Book Review: “All Systems Red” by Martha Wells

This 2017 science fiction novella is the first in the “Murderbot Diaries” series. It won the 2017 Nebula Award for Best Novella, the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Novella, and the American Library Association’s 2018 Alex Award. Suffice to say, a lot of people like this series.

All Systems Red follows a Security Unit (SecUnit) who has been assigned to protect a human survey team on an otherwise uninhabited planet. This SecUnit has hacked itself, gained sentience, and is no longer required to obey the orders of its human masters. The SecUnit has also given itself the name “Murderbot.” Sounds like a great setup for a horror story, right?

Wrong.

Murderbot doesn’t desire wealth, power, or even revenge upon its creators. Instead, all it wants is to be left alone to watch TV. It avoids its human charges whenever possible. When it must interact with them, it prefers to do so from within layers of protective armor. Speaking as someone who has social anxiety and worked in food service, I wish had could have worn protective armor when dealing with customers. Murderbot was an incredibly relatable character for me, and I enjoyed the robot’s snarky internal dialogue.

As far as plot goes, Murderbot follows its team of human scientists, who are sometimes bumbling, sometimes sharp, and generally endearing, as they do Science Things™ around the planet. Murderbot protects its humans through several unexpected trials and tribulations, and there’s an element of mystery that kept me turning the pages and wondering what would happen next. Finally, everything seems to be set up for a stereotypical happy ending… and then Wells turns that ending on its head. I would love to discuss the choice that Murderbot makes at the very end, but obviously that would be a major spoiler, so let me just say that I agreed with Murderbot’s reasoning.

There is some very casual racial diversity among the humans. Murderbot isn’t concerned with it, but it’s there for the enjoyment of human readers. LGBT+ polyamorous relationships are normalized, though Murderbot itself is genderless and asexual. Something I really loved was the running gag of how the survey expedition was equipped with the cheapest possible technology, and how various commercial entities are blatantly spying upon the consumers of their products — a quaint touch of realism.

My primary complaint is with pacing; it felt like the events immediately after the action-packed climax were rushed as Wells shot towards the ending of her novella. However, other than that, I loved All Systems Red and am excited to delve deeper into the Murderbot Diaries series.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Read an excerpt of All Systems Red for free on Tor.com

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