Dial M for Murderbot

The new novel in the Hugo-nominated series is an enjoyable mix of genres

Everybody needs a Murderbot. Who wouldn’t want regular exposure to a highly dangerous and slightly grumpy lump of gristle and circuitry dedicated to watching futuristic soap operas and protecting those it cares about?

It doesn’t hurt that SecUnit is wryly bewildered by human mannerisms, has a steady line of deadpan humor and pairs a profound resistance to death with its extreme paranoia and murderous force. 

Usually Security Units protect outposts in remote locations, but in Fugitive Telemetry, the latest installment of the 2021 Hugo-nominated series, this sui generis independent SecUnit is with its new companions on the planet Preservation.

This is the sixth of the Murderbot Diaries by multiple award-winning author Martha Wells. The series as a whole is nominated for a 2021 Hugo Award, as is the previous book in the series, Network Effect, which won the 2021 Nebula for best novel. The translations have won honors in France and Spain as well as prizes and nominations in America. 

The series premise is that SecUnit jacked itself. As a result, it gained the freedom to do things that SecUnits shouldn’t do, like contradict the Company or, when necessary, kill humans. Its independence also entailed a need to hide from its former owners, though, for plot reasons, its freedom of thought makes it superior to other SecUnits. Vitally, it spent its formative time as an independent unit watching vast terabytes of “media.” This left it with a surprising and inconvenient soft spot for humans and a penchant for absorbing ever more media.

As the Murderbot itself says, in a short story published on Wired: It’s not like I haven’t thought about killing the humans since I hacked my governor module. But then I started exploring the company servers and discovered hundreds of hours of downloadable entertainment media, and I figured, what’s the hurry? I can always kill the humans after the next series ends.”

SecUnits can pass as human or as robot, depending on context. They do have elements of both, with an organic body and brain interfaced with weapons, computers and a defense system. But humans treat them as objects, and universally despise them as uncaring death-dealers.

This means that SecUnit has a hard-earned chip on its shoulder, as well as an ability to talk to both humans and robots, a propensity for necessary violence and a deep love for all episodes of the serial The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon.

In this cosmos, civilization means the Corporation Rim with extreme capitalism in which everything, including human life, can be bought and sold. Contracts are close to slavery, but Preservation is like Berkeley embodied in a planet (and its space station, where the novel takes place). It believes in rights for all, free food, services and a commitment to equality, justice and peace. SecUnit finds this extremely aggravating.

SecUnit has saved the life of one of Preservation’s leaders, Dr. Ayda Mensah, in an earlier novella, so the government accepts it as a full individual. But other citizens of Preservation still don’t fully trust it. So SecUnit can’t access even the station’s lax surveillance systems it would otherwise use to monitor everyone’s safety.

This short novel begins with a dead body on Preservation’s space station. It’s extremely unusual — everyone loves everyone on Preservation — and quite worrying. SecUnit generally befriends people by saving them from certain death, and he saved Mensah and her crew from a series of murderous SecUnits and GrayCris agents on a distant planet. GrayCris is a rogue corporation, and SecUnit worries that this could be the beginning of its revenge against Mensah and Preservation.

After that, it’s a good old-fashioned detective story on a good futuristic space station. Does Wells rewrite the rules of genre fiction? No. Is this the best Murderbot story so far? Again, probably no. 

But does the profoundly capable Wells have enough material with the characters and location to provide a creative, entertaining outing for one of the most endearing of contemporary science fiction characters? A resounding yes.

(Tordotcom, April 27, 2021)

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Dan Friedman

Dan Friedman is the former executive editor of the Forward. He has a PhD from Yale and writes about books, whisky and the dangers of online hate. Subscribe to his newsletter at: https://danfriedmanme.substack.com/

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