All Systems Red by Martha Wells

“As a heartless killing machine, I was a total failure.” That’s Murderbot to a T. All Systems Red introduces Murderbot, a part-mechanical part-organic construct more formally known as a Security Unit, one of many produced to keep humans safe in an interstellar civilization. Before the story began, this Security Unit had hacked its governor module — an element that enforced a sort of corporate version of Asimov’s Laws — and become fully independent. Unfortunately for it, if the corporations that run the parts of space shown in this novella discover what it has done, they will have it rendered back to spare parts. So it has to keep pretending that it is a normal Security Unit while it looks for a way to make a break for freedom.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

All Systems Red begins with Murderbot having considered one of the natural reactions a former slave has toward its enslavers: “I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites.” Distracted, maybe redeemed, by the power of stories. “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 total failure.” (p. 6)

It’s out on a new contract, looking after a scientific team that’s exploring a planet newly opened for possible human exploitation. It’s also half-assing the job, looking forward to getting back to base and episode 397 of the serial it’s currently watching, considering tuning out the humans’ status feeds and tuning in to the music feed without the base computer knowing.

I was looking at the sky and mentally poking at the feed when the bottom of the crater exploded. … [Cross-talk from humans and bots]
In the middle of all that, I hit the bottom of the crater. I have small energy weapons built into both arms, but the one I went for was the big projectile weapon clamped to my back. The hostile that had just exploded up out of the ground had a really big mouth, so I felt I needed a really big gun.
I dragged [Dr.] Bharadwaj out of its mouth and shoved myself in there instead, and discharged my weapon down its throat and then up toward where I hoped the brain would be. I’m not sure if that all happened in that order; I’d have to replay my own field camera feed. All I knew was that I had Bharadwaj, and it didn’t, and it had disappeared back down the tunnel. (pp. 10–11)


Murderbot is keen on its clients, and gets very competitive with anything that tries to do them harm. Even among the fast-paced action, Wells does not forget the fundamental difficulties of Murderbot’s situation. First, its continuing need to hide its freedom. So when it is bringing the badly injured Bharadwaj back to the hopper for evacuation, it obliquely reminds Dr. Mensah, the mission leader, that as a Security Unit it needs permission to enter the crew cabin.

Murderbots aren’t allowed to ride with the humans and I had to have verbal permission to enter. With my cracked governor there was nothing to stop me, but not letting anybody, especially the people who held my contract, know that I was a free agent was kind of important. Like, not having my organic components destroyed and the rest of me cut up for parts important. (p. 14)

Second, Security Units can continue to function with considerable damage to their constituent parts. As a result of jumping into the large hostile and then shooting its way out, it lost about a fifth of its body mass. Though Murderbot’s narration does not directly tell readers how badly it has been hurt. One of Murderbot’s characteristics is that it will push itself to the point of breakdown in service to its clients. The physical danger is easy for it; the emotional hazards, less so.

I carried Bharadwaj up the ramp into the cabin, where Overse and Ratthi were frantically unclipping seats to make room. They had their helmets off and their suit hoods pulled back, so I got to see their horrified expressions when they took in what was left of my upper body through my torn suit. I was glad I had sealed my helmet.
This is why I actually like riding with the cargo. Humans and augmented humans in close quarters with murderbots is too awkward. At least, it’s awkward for the murderbot. (p. 14)

Further in the aftermath of that incident, Dr. Mensah comes to check on Murderbot.

She said, “Are you all right? I saw your status report.”
“Uh.” That was the point where I realized that I should have just not answered and pretended to be in stasis. I pulled the blanket around my chest, hoping she hadn’t seen any of the missing chunks. Without the armor holding me together, it was much worse. “Fine.”
So, I’m awkward with actual humans. It’s not paranoia about my hacked governor module, and it’s not them; it’s me. I know I’m a horrifying murderbot, and they know it, and it makes both of us nervous, which makes me even more nervous. Also, if I’m not in the armor then it’s because I’m wounded and one of my organic parts may fall off and plop on the floor at any moment and no one wants to see that. …
I know to an actual human it probably looked like I was dying. My injuries were the equivalent of a human losing a limb or two plus most of their blood volume. …
On the feed it was clear that the others had reviewed Volescu’s field camera video. They were saying things like I didn’t even know it had a face. I’d been in armor since we arrived, and I hadn’t unsealed the helmet when I was around them. There was no specific reason. The only part of me they would have seen was my head, and it’s standard, generic human. But they didn’t want to talk to me and I definitely didn’t want to talk to them; on duty it would distract me and off duty … I didn’t want to talk to them. Mensah had seen me when she signed the rental contract. But she had barely looked at me and I had barely looked at her because again, murderbot + actual human = awkwardness. Keeping the armor on all the time cuts down on unnecessary interaction. (pp. 19–21)

So many different ways of considering Murderbot, in addition to the literal one that Wells presents. Anyone who has felt like an outsider can identify with it on some level, and its interior life also reads a lot like how people who are not neurotypical have described their interactions with more typical people. The description of on-the-job interactions is like so many work situations where people are dehumanized through their roles or their inclinations. The crew has tended to see the Security Unit as equipment, a view that it has itself internalized to a great degree, but which it shows through its reflexive actions is incorrect. Wells is reminding readers of the incontrovertible peopleness of the people they, inevitably in daily life, treat as things.

Acknowledging that would be painfully awkward for Murderbot, so it deflects with humor and self-isolation.

Seriously, I don’t know why I didn’t just say you’re welcome and please get out of my cubicle so I can sit here and leak in peace.
“All right,” she said, and looked at me for what objectively I knew was 2.4 seconds and subjectively about twenty excruciating minutes. (p. 24)

Wells never belabors the subtexts about peopleness. The humor, action and brisk pace keep All Systems Red humming along. The huge, devouring life form should have been in the team’s briefings. There had also been some glitching in the hoppers’ autopilots that Murderbot had chalked up to the company’s inherent cheapness and tendency to skimp on maintenance. But the anomalies add up, and before long it’s clear that the team is in mortal peril that may have been deliberately engineered.

How they get out of it, how many of them will get out of it, and how they deal with the aftermath take up the rest of All Systems Red. It’s fast and enjoyable, with Murderbot’s mordant humor balanced by the fast action and reversals. The ending flows directly into Artificial Condition, the second Murderbot novella.

+++

Doreen’s review of All Systems Red is here. She found it loads of fun.

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