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Artificial Condition by Martha Wells4 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsHugo Award winnerBy the time Artificial Condition was released, The Murderbot Diaries was on its way to becoming an SF publishing sensation. For Martha Wells, a writer who not too many years ago was wondering if there was any point continuing her publishing career at all, it was a reversal-of-fortune story worthy of Horatio Alger. I suppose every fan of the series has their own reason for enjoying it, but I suspect that for most people, it all comes back to Murderbot itself. Sure, Murderbot’s a murderous robot and everything — but readers relate to its social anxiety and self-doubt, admire its sense of integrity in seeing a job through with unwavering loyalty, and get a bit of wish fulfillment thrill when it comes time to kick the asses of evildoers. If any SF series has a protagonist who’s a one-stop-shop, it’s Murderbot.

Artificial Condition picks up right where the Hugo and Nebula winning All Systems Red left off. Having skipped out on its previous employer, Murderbot needs to make its way to RaviHyral, a distant mining world where it hopes to find the truth regarding the mysterious event that led to 57 deaths at its hands. But Murderbot needs to avoid watchful eyes on the lookout for a rogue SecUnit. It ends up on an unmanned cargo transport run by an inquisitive and unusually congenial AI, which Murderbot names ART (for “Asshole Research Transport”).

Gradually allowing ART to win its trust, Murderbot allows the AI to modify its body so that it can pass, at least to casual viewers, for an augmented human. Then, it accepts a freelance security job in order to gain the necessary clearances to RaviHyral. Its clients turn out to be three callow young scientists looking to retrieve research materials seized by their former employer, Tlacey Excavations. Murderbot immediately knows that the meeting is a sham and that Tlacey has every intention of rubbing the scientists out. With ART’s help in hacking systems — not to mention its more practical understanding of the illogic of human behavior — Murderbot now has to keep its clients alive and get them safely off-world, while doing its detective work into its own past.

The addition of ART as a sidekick adds warmth to a story that feels quite a bit more focused and fleshed out than All Systems Red, as if Wells is really warming up to her new creation. Artificial Condition’s view of a distant future run by murderous capitalist tycoons is no less bleak and cynical, but it’s sadly all too realistic. Here we have a future without any central system of governance over human spacefaring society, in which corporations acting as nations unto themselves sign workers to decades-long indenture, and treaties are all that keep an uneasy peace. It might have once been possible to believe that employers who think nothing of killing their workers for their own bottom lines were just far-fetched, cartoon villains. But as the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 proved — with companies and even the government demanding low wage employees come back to work, often without proper safety provisions in place — these villains are very, very real. If only we all had a Murderbot looking out for us. Even if it doesn’t let us give it a grateful hug.

Followed by Rogue Protocol.