’s friend and “owner,” Dr. Ayda Mensah. New colonies are settled from time to time, each of them established and thus owned by one or another corporation. Nowhere have people encountered any aliens, only “alien remnants” (which play a major role in Network Effect).

Three species of people

In this far-future universe, homo sapiens now encompasses three classes of people: humans, augmented humans, and “constructs” such as Murderbot. The humans are, well, just plain human beings. The augmented variety appear to have enhanced abilities made possible by implants of some unstated sort. The constructs are a type of biomechanical robot consisting of both organic and nonorganic elements. They look and act more or less like people, and at least Dr. Mensah and her followers regard them as persons. But most constructs are owned by the corporations and effectively enslaved by the “governor modules” embedded in their brains. Some constructs are, like Murderbot, SecUnits, or Security Units. Others are combatbots and possibly other specialized units. They’re all killers, deployed by their corporate masters to protect company assets. They’re regarded as dispensable. But Murderbot has found a way to disable its governor module and has gone rogue.

The story in a nutshell

Murderbot is accompanying an exploratory mission for Preservation. His primary responsibility is to protect Dr. Mensah’s teenage daughter, who is among the survey team. As they approach the wormhole to take them far away to a distant world, they’re attacked by a larger ship. A ferocious battle erupts, and they are captured. The attacker proves to be familiar to Murderbot. It’s operated by its (only) friend, ART, which presumably stands for Autonomous Research Transport (although Murderbot calls it something obscene). Once Murderbot and the humans it was protecting are aboard ART, it becomes clear that ART has been killed.

The transport is under the control of evil people who are skinny and have gray skin, presumably because an alien remnant has altered them. Or maybe it’s not the gray people who are in control, but the alien remnant itself. It’s present in the form of some mysterious, gooey substance that is attached to ART’s engines. But alien software that Murderbot calls targetControlSystem is also embedded in the transport’s operating system. And if you think all this is hard to take, just wait. There’s lots more of the same in store.

About the author

Image of Martha Wells, author of this disappointing Murderbot novel

Martha Wells (1964-) has won four Hugo Awards, two Nebula Awards and three Locus Awards for The Murderbot Diaries. She has also written scores of fantasy novels and short stories. She holds a degree in anthropology from Texas A&M University. Now she lives in College Station, Texas, with her husband.

For more reading

I’ve read and enjoyed the four preceding books of the Murderbot Diaries:

For more good reading, check out:

And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.