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All Systems Red by Martha Wells

book cover of All Systems Red

The star of this book is without a doubt its main character, the cynical and sarcastic SecUnit calling itself Murderbot. The setting does show promise: it’s a far future where humanity has taken to the stars, but you can’t get to space unless you pay private corporations an unreasonable amount of money for a package deal, and those corporations cut costs a lot. But this book is short – 150 pages – and very well-focused; it doesn’t meander too much into more extraneous parts of its setting. I assume some of those will be covered in future books (so far, this is the first of six). If those are told with the same great dry humour as this, I will be reading all of them.

Beyond just being funny, Murderbot is also an interesting character. It’s effectively a cyborg – part organic, part machine – but it’s hacked its governor module to give itself free will. In theory, Murderbot wryly muses, it could run amok and slaughter all the humans it’s supposed to be security for, but then it realised it would be more enjoyable to relax with the infinite amount of pop entertainment being broadcast on company satellites. It’s intensely introverted, loathes having to be around other people, and really just wants to be left alone. Quite a unique character, especially as the protagonist.

The plot itself seemed kind of generic at the start, but in retrospect maybe that’s a good thing. It enabled us to enjoy this very different narrator without expecting us to work through a convoluted new plot at the same time. As the book went on, at least, the crew members' personalities became more relevant. There were a range of reactions to Murderbot and its hacked governor module, and some discussion of the social context around all this, in this universe. But more prominently, I guess, the story was packed full of action, as Murderbot is called on to play a leading role as this survey crew investigates what’s mysteriously going wrong on the planet.

Overall, highly recommended! If you like the sound of science fiction told with a wryly cynical sense of humour, like me, I reckon you’ll have a blast with this.

★★★★

photo of Jessica Smith is a left-wing feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also very interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.