Monday, June 7, 2021

The Novella Files: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Subject: Wells, Martha. All Systems Red [ Publishing, 2017]

Accolades: Winner - Hugo Award (2018), Nebula Award (2018), Locus Award (2018) 

Genre: science fiction

Executive Summary: 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.
 (From Goodreads).

Assessment: You know from the first chapter that All Systems Red is good, but at first it's hard to pinpoint exactly why. The prose is good but it's a means to an end, not the end goal in itself. The setting - a scientific expedition on a remote and unexplored planet - is reasonably compelling but also well-worn territory. And the main theme - android comes to understand the self via interactions with organic humans - has been done before, including in a recent, high-profile trilogy. Still, as I mentioned, you just know it's good. You know it's good because you feel like you could just read this book forever; you don't even need plot, just things happening in sequence to its protagonist, Murderbot. 

That's the point when you start to get it. It's Murderbot, a uniquely compelling character who is full of intriguing contradictions. Murderbot doesn't think like a human, except when it does. Murderbot has a troubled past, but a uniquely ethical perspective. Murderbot is, in a sense, Chandlerian - but this is not straight SF noir. Not at all.

Another thing to love: Wells is an economical writer; there is no wasted space in this book. There are no tedious, out-of-perspective infodumps, no lengthy (and equally tedious) descriptions of machinery or technology. No necessary exposition at all. Just want you need, delivered with impact. Highly recommended.   

Score: 9/10.