Easy-to-read sci-fi for anyone who wants to fall in love with a grouchy, mordant robot who'd rather be watching TV than dealing with people.

Disclaimer: This is a review, and as such will contain opinions, spoilers and (often) general shit talking. (If you talk about what you don’t like about a work, you learn a lot. When you think through a work with the stakes presented to you by the creator, by the context of the work, you learn a lot. I review things, not because I love to dislike things, but because dislike contains rich and vital information for the process of experiencing something, but I cannot access it without interrogating it.) So, if you don’t want to have this thing spoiled for you, or don’t know how to behave when a person on the internet, that you don’t know, has opinions that don’t line up with yours, this review is not for you. It’s also not for the author/creator of the work. Please and thank you.

All Systems Red is the first book in Martha Wells’ Murderbot series, which is a collection of novellas. In this first instalment, we meet Murderbot.

Murderbot is a SecUnit; a part-organic, but mostly robotic security unit. Owned by The Company and leased out as a mandatory part of any service package bought from The Company. (And, yes, The Company is really just called “The Company” and serves both to give it that faceless multinational quality while also being a criticism of consumerism).

But Murderbot’s special. Murderbot has a secret.

Murderbot has disabled the governor module built into all SecUnits, which ensures they obey orders and rules from The Company. Murderbot has something no SecUnit should have: free will, and Murderbot is working hard to make sure The Company doesn’t find out and swoop in to fix the “error”.

The books in The Muderbot Diaries are all short and easy to read.

In All Systems Red, the story is simple. There are some scientists on an alien planet doing research, some scientist on this side of the planet, some more on the far side. When something goes terribly wrong with the scientists on the far side, it becomes the priority of the first group – along with Murderbot – to figure out what happened before the same thing happens to them.

There’s a little bit of worldbuilding, just enough for us to understand it’s not terribly far from what life looks like today, a bit more tech-y, is all. There’s a bit of jargon, a few explosions and a mystery that drives the story.

This book would be easy to dismiss as just a space mystery with some robot fights. But, as any good sci-fi story, there’s a nuanced and deeply grumpy story at its heart, because this story is highly character driven.

Murderbot is the kind of bot who hacks its own programming to gain free will, never misses a chance to flip the bird at capitalism or the money-hungry, morally corrupt corporations benefitting from it, or an opportunity to escape into fiction.

Murderbot physically and figuratively dons sleek, SecUnit armour, both to cope with the demands of the job as well as to protect the delicate, bruised heart underneath. Humans give Muderbot the heebie-jeebies and it’s challenging for Murderbot to cope being with humans in close quarters.

Murderbot just really wants The Company (and the rest of the universe) to leave it alone to live its best life, streaming shows on uneventful security jobs.

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. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.

— Murderbot, “All Systems Red” by Martha Wells

Wells bestowed Murderbot with a charm rooted in dry humour and sarcasm, and an eternally vexed yet deeply vulnerable voice. There’s a cynicism to Murderbot. It has seen it all before, and none of it compares to what’s on TV. Murderbot keeps wanting to give up, yet somehow never does. Like Marvin from The Hitchiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Murderbot trudges on.

Murderbot is a masterclass in how to create character.

The wonder with Murderbot is how something as alien as a robot can be so human. Murderbot is very aware of where it comes from, and the struggle to reconcile where it is today — and who it wants to be — is something we can all relate to.

Especially, as autistic, Murderbot delights me. The way it catalogues things and observes (and judges) the world is intimately familiar to my own experience. And while I know others have found it delightful and entertaining, I’ve just felt at home with it.

By far the most relatable part of Muderbot is the fear of coming to harm. Its daily life revolves around habits that hide the truth about Murderbot. Actually, anyone who’s ever had to hide a crucial part of themselves (from the LGBTQ+ community to neurodivergent people to immigrants) because the immediate world around you doesn’t understand or even threatens you with violence over it, will relate.

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