Book Review: Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Part nature documentary, part retelling of the human condition, Children of Time tells of the clash between a race just beginning and another on the verge of vanishing forever.

Children of Time Synopsis

A race for survival among the stars… Humanity’s last survivors escaped earth’s ruins to find a new home. But when they find it, can their desperation overcome its dangers?

WHO WILL INHERIT THIS NEW EARTH?

The last remnants of the human race left a dying Earth, desperate to find a new home among the stars. Following in the footsteps of their ancestors, they discover the greatest treasure of the past age – a world terraformed and prepared for human life.

But all is not right in this new Eden. In the long years since the planet was abandoned, the work of its architects has borne disastrous fruit. The planet is not waiting for them, pristine and unoccupied. New masters have turned it from a refuge into mankind’s worst nightmare.

Now two civilizations are on a collision course, both testing the boundaries of what they will do to survive. As the fate of humanity hangs in the balance, who are the true heirs of this new Earth?

Goodreads

My Thoughts

On Tor.com’s Facebook page, I came across James Davis Nicoll’s article “SFF Works in Which Violence is Not the Solution.” Among the offerings listed appeared Mushishi, my favorite television show and ultimate inspiration for my free-to-read flash fiction series about The Hopeful Wanderer. Stories with non-violent solutions speak to my heart – hence the existence of the Wanderer – and the presence of Mushishi recommended this list to me wholeheartedly.

Almost every work in this article now lives on my Goodreads TBR list, but only Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky was available in my library network when I went looking for them. I’ll get ahold of the rest someday.

Appraisals

PLOT

Part nature documentary, part retelling of the human condition, Children of Time tells of the clash between a race just beginning and another on the verge of vanishing forever. The narrative follows two intriguing plotlines and their occasional overlap.

Tchaikovsky takes a species almost universally abhorrent to humans – spiders – and makes them sympathetic and understood as they evolve into a sentient race on a terraformed planet. Guided by their Messenger in the sky and nano-virus evolution through hunter-society, superstition, radical religion, invention, enlightenment, and space-faring unity. The most interesting part I found personally was the examination of sexism through the lens of males as the inferior gender, and how the brave and the empathetic make changes to this problem.

The humans, on the other hand, walk an opposing path. As thousands of years pass to those in cryogenic sleep, individuals in the cargo get woken for crisis after crisis as the last race of its kind squabble, in-fight, revolt, and work desperately to stay alive on a crumbling ark ship. The mechanics of time and generations become skewed through the use of cryogenics, with legendary figures rising from their ‘coffins’ to find several generations of humans passed. Though the Gilgamesh seeks a home for the humans among the stars, only one terrifying world will do.

CHARACTERS

My favorite character motif of Children of Time comes from the spiders society. As the story progresses over spider generations, living and dying in the thousands of years passing by for the humans, each new generation features three or four characters, new every time, but bearing the placeholder names of their ancestors. I loved learning which roles the Portias and the Biancas and the Fabians and the Violas would play during the rise of each new situation. The scholar? The warrior? The leader? The mad genius? Always Tchaikovsky focused on these characters as the most important movers of their world.

From the human camp, I found myself relating to the four to five characters present from Key Crew. From bumbling Mason, looking for meaning in a meaningless universe; to Lain on whose shoulders ride the leadership of an entire race; to simple Karst keeping up a smiling appearance hiding a sense of failed understanding beneath; to Guyen’s egotistical bid for eternity to see through his long-range plan; to logical Vitas and her hidden fears.

THEME

The difficult path to harmony. Throughout its existence, humanity has demonstrated its inability to get along with others. Children of Time presents the notion that lacking outside help, and perhaps a three-dimensional perspective, humans may never break the pattern of self- and environmental-destruction. Without the intervention of the alien spider intelligence, humanity would continue to spiral ever closer to the brink until someday it destroyed itself.

ENDING

Couched within the ending of Children of Time comes the non-violent part promised in Tor.com’s article. However, Tchaikovsky keeps his solution close to the chest, having me worried up until the last second that violence would be the answer after all.

Criticisms

Sudden sex is sudden and people sigh rather often. The usual. Otherwise, Children of Time is a magnificent science fiction offering. The story will stick with me for ages to come.

