All Systems Red

I know I'm late to this party. It's not the first time and it probably won't be the last. But I've grown wary of books that get a whole lot of love from critics and go on winning genre awards. The Hugo, especially, since it has become a political shit show these last few years. But when Martha Wells' All Systems Red won the Nebula, the Alex, and the Locus Awards, in addition to the Hugo Award for best novella, I realized that it had to be something special.

And when the subsequent sequels enjoyed the same kind of critical and commercial success, I knew it was time to give these novellas a shot. The whole set went on sale last year or the one before, and I took advantage of it to get my hands on them all. Those that had been released up until that point, that is. But for some reason, something held me back and I couldn't bring myself to read them just yet. It was the same with Gideon the Ninth, which turned out to be a bit of a disappointment when I finally elected to give it a shot.

With some free time during the Christmas break and no desire to jump into a doorstopper, it was high time to read All Systems Red. Sat down with a cup of coffee and went through it in one siting. Yes, it's that good!

Here's the blurb:

"As a heartless killing machine, I was a complete failure."

In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.

But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid—a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.

But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it's up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

I wasn't sure what to expect and I went into this one with no expectations, which is likely why I enjoyed it as much as I did. Given the novella-length format, I was aware that there would be little exposition. I was concerned that it would be detrimental to the story, yet it wasn't the case in All Systems Red. Time will tell if it will hurt the Murderbot Diaries in the long run. . .

The worldbuilding is kept to a bare minimum. Wells elaborates briefly on the Company, the bonds and the contracts inherent to exploratory missions, the SecUnits, but we learn very little about anything else. And what little we do discover is supplied by Murderbot's narrative. It may sound like a pretty thin plot, yet there is more than meets the eye. Limited in scope and vision as it appears to be, All Systems Red resounds with depth that will hopefully be unveiled in its sequels. Since I've already read Artificial Condition, I can vouch for the fact that, at least for the second volume, these novellas seem to build on the groundwork laid out by their predecessors. How ambitious and multilayered the series will turn out to be remains to be seen, of course. Still, the first installment makes you want to read the rest ASAP.

First-person perspectives are tricky things that can make or break a novel. It certainly makes All Systems Red a great ride. Indeed, the security android's narrative gives the novella its unique flavor and makes Murderbot one of the most compelling protagonists in science fiction today. Being in the head of this introvert SecUnit, who'd rather be left alone to binge watch TV shows instead of doing security duty for a bunch of scientists, is quite a treat. There is a lot more to his back story, but we only get a few hints in this one.

Given its size, I wasn't expecting much in terms of plotlines. It's obvious that Martha Wells wanted All Systems Red to be an introduction meant to allow readers to get acquainted with this self-aware android. And yet, though it's not obvious at the beginning, the author left a lot of doors open for further explorations of concepts and characters. And she does close the show with a bang, making it impossible not to jump into the second installment immediately.

Speaking of bang, that's exactly how All Systems Red starts and hooks you right from the get-go. The short fiction format precludes any sort of pacing issues. Even if it's not an action-packed tale, the novella is a page-turner. And since you can get your hands on it for about the price of a coffee, if like me you have yet to be introduced to Murderbot, I urge you to do so now!

The final verdict: 8/10

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