System Collapse has a great ending, possibly the best yet in Martha Wells’ wonderfully engaging Murderbot series. I emphasize that because I was a little lost at the beginning of the short novel, though that was mostly my fault. The story in System Collapse picks up immediately after the end of Network Effect, which was the second Murderbot story that I read. In the intervening two years, I read four more novellas in the series, so the setup was not fresh in my mind and had been overlaid by other stories with the same characters. In that regard though, I partly mirrored the state that SecUnit — the more friendly and more common name for Murderbot — finds itself in at the novel’s beginning. Something redacted has happened to render some of SecUnit’s memories unreliable, something that has slowed its reactions, and muddled its thinking.
SecUnit, a team of humans from Preservation, and the ship Perihelion — dubbed Asshole Research Transport, ART, by SecUnit — are all still on a planet that has proved hostile along unexpected vectors. They are still near a site of alien contamination that they narrowly escaped in Network Effect. They still want to evacuate a colony of humans who have been cut off from the larger starfaring civilization while all remain free of the contamination. And there is still a team from the Corporation Rim who also want to evacuate the colonists, but as a means of gaining indentured laborers. If they wind up killing SecUnit and company on the way to that KPI, that’s just business, right? Effective, efficient, but nothing personal. The colonists, for their part, have just encountered two groups presenting wildly different versions of the universe outside of the only world they have ever known. Should they trust either?
Then SecUnit and the humans it’s working with find out that there is potentially another settlement up near the massive engines that are terraforming the planet. Those interfere with scans, sensors and long-distance communications so thoroughly that the only way to find out for sure is to send a detachment to go and look. The group that may have settled there was a splinter and did not want to be in contact with the main colony, so they selected a location to keep themselves incommunicado. Ignoring them would leave them open to the planet’s alien contamination, which could then potentially spread beyond the planet. Not really an option, then, and most of System Collapse is about what happens when SecUnit and a small team go up to have a look-see.
The terraforming engines’ effects are a bit of handwavium to make sure that SecUnit and company can’t just call in support and reinforcements from ART and the others if anything should go wrong. They will have to rely on their own abilities — some of them in doubt because of the redacted that happened to SecUnit — because of course things do go wrong. What ensues is a good mix of mystery, mayhem, and mordant observations as the team works to solve problems both human and environmental. SecUnit is as unforgettable a narrator as ever, as with this aside after it makes an uncharacteristic mistake.
(They were all so nice about it. The whole thing made me understand the human expression “it made me want to vomit.” Why would you ever want to do something that was so objectively disgusting and looked so painful. Oh, this was why, I get it now.) (p. 101)
At another point — when external dangers are uncharacteristically not pressing — SecUnit hears some human discussion on the verge of becoming an argument. Against ART’s advice, it decides to check out the situation.
You’re upset, ART said. I had already started for the quarters section.
I was supposed to “check in regularly with my emotions,” which I pretended was a thing I had any intention of doing. Yes, this is upsetting, I told it. I am upset. Are you happy now?
Delirious, ART said. (p. 137)
But it’s exactly those kinds of interactions that enable SecUnit to make a crucial breakthrough, and set up that lovely ending.
System Collapse is the seventh Murderbot book, and not really a good place to start. My reading order was 2-5-6-1-3-4-7, and I can’t recommend that approach either. Begin at the beginning with All Systems Red.