My Rating: 5/5 stars
Goodreads Rating: 4.30 stars

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Book Review: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Those joining the military cannot imagine what they will face, and are forbidden from contacting anyone back home after joining. They are, after all, dead to their world.


Old Man’s War
 Synopsis


John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the army.

The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce– and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So: we fight. To defend Earth, and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding.

Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity’s resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don’t want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You’ll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You’ll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you’ll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets.

John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect. Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine–and what he will become is far stranger.

Goodreads

My Thoughts

When I lifted Old Man’s War by John Scalzi from the library shelves, the soft cover art had me nostalgic for that of Ender’s Game, one of my first sci-fi reads. The initial line in the synopsis packed punch and the rest promised mystery, so I gave it a go.

What I Liked

PLOT

While I won’t give some of the twists away (because they’re good twists), the premise of Old Man’s War involves the elderly returning to youth in return for the promise to fight in an intergalactic war both never-ending and ever-shifting. The tone leans into the oppressiveness of war, the way its horrors translate across space and species, but can take forms so much worse than anything humans have perpetuated on earth. Those joining the military cannot imagine what they will face, and are forbidden from contacting anyone back home after joining. They are, after all, dead to their world.

CHARACTERS

John Perry comes off as an Everyman, neutral enough for anyone to step into his shoes and see the world – and the universe at large – through his view. He gains friends and grows attached to some people, but seems less than effected when war wipes them out. Distant. Even the chapters of Old Man’s War describing these deaths step back, as if to avert the reader’s gaze from the impersonality of war, just a little. He does, however, love his deceased wife more than anything, holding onto his feelings for her as if they can supplement his own emotions.

Showing an aptitude for staying one thought ahead of constantly changing battlefields, John Perry adapts to war and, as much as he can, excels at it. To the point of ultimately joining the military’s most elite branch, even if he forever hovers at the bottom of their ranks. Though death almost claims him countless times, he lives war as if he has known no peaceful life.

THEME

War doesn’t care about you. From the beginning to the end, Old Man’s War reiterates that death happens in an instant and often for no reason. Soldiers must find meaning in the tiny things or die with nothing. Even then, no one can say whether it matters in the end except the dead.

ENDING

The ending of Old Man’s War felt just a little rushed. The buildup and rising action worked great, but where the components for winning a decisive battle should have come together, they seemed to come out of nowhere and then vanish into dust. Perhaps because averting one disaster means just going on to the next crisis, rendering the details somewhat unimportant.

Criticisms

With the recognition that Old Man’s War was written during an earlier literary time than the era in which we find ourselves today, the narrative contained some troubling tropes. While I still enjoyed the story and the message it had to offer, it still contained aspects of the Bury Your Gays and Manic Pixie Dream Girl tropes. I’m not saying don’t read it, but I am saying be prepared.

My Rating: 3/5 stars
Goodreads Rating: 4.24 stars

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The Hopeful Wanderer 52 – The Lonely Operator

Though the warped radio station door stuck to the jamb when I pulled it open, just inside, unseen machinery hummed productively. Unseen, because thin smoke drifted along the floor, curling around my shoes. I reopened the door, letting the strong breeze outside push it wide.

A distorted voice, as if piped through a ham radio, echoed from within the smoke. “Qpn-zee? Is that you?”

Ah. Wrong number. “No,” I called back. “But I got your signal.”

Eyes watering, I pulled my shirt up over my nose and stepped deeper into the station. The vague outline of a room opened out into a single, circular control booth, lit with the ambient glow of a constellation of buttons. Through the haze, I just made out a person seated at the widest control panel, twisted around to face me, one eye glowing.

Through the muffling fabric of my shirt, I said, “What’s on fire?” But as I moved closer, I could see the way the smoke rolled out from beneath the control panel. How the person did not move away from the danger, because their entire lower half trailed away in a thick tangle of wires to various locations around the booth.

This was a bot, hardwired into the station itself.

“One of my processors overheated,” the bot explained. “I am Static. Designation?”

“From trying to call Qpn-zee?” I asked.

