“I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. … As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.” — All Systems Red, Book 1 in The Murderbot Diaries series.
With this opening sentence, we meet Murderbot, the main character in Martha Wells' series The Murderbot Diaries, a corporate-owned Security Unit android who has freed itself from human control. With its newfound freedom, Murderbot is initially interested in staying as far away as possible from the mess and annoyance of human interaction. But this is an action-packed story, so it is thrown into adverse circumstances almost immediately and no matter how much it may want to, it can't avoid the need to help humans for very long.
As Murderbot navigates the complexities of its newly found freedom, it is compelled to solve the mystery of its own past, to protect the humans it has come to care about, and begin to build a family filled with beings like itself. There is no shortage of obstacles along this journey, many of which we have seen in science fiction stories before, including evil corporate entities, mysterious alien civilizations, and radically advanced technologies that threaten to overwhelm the very fragile human existence.
Wells leans heavily into a corporate-controlled political structure in the Murderbot universe. Daily interaction is dictated by business contracts, insurance policies, and an overarching system of financial compensation that quite literally puts a price on the human head. As Murderbot finds ways to pose as human, it manipulates this structured environment in an effort to stay hidden from those who think it shouldn't exist. If only it could be left entirely to itself and not be continually dragged into the political machinations of the human world around it, it would be a very content android.
Of course, the universe does not work this way, and it is this conflict between desired introversion and forced interaction with the world that illuminates some of the most interesting qualities about Murderbot’s character. It is not just annoyed by human emotion and frailty, it is confused and frightened about the relationship these human qualities might have to itself. Being made up of both organic and synthetic parts, it experiences a significant amount of body dysmorphoria. Murderbot finds the organic elements of its body to be settling and grotesque.
Wells does an excellent job of eliminating any reference to gender in relationship to Murderbot. This reinforces the idea that understanding who or what Murderbot is should not be dependent on its relationship to a "normal" human. This limited viewpoint is utterly inadequate to define or categorize it.
Murderbot’s existence as an autonomous being is something new in the universe, and, thankfully, Wells gives her main character a group of humans who are willing to look beyond the fear of the unknown to give it the freedom to become its own entity. Sadly, this enlightened attitude is not shared by everyone, thus providing much of the conflict that continues to drive the story forward.
This outward acceptance, or lack thereof, is mirrored by Murderbot’s internal effort to understand its relationship to itself and others. It struggles to recognize and control emotional reactions. It is both repelled by interaction with humans and compelled to assist them. It is frustrated by human frailty and perplexed by their refusal to acknowledge that reality. It is vastly superior to humans in many ways and has no patience for anyone attempting to ignore that fact. Even with all of the reasons Murderbot can point to for not having a relationship with the human world, it forges ahead in spite of itself.
I will confess that in spite of my love of audiobooks, I sometimes find it very helpful to have the visual experience of the text along with the audio narration. This is especially true with science fiction stories that have a lot of technical detail or employ names for people and places that sound especially foreign to my ear. Sometimes, reading while I listen to the narration, even for intermittent chapters, helps to solidify my immersion into the world the author is crafting. This has been the case for much of The Murderbot Diaries.
As I simultaneously read and listen, it has become quite apparent that there is a level of human emotion and personality conveyed in the audio narration of this story that could be easy to overlook when just reading the words on the page. The narrator of all the books in this series, Kevin R. Free, is a veteran of an extensive list of fantasy titles, including the Kane Chronicles by Rick Riordan. His narrative style embodies the robotic nature of Murderbot’s first-person narrative but does not shy away from the portrayal of emotional reactions. As a result, the overall performance avoids the trap of becoming stilted and monotone, and the reader finds it much easier to relate to Murderbot’s internal struggles.
If I have a criticism of Free’s narration, it would be in his sometimes affected attempts at portraying female voices. As is frequently the case when male performers try to achieve a distinctly higher-pitched voice for women, the result can sound simpering or shrill. (Similar issues can be found with women narrators overcompensating in their performance of the lower-ranged male pitch.) Thankfully, I don’t find this to be purposeful character choice on Free’s part. But to avoid this possibility, I prefer cross-gender narrations dial back their attempts to make opposite genders “sound” correct, rather relying on the text itself to make gender distinctions apparent.
The Murderbot Diaries series is an exciting and compelling coming-of-age tale. It illuminates the human condition in all of its vast complexity. It gives us a protagonist who defies categorization while at the same time reflecting our own nature back to us. It is a story that matters because it shows us a society willing to acknowledge and learn individual differences while never compromising in giving each individual the recognition, autonomy, and equality they deserve. Listening to this story reminds us of the importance of always listening to, learning from, and respecting the experience of others.
Footnote: The published titles in The Murderbot Diaries series to date are as follows: All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, Exit Strategy, and Network Effect. A sixth installment, Fugitive Telemetry, a prequel to the events in Network Effect, is scheduled for release in April 2021 from Tor.com.