We love to look at ourselves. Gimme a mirror and half an hour and I’m an absorbed individual. So it is that Martha Wells’ recently published series of novellas, The Murderbot Diaries, presents us with a delightfully engaging new tactic for whiling away the hours. Utilizing the conceit of an artificially constructed part-human/part-AI being as protagonist, Wells proceeds to wield an enchanting mirror on elements, crucial and comical, of our human experience.
Set in a distant future of powerful technology and Corporate domination, the series begins not long after the artificial construct, Murderbot, has found a hack for the software governor that had previously constrained its thoughts and behavior and we are along for the ride as it explores the boundaries and challenges of personal freedom. In a manner that will be discomfitingly familiar for many readers, our eponymous protagonist’s most daunting moments come in social situations with human beings. Despite possessing a synthetic body rife with the high tech weaponry required to lay waste to large numbers of organic beings in brief amounts of time; Murderbot is mortified by the same kinds of interactions with strangers, acquaintances, and friends that many of us wrestle with every day. Murderbot’s all-too-familiar panic, irritation and snide commentary in social contexts provide the funniest moments of the series.
Science Fiction is at its best when it allows us to see ourselves in a new light. In the course of the four novellas published to date, Murderbot repeatedly saves its new human friends from self-inflicted disasters, plumbs the mysteries of its own past and faces up against some of the nefarious Corporations that reign over human populated space. But along the way the real action is in the mind of Murderbot, as it stumbles into issues of trust, compassion and affection, providing the reader with a new window into the shared experience of being a self-aware creature navigating a world full of other self-aware creatures.
Insofar as the series represents a bildungsro(bot)man of sorts, one should begin with the first novella, All Systems Red.