“Designation?” it repeated.

I shrugged a little, never sure how to introduce myself. “I’m called the Wanderer.”

“Yeah, and I’m called the Operator,” said Static. It adjusted a knob and a whine I hadn’t noticed diminished. “Your real name?”

My mouth opened and closed. “I… don’t know.” I had never known.

Static narrowed its single eye at me. “You’re that Wanderer, then.”

I spread my hands, my shirt sliding off my nose. “That’s who you reached. Can we do something about this smoke?”

Static faced forward again, laughing a hard little laugh. “I didn’t ask you to help me. Only one person can do that.”

Stepping around an exposed pile of wires, I sidled toward the wall. “Qpn-zee?” I said. “Your signal got pretty far. Could be they’re just behind me.” I had noticed a window here covered with duct tape. Vinyl crinkled beneath my searching fingertips.

“How did you even hear me?” Static asked. It cut its gaze toward me just as I popped the window latch. “Hey, what are you-!”

I pushed the window outward and a gust blew in, stirring dust and smoke alike. Sunlight flooded the control booth, glinting off Static’s brushed metal face. It looked surprised at the fact of daylight.

I leaned my hip against the windowsill. “I don’t know much about digital machinery,” I explained, “but I do know you have to keep it cool. Can’t do that with everything boarded up.”

“I couldn’t-” Static started. “After Qpn-zee left, I… I couldn’t do that.”

Dusting my hands, I said, “I know I can’t help you, like you said. But if I meet Qpn-zee in my wanderings, I’ll send them out here.” I picked my way back to the hallway. On my way, I paused to face Static. “In your broadcast… it sounds like you miss them.”

Static looked flabbergasted. At what I had done or the fact of me, I couldn’t tell. Then it sort of smiled with its one eye. “Yeah. I do.”

As I stepped outside, its ham radio voice called out. “Hey! What am I supposed to do if it rains?!”

I raised an arm, waving behind me. “I’d say this place could use a little moss.”

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Book Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars Synopsis

On a cold spring night in 1952, a huge meteorite fell to earth and obliterated much of the east coast of the United States, including Washington D.C. The ensuing climate cataclysm will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity, as the last such meteorite did for the dinosaurs. This looming threat calls for a radically accelerated effort to colonize space, and requires a much larger share of humanity to take part in the process.

Elma York’s experience as a WASP pilot and mathematician earns her a place in the International Aerospace Coalition’s attempts to put man on the moon, as a calculator. But with so many skilled and experienced women pilots and scientists involved with the program, it doesn’t take long before Elma begins to wonder why they can’t go into space, too.

Elma’s drive to become the first Lady Astronaut is so strong that even the most dearly held conventions of society may not stand a chance against her.

(Via Goodreads)

Award-winning author Mary Robinette Kowal

My Thoughts

I came across The Calculating Stars by award-winning author Mary Robinette Kowal while perusing the Goodreads Choice Awards 2018 Science Fiction list. Lady astronauts? Hidden Figures vibes? Alternate universe featuring one of my favorite historical subjects? Sign me right up.

What I Liked

Plot

The Calculating Stars closely examines the entire process by which an era known for its traditional gender roles might be rocked on its foundation when the impact of a meteorite accelerates the progress of gender equality. At no point is this easy. The multitude of fierce, intelligent, and brave women battle gender stereotyping on every page as the narrative spotlights the intense riptide of sexism prevalent in their everyday lives. Though so many women work as calculators capable of more perfect accuracy than IBM computers, the relevancy of their work has to take a backseat to changing the public’s social view of a woman’s assumed fragility. Who less qualified to step into the public’s eye to accomplish just that than a socially anxious math nerd like Elma York? She believes women and minorities should have equal opportunity in scientific fields, but the audience gets to watch as she grows into this steadfast mentality.

Permeated throughout this examination is the atmosphere of working at what would have been NASA if it had existed a little earlier in history — calculating the first trip into space, overcoming the challenges of implementing a space station, dreaming of reaching the moon and beyond in the race to save humanity from a planet Earth preparing to fry itself to death.

