by Sharon Tucker
Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It won’t lead you astray. —Rumi
The best reads for many of us continue to be mysteries. For me, the mystery genre offers the challenge to discover a problem on the page then a solution that sets the world to rights again, something hard to accomplish in the world. I love the ones set in a time or place unfamiliar to me and for so long in the beginning, Golden Age Mysteries did the trick. Having read so many of those classics, after a while I looked for mystery in other times, in other genres. I’m still making discoveries and among them are the series of short novels (and one full length one) of Martha Wells, called the Murderbot Diaries: All Systems Red (2017), Artificial Condition (2018), Rogue Protocol (2018), Exit Strategy (2018), and Network Effect (2020).
Anyone familiar with Isaac Asimov’s I Robot (1950), or somewhat more recently the 2004 film, understands the concept of artificial life forms who somehow gain consciousness parallel with that of humans—and examples of this device abound in science fiction. Our narrator in these novels, a Security Unit (SecUnit) calling itself “Murderbot,” privately tells us an intriguing story of how its existence has changed since it hacked its governor module and began bingeing Sanctuary Moon, among other teleplays on the entertainment channels. We can’t help but warm to its wry comment when it informs us, “As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.”
As Murderbot begins its tale in the first in the series, All Systems Red, it’s toiling away on a heretofore unexplored planet with a team of scientists and surveyors from PreservationAux, mapping and taking samples of soil, etc. when a large native species attacks. At some physical cost—it is severely injured—Murderbot saves the team members but opens the door to their seeing it without its protective armor. I say “unfortunate” because Murderbot is shy, and it’s embarrassing for it. It looks very like most augmented humans, not a shocker, really. But since the most clients usually ever see of SecUnits is an armored figure with a frosted glass face, the clients, especially the team leader, Dr. Mensah, have a dawning awareness of the unusual nature of this particular SecUnit that is also the beginning of an ongoing relationship throughout the series. What the team and Murderbot discover is that their maps do not include all planetary descriptive information and a threat from a rival team is probably at the root of what has happened and threatens to continue happening.
Artificial Condition finds Murderbot a free agent, thanks to Dr. Mensah. It sets about on a mission all its own to discover the details of its involvement in a massacre some years earlier. Its memory has been wiped, it assumes, so it makes sense to go back to the place it all happened, finding transport on a research transport almost as cheeky as itself. Deviously, it contracts out as security to three scientists who have been short-shrifted by their former employer in terms of intellectual property. (Is this the beginning of a career of knight errantry?) The employer in question, Tlacey, is a less than savory broker, we learn, and routinely employs various slimy tactics, including the approach of a comfort unit (or sexbot) to lure Murderbot into her service. How do you think that worked out?
Among the intel Murderbot gathered assisting the aforementioned three scientists is more information regarding industrial sabotage and dissemination of false diagnostic information that imperiled PreservationAux in All Systems Red. The third novella in the series, Rogue Protocol, finds Murderbot in disguise as a security consultant on the planet Milu shepherding yet another team of hapless humans and their AI, Miki. They have no idea of what’s really going on or what they are up against as they attempt to assess excavations on Milu for a prospective client. If artifacts of an unknown civilization are found on any of these excavations, all mining becomes illegal. Needless to say, someone here purposes to mine and keep alien artifacts in private hands no matter the cost in lives. Sound familiar?
The first three short novels introduce a self-mocking artificial life form in Murderbot whose purpose is to not only protect intelligent life where it is found but to investigate and neutralize any threats to that life. It follows every lead to its inevitable conclusion, texturing its existence, learning with each encounter what is positive and worth preservation. Who would have thought watching soap operas could be so humanizing?
I was immediately drawn to Murderbot’s gentle mockery as it worked tirelessly to understand itself and the clear divide between those to protect and those who threaten what is ethical in civilization. I can’t be the only one who sees aspects of Sam Spade, Philip Marlow, and Spenser in Murderbot. What differs is only the setting and the hardware. It would be unfortunate to miss these unconventional adventures in a genre we all love and read incessantly. I hope you don’t.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section. And join our mystery Facebook group to keep up with everything mystery we post, and have a chance at some extra giveaways. Also listen to our new mystery podcast where mystery short stories and first chapters are read by actors! They are also available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and Spotify. A new episode goes up next week!
Disclosure: This post contains links to an affiliate program, for which we receive a few cents if you make purchases. KRL also receives free copies of most of the books that it reviews, that are provided in exchange for an honest review of the book.