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Exit Strategy by Martha Wells3.5 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsIt is perhaps because Rogue Protocol, with its almost perfect balance of action and attention to character, left us with such high expectations that Exit Strategy, for all its virtues, feels like it comes up wanting. It’s still solid entertainment that delivers its own action, in spades, as it reunites Murderbot with the surviving cast of All Systems Red and propels us towards a final confrontation with the villainous corporation GrayCris. But of all the Murderbot novellas, it’s the weakest, because it feels as if that confrontation could have been —  should have been — explosive.

Upon its return from Milu, Murderbot discovers that its involvement in the events of Rogue Protocol have done more harm than good to its former client, Dr. Mensah. With a massive lawsuit pending, GrayCris has accused Mensah — who has had no idea of Murderbot’s whereabouts — of sending Murderbot to Milu to, as Murderbot puts it, “fuck them over.” In addition, GrayCris has further escalated its response by simply abducting Dr. Mensah away from the station where the suit is being litigated in an effort to get her company to drop the whole thing. What’s a Murderbot to do other than charge in to the rescue?

If you’re here for fight scenes, you’ll be happy. GrayCris throws everything but the kitchen sink at Murderbot, including a nearly invincible Combat SecUnit, and the action is every bit as propulsive as in Rogue Protocol. But most fans of this series are here for those moments when Murderbot is being all vulnerable and emo. I certainly understand that appeal, especially as Wells has a real talent for extracting the humor out of such moments and giving Murderbot’s first-bot narration a sardonic edge that never sounds too downbeat to be likable.

At the same time, I couldn’t help thinking that Murderbot’s personal growth has been happening a bit too slowly, and that after four novellas totaling around six hundred pages of reading, having the same scenes of somebody being basically kind to Murderbot and Murderbot responding to this with a massive anxiety attack can start to feel repetitive. (It’s a lot funnier how Murderbot gets endlessly frustrated by humans getting in its way when it’s trying to do its job.) By now, Murderbot has not only learned it wasn’t to blame for the events that gave it its ominous nickname, but it has received ample kindness and warmth from the humans it has worked with. Fortunately, we get signs that, by the end of this story, Murderbot may be in a position to make some real changes and move forward at last.

If I came away from Exit Strategy disappointed in any part of it, it’s that the story arc across all four novellas has always felt like it was building to something bigger and more cathartic in the resolution. Instead, what we’re left with is the sense that, in this cutthroat future of capitalist criminality run amok, not much is likely to change. As one supporting character says, “We’re out of it now. They can tear each other apart.” And I kind of felt like I’d been promised more than that — like, I dunno, maybe a couple of buildings crashing to the ground like the finale of Fight Club. But maybe it’s Martha Wells’ entire theme here to make the point that in systems where money lets you avoid consequences, systems which are founded on an exploited underclass, nothing really changes. Maybe GrayCris will suffer some consequences for its crimes. Maybe some executives will be forced to resign as a face-saving gesture. But before long, it will be business as usual, with more human lives casually tossed into the meat grinder to shore up the bottom line. And thus, more clients for Murderbot to protect. When you think of it that way, perhaps that ongoing anxiety is well earned.

Followed by Network Effect.