a couple of years ago

A reminder that technology doesn’t always work well in the future, either

All Systems Red reminds us that technology doesn't always work well.

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.

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