Technology rules our lives. We depend on the lights to go on, our phones to work, and airplanes not to fall out of the sky. Nowadays, we assume that technology will just go on getting better and better. Perfection is within reach, right? Well, of course not. Stuff happens. And Martha Wells‘ award-winning science fiction novella, All Systems Red, is a timely reminder that technology doesn’t always work well, and it won’t in the future, either.
All Systems Red (Murderbot Diaries #1) by Martha Wells (2017) 156 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)
Winner of the 2017 Hugo and Nebula Awards for the Novella
Three species of human beings
In Wells’ story, set far into a future when the human race has begun to populate the stars, there are three species of humans. Human beings, of course. Standard issue. Also, augmented human beings who have technology embedded to enhance their senses and increase their physical abilities. And then there are androids. They’re essentially robots that combine organic and nonorganic matter which equip them with the ability to serve humanity in specialized ways. As sex workers. Soldiers. Security guards. And so forth. They’re second-class citizens at best. Most of the time they’re virtual slaves. And most of the time the technology embedded in them works as intended. But, of course, technology doesn’t always work well.
Murderbot wants only to “watch the entertainment feed all day”
In All Systems Red, we meet the SecUnit, or security guard, who calls itself Murderbot. It’s wracked with guilt. On a previous assignment for the company where it works its control unit malfunctioned. As a result, it murdered 47 human beings. To prevent any future calamity, Murderbot has hacked its control unit—and it has discovered a love for cheap entertainment available on the “feed.” Now all it wants is for “everyone to shut up and leave it alone so it could watch the entertainment feed all day.” It’s hooked on the hundreds of episodes of a serial called Sanctuary Moon.
Stuff starts going wrong. Technology doesn’t always work well.
Now Murderbot is on assignment with a scientific survey team on a distant unexplored planet. Their job is to assess whether one area on the planet is worth the investment to mine for minerals. They work for an unnamed company that appears to be run by what today we call “pencil-pushers.” The team’s equipment, and Murderbot itself, represent the cheapest available technology. And stuff starts going wrong. Very wrong.
A fight to the death
As the expedition’s troubles mount, Murderbot’s unauthorized autonomy becomes an asset. Since it is free to ignore orders from the company, it is able to protect the humans on the survey team when it seems that the company is trying to kill them. Unfortunately, not everyone on the team trusts Murderbot. They know it’s a “horrifying murderbot . . . and it makes both of us nervous, which makes me even more nervous.” And nervous is not good in a fight to the death. Fortunately, the technology works. Some of the time.
For further reading
I’ve also reviewed the two subsequent books in the Murderbot Diaries:
- Artificial Condition (Far away and long in the future, an augmented human designed to kill)
- Rogue Protocol (Murderbot Diaries #3) by Martha Wells—Sci-fi’s favorite antisocial A.I. surfaces again in the Muderbot Diaries
This book is included in 20 good nonfiction books about the future (plus lots of science fiction).
For more good reading, check out:
- The ultimate guide to the all-time best science fiction novels;
- Great sci-fi novels reviewed: my top 10 (plus dozens of runners-up); and
- The top 10 dystopian novels reviewed here (plus dozens of others).
You might also check out Top 10 great popular novels reviewed on this site.
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.