The novella “All Systems Red” by Martha Wells was published for the first time in 2017. It won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards as the best novella of the year. It’s the first work of “The Murderbot Diaries” series.
Murderbot is the self-given name of the SecUnit that managed to hack its own control program which normally keeps it under the command of human beings. It would rather watch soap operas than protect the clients it’s assigned but what is supposed to be a scientific expedition requires its intervention.
When Murderbot must rescue a member of the scientific exploration team, it discovers that parts of the available maps have been erased. Faults and problems pile up in an increasingly suspicious manner and Murderbot independently decides to protect its clients.
“The Murderbot Diaries” series is set in a future where interstellar travel is common and planets with good potential can be terraformed. Economic interests continue to heavily influence humanity with companies forming power groups.
There are companies that sell security services in the form of Security Units (SecUnits) which are partly machine and partly biological with the biological part being human but asexual. The companies try to save on production costs and for this reason, a SecUnit can be defective. In at least one case, a SecUnit managed to hack its own operating system, eliminating corporate control over its will.
The story of “All Systems Red” is told in the first person by Murderbot, a name it gave itself for a reason it explains. It’s considered a machine but its thoughts and behaviors are very human. Its story contains a lot of humor in describing its attitude and opinions about companies and at least certain human beings. At the same time, its situation leads it to have misanthropic tendencies, so it tries to interact with humans as little as possible.
The lighthearted tone of Murderbot’s tale is just the surface but it’s easy to read between the lines the very serious themes of the entire series. There are constant references to corporate interests and policies such as the search for cost savings. Some remarks from members of the expedition protected by Murderbot explicitly address the problem of the nature of SecUnits and the treatment to which they are subjected.
There are just a few characters but from their comments, one can understand that normally SecUnits are considered just machines by humans whereas some members of the scientific expedition express very different opinions. It’s strange for Murderbot to be considered a human being, perhaps an augmented one like there are in that future, and this ends up making it uncomfortable.
When the members of the expedition find themselves in danger, Murderbot independently decides to protect them even though it might ignore its own programming. The tension deriving from that danger is partly attenuated by the tones of the protagonist’s story but the plot above all seems to be an excuse to develop its story and the relationship it creates with the members of the expedition.
For these reasons, “All Systems Red” may appeal especially to readers interested in the themes introduced in this novella with the food for thought they offer. It has an ending that leaves open the protagonist’s personal story, which is developed in the other works of this series. It’s available on Amazon USA, UK, and Canada.