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All Systems Red by Martha WellsThree and a half stars
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Veteran author Martha Wells joins the roster of stars contributing to Tor.com Publishing’s estimable novella line with this series opener, set in a capitalist future, that promises more and better stories to come. Our protagonist is SecUnit, a partially organic security android detailed to a small crew of researchers exploring a ringed world. The Company (known only as The Company, in classic SFnal faceless-corporation tradition) contracts out all such exploratory missions. As part of the deal they mandate the rental of SecUnits, also supplied by them, to minimize their own liability and secure the necessary bonds for the missions. The Company is also notorious for cutting corners and using the cheapest equipment it can get away with.

Our SecUnit — who calls itself Murderbot, for reasons you can discover for yourself — has managed to hack their own governance module, allowing them to ignore Company commands as well as mandatory upgrades and patches. They (and yes, the singular “they” feels most appropriate here, even though the humans of the story use “it”) prefer to spend their downtime bingeing hundreds of hours of downloaded drama serials. And they have a pronounced distaste for the physical company of their human clients. In fact they experience something like real anxiety in the presence of humans. Put bluntly, Murderbot is anthrophobic.

But when things start going strangely sideways during the current mission — portions of the surface map plus key data have been mysteriously deleted — and then become genuinely alarming when all contact is lost with another team of explorers a few kilometers away, Murderbot realizes someone or someones are out to do these missions real harm.

From here, what would have been merely a damn good suspense thriller really blossoms, as All Systems Red becomes the vehicle for Murderbot’s personal journey towards something like their own humanity. Wells sharply avoids cliché in Murderbot’s dedication to their sense of duty — a dedication they could easily ignore without any external control coming in through their governance module — despite their personal views towards their clients. Murderbot might come close to a panic attack just by being in the same room with a client, but by no means will they allow anyone to come to any harm. There is a grasp of right and wrong, learned largely through Murderbot’s avid consumption of entertainment, that they’re able to separate from their own prejudices and fears. Are these apparent contradictions in character merely protective coloring, or is it all just part of Murderbot’s process of figuring out their true self? Whatever the case, an imperfect being with a mind of their own will always be preferable to a soulless machine following whatever orders it’s downloaded.

The human characters feel fairly underdeveloped, though this is a natural by-product of Murderbot’s first-person voice, and the distance from people they prefer to keep. But with action and suspense anchoring her plot, Wells allows All Systems Red to be Murderbot’s whole show, allowing us the genuine pleasure of spending time with a character both non-human and all too human, learning their place in the universe and what it really means to be free. Murderbot may not like your company all that much, but you’ll really enjoy theirs.

Followed by Artificial Condition.