Humanity 101 with Murderbot

Of all the curveballs, serious scares, and personal/professional losses that 2020 and COVID-19 have dealt me so far, I expected ‘inability to read anything about life and humanity’ the least. If it’s longer than a social media update and if that said update is not from my personal network, I’ll mentally check out ASAP.

I was ready for most of my life to be put on indefinite hold. I know that sounds bad, but it’s a goddamn pandemic. But not reading – it was my refuge, until one day it just wasn’t. I was too anxious, too angry, too scared (and sometimes, too drunk) to get through anything worthwhile.

Today I’m still anxious, angry, scared, and occasionally drunk. But after 101 days in the world’s longest (ongoing) quarantine, including a two-month Time Out from work and life, I’ve finally made some progress with my long reading backlog! I’m ready to talk about a science-fiction series about a rogue and sentient robot that calls itself… Murderbot.

The basics

In Martha Wells‘ hit The Murderbot Diaries novellas, Murderbot is a security robot (or ‘SecUnit’ in the Murderverse; preferred pronoun ‘It’) that hacked its governor module: the component that controls its thoughts and behavior, and punishes disobedience. This hack happens after it went wild and straight-up murdered – hence, its self-given name – the human clients it was supposed to protect, and its owners (which it calls the Company; yes, seriously) wiped its memory.

Imagine an armed and armored robot that suddenly becomes a free agent in deep space. Its next move would be to turn into a ruthless humanity-killing machine, right?

Well… no. Not exactly.

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No books read until the last page since January, and writing for both work and myself has dried up as well. (Burnout, my old friend…) It’s like my attention span, memory and imagination, drive, and vocabulary went into hiding when we all did. At least Murderbot got me back into reading (and laughing while reading) almost five months later. I’ll take a fictional killer bot over a killer virus and actual human killers any day. Obviously. Thanks, Martha Wells. 😘 One down, three to go. Day 76 of quarantine for me. This avid indoorswoman started feeling cabin fever only a few days ago, but I’m not venturing out even as lockdown eases and cases keep going up. Tell me what you’re reading and how you’re holding up. 🤗

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All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, and Exit Strategy track Murderbot’s progress from newly independent robot figuring out what and where it’s supposed to be into a robot recognizing and acknowledging its past and present selves along with all of the complex emotions it loathes. And while all it wants is to just sit down and watch all the media it downloaded (particularly the drama show Sanctuary Moon), there are hapless humans to save and evil corporations to destroy and full selfhood to reach, so.

Wells makes this robot more human and relatable than actual living and breathing Homo sapiens. That’s never easy to do in science fiction where robots are almost always the enemy, or the enemy’s main weapon. If I can put in here every perfect quip, joke, insight, or retort from Murderbot that humanity will agree with 100%, I certainly would.

This unique protagonist perspective plus the hilarious dialogue and fast pace made me finish all four novellas in an impressive three weeks. Reading – and laughing while reading – made me feel like I was part of humanity again, super helpful during a devastating pandemic. So thanks for that, Martha.

Speaking of humanity, the Murderbot novellas also highlight a few facts about our species.

Humanity is horrible – and horrible at everything…

Murderbot often complains that humans do a bad job at life in general. They (We) can’t provide sufficient security for our fellow humans, make critical and life-saving decisions, read situations properly and act accordingly, or be as fast and reliable as robots or even augmented humans.

In short: Humans suck.

This is true in the Murderverse as it is in real life. The humans in this series not only fall short multiple times, but they also like attacking each other, put profit first, and do anything just to gain the advantage. If blood and robot guts/fluids have to be spilled to accomplish that, so be it.

The villainous corporation GrayCris and the augmented humans and mercenaries in Wells’ fictional universe fill the horribleness quota, for obvious reasons. But this also works against them; they look like half-baked villains or caricatures sometimes, Bad with a capital B because the storyline needs it.

Supporting characters like Ayres and the 20-year slaves in Rogue Protocol provide another definition of ‘horrible’: humans who have made long-term decisions without sufficient information or foresight. In their case, they sold their personal labor for a huge payout that will never happen. Murderbot describes them as annoying people it had to travel with for a time, but deep down it wanted to help them and reverse their course. It’s a pattern repeated throughout the novellas and their characters, but Ayres etc. was the only instance where the ex-SecUnit couldn’t do anything about it.

…but humanity can also be pretty awesome.

For every disappointing human being Murderbot encounters on its travels, there are entire groups and planets of decent and respectable people that prove it wrong.

The PreservationAux and GoodNightLander Independent research groups are its main allies in the series, along with Tapan and her group in Artificial Condition. Collectively, they give Murderbot the respect, dignity, understanding, and distance it needs to sort things out. They also show by their example that it has both friends and viable options for a future lived on its own terms.

Oh, the wonders of being treated humanely. This makes Murderbot want to “have a complex emotion in private.”

Through these human characters (and robots like Miki in Rogue Protocol), the former SecUnit learns not just about how to pass off as human, but also how to be one. It may still have a difficult time processing and talking about its thoughts and feelings, but it was heading in that direction by the end of Exit Strategy. In fact, it was beginning to accept its hated F-words: feelings and friendship.

Baby steps, Murderbot. Baby steps.

Another POV: Murderbot is humanity.

Murderbot goes beyond providing spot-on insights about humans. It can also stand for so many interpretations of humanity.

For example, to me, Murderbot was simply a free robot on its way to full personhood. But other readers will view it through other, more complex lenses:

There are subtexts to be read into Murderbot — that its experience is a coming-out narrative, that it mirrors the lives of trans people, immigrants, those on the autism spectrum or anyone else who feels the need to hide some essential part of themselves from a population that either threatens or can’t possibly understand them. Or both. And I get all of that because every one of those reads is right.

Jason Sheehan, NPR

Basically, anyone who has been under someone’s control, viewed as less and unworthy, or alienated from everyone else = Murderbot.

Apart from what I’ve mentioned above, maybe this is the biggest appeal of the character, and Wells’ novellas as a whole. Murderbot’s alienation, discovery, and growth provide refuge for me and everyone else. Which I’m sure it’ll hate if it exists in real life, because ugh, humanity.

Sorry, Murderbot.

I can’t recommend “The Murderbot Diaries” highly enough. Normally I’d add links to bookstore pages and all, but for now, I suggest sticking with Kindle Editions, Apple Books, or NOOK Books for health and safety reasons.

Side comments

I have some other observations that don’t quite fit into the prior sections. OK, they’re minor gripes:

  • Wells uses asides a lot. Like, a lot. Murderbot’s thoughts and commentary are placed in multiple parentheses to show its personality and decision-making process, and its occasional unreliability as a narrator. However, Wells sometimes places too many of these asides in close proximity, and it can be quite distracting at times.
    • Some parts of Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy have these asides in entire paragraphs or in quick succession. You get used to it, but it also gives me the impression that the author just speed-wrote or crammed everything and couldn’t be bothered to edit or backtrack for clarity.
  • Some moments in the novellas read as deus ex machina: they unfold or appear way too conveniently to explain things away or save the day. Several Murderbot asides can also fall under this category.
  • More ART, please. I know this wish will be granted in Network Effect, but more ART from here on out would be great. Also, I want more of Murderbot and Gurathin bickering on or off their feed. It’s like watching two siblings argue for the hell of it.