Book Review: All Systems Red, by Martha Wells
Ever hate your job and just want to watch Netflix? Turns out Murderbots feel the same way.
At least, that’s the general attitude of the protagonist in Martha Wells’ novella All Systems Red: “I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays, and music consumed … As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.”
That failure is due in part to the slipshod corruption of Murderbot’s employer. The interstellar contractor has the technological know-how to transport clients to other worlds via wormholes and supply them with cyborg security units (aka SecUnits and Imitative Human Bot Units), but they do it all on the cheap; the equipment they provide is often sloppily built and error-ridden. This includes the security units. Our narrator was able to hack its governor in the first place because an earlier version malfunctioned.
The glitch comes in handy when Murderbot’s current clients, a small survey team, are stranded on a planet with hidden dangers. The map the contractor provided is missing key sections. Another survey team breaks off communication. People start dying. Fortunately, Murderbot doesn’t have to follow orders anymore; it can think for itself. And it’s learned a lot from all the shows it’s been binging.
The resolution to the mystery is a bit anti-climactic, hinting at grubby motivations without really exploring them. But I loved the subversive humor in All Systems Red, and the way Wells plays with the concept of identity and what it means to belong—Murderbot thinks of itself as human-adjacent despite experiencing emotions like shyness, apathy, gratitude, and self-loathing (it gave itself the name Murderbot). This is a character-driven story that manages to make a partially inorganic construct with guns in its forearms both likable and relatable.
So if you are bored and interested in distracting yourself with some short, fun sci-fi, give All Systems Red a try. Murderbot would approve.
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