Review: All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #1) by Martha Wells [audiobook]

All Systems Red_Martha Wells.jpg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All Systems Red, the first installment in Martha Wells' The Murderbot Diaries and winner of the 2018 Hugo, Locus, and Nebula Awards, is a heck of a lot of fun. This is a novella, so the premise is pretty simple - a rogue android has to help keep the humans who have contracted it for security alive during a planetary survey mission. Naturally, Wells inserts a few wrinkles along the way that point to something larger and more nefarious. A murderbot has to earn its pay, after all.

What separates All Systems Red from the pack of droid hero science fiction is the character of Murderbot itself. Murderbot has hacked the governor module that controls and dictates its behavior, making it a free agent, if not for the fact that it has to hide this tidbit of information from its human employers. Despite being fully self-aware and keenly intelligent, Murderbot is still listed as inventory in the Company that contracts it out for security services, so certain ruses must be maintained if Murderbot doesn't want to see itself reformatted and re-enslaved to its corporate masters.

Murderbot may not be human, although it does have some fleshy components, but it is most decidedly a person. Wells gives enough depth to Murderbot to make it sympathetic, relying on the android's personality and issues of human bias and notions of superiority in our historical dealings with artificial intelligences to give us a healthy degree of perspective on where exactly Murderbot is coming from.

And where Murderbot is coming from is decidedly simple - it hates humans and just wants to be left alone to watch its favorite downloaded television shows. Never before have I found an artificial intelligence to be so utterly relatable! While I can fully sympathize with Murderbot's ambitions, it's pretty damn hilarious listening to its encounters with its new human crew and their attempts to humanize a wryly grumpy killing machine, and how Murderbot responds to such showings of support and empathy. The scientific team it is charged with protecting is nicely drama free, but Wells manages to wring a good bit of emotive action out of how Murderbot and its crew respond to each other. Wells doesn't get deeply philosophical about the nature of life, intelligence, and free will, but she does raise a few poignant issues worth thinking about over the course of this short book.

Experiencing All Systems Red in audiobook format, though, leaves me slightly conflicted. It took me a while to warm to Kevin R. Free's narration, and while his reading here is serviceable I wish it were more engaging. Murderbot actually has feelings - it gets angry, its gets sarcastic, and it knows when it needs to be emotionally manipulative to draw out desired responses from the humans around it. Free's reading is dry and largely monotone; this makes for a dull listen despite Murderbot being anything but a dull character. I wish Free would have taken a livelier approach to the material, but I did eventually come around to his style - not enough to rave about his vocal showmanship, but enough that I'm still interested in pursuing this series in audio rather than switching over to print (at least for book two).

Although the narration didn't do the story justice, the character of Murderbot is most definitely one worth paying attention to and has me eager to sink straight into Artificial Condition next. I can't wait to see what further hijinks my new favorite anti-social killing machine gets up to!

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Michael Patrick Hicks

Michael Patrick Hicks is the author of the science fiction novels Convergence, an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2013 Quarter-Finalist, and Emergence. His work has appeared in several anthologies, and he has written for the websites Graphic Novel Reporter and Audiobook Reviewer. In between compulsively buying books and adding titles that he does not have time for to his Netflix queue, he is hard at work on his next story.

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