Characters

The characters of The Calculating Stars felt like real colleagues, the kind of people I could see myself working with as coworkers and getting to know over the course of a few years. Elma and her husband Nathaniel complement each other both as lovers and as partners. I appreciate how Nathaniel never needs Elma to play the traditional feminine role, and often expresses himself with natural emotions, communication with her, and thoughtfulness, all while juggling a difficult job. Elma’s rival, who perpetuates the very stifling gender stereotypes she battles throughout, gets to show both his awful sides and his good sides in such a human fashion that both regularly blindside Elma. Other characters bring values that matter to the story, but all of them present like just one aspect of many that these people might have.

Theme

Women getting what they want. Though the women characters of The Calculating Stars struggle and fight with various different tactics against persistent stereotyping, sexism, mockery, and belittling, the narrative also sprinkles in satisfaction for these women throughout. When they successfully pass a test, during sexual intercourse, in motherhood, in life threatening dangers, as homemakers, as career women. I could probably count the number of books that present this much satisfaction for women on one hand. The number of such science fiction books fits on just two fingers.

Ending

The Calculating Stars ends on a high note, but with the promise of more difficulty ahead. The next arc seems to indicate a requirement to convince the public of the dangers of remaining on earth much longer, as well as an examination of racism in choosing who will first get to colonize space.

What I Disliked

The complication of cattiness among women put me off at first, but the narrative of The Calculating Starsresolves this particular unhelpful stereotype in a realistic and wholesome fashion, as if it meant to unpack the connotation that goes with it all along.

My rating: 5 stars
Goodreads rating: 4.21 stars

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The Hopeful Wanderer 32 – Moon Mother Mourning

She carried the moon with her – a rounded orb of lunar rock, lit by the invisible reflection of a missing sun, somehow an echo of the real thing hanging in the night sky. She cradled it in her palms like an offering and whispered, “Where is my sun?” 

So many had heard her question and gone mad seeking the answer. ‘In the sky’ would not do, nor would any variation. Though she witnessed the sun, and its distant twin cousins, every day, she asked still. 

Flicking her gaze to me, she said, “Where is my sun?” Her question burned like the drag behind my belly button pulling me toward her; I had moved too far into her range. Pain weighted her calm eyes, dense as the devastating iron that collapses the hearts of stars.

The very marrow of my bones grew heavy, the next step forward like escaping the grasp of an event horizon. When I reached her, however, I placed my hand atop the tiny moon, soft, powdery dust clinging to my palm. My eyes met hers as I pushed the orb lower. “Your son was at the space station,” I said, “when the life support failed.” 

No tears reached those cold eyes, but her voice quivered. “Where is my son?” 

“He died at the space station,” I repeat. “You know this. You cannot keep using his gift from his moon landing to drive people mad like this.” 

At last, she dropped her hands, the orb clutched at her side. It dimmed and flickered out, releasing its painful weight on my body. I inhaled deeply, expanding crushed lungs. 

“My son, my sun,” she murmured, “strangled in the sky that he loved so much.” She brushed her thumb across the gift from her astronaut, her head hung in silent grief.

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Book Review: Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

Our Murderbot remains ever capable of combat intelligence, but not only does it continue to struggle with social norms, it also now must make decisions for itself, a thrilling but terrifying experience for the newly emancipated SecUnit.

Artificial Condition Synopsis

It has a dark past – one in which a number of humans were killed. A past that caused it to christen itself “Murderbot”. But it has only vague memories of the massacre that spawned that title, and it wants to know more.

Teaming up with a Research Transport vessel named ART (you don’t want to know what the “A” stands for), Murderbot heads to the mining facility where it went rogue.

What it discovers will forever change the way it thinks…

(Via Goodreads)

About Martha Wells

Martha Wells has written many fantasy novels, including The Books of the Raksura series (beginning with The Cloud Roads), the Ile-Rien series (including The Death of the Necromancer) as well as YA fantasy novels, short stories, media tie-ins (for Star Wars and Stargate: Atlantis), and non-fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel is The Harbors of the Sun in 2017, the final novel in The Books of the Raksura series. She has a new series of SF novellas, The Murderbot Diaries, published by Tor.com in 2017 and 2018. She was also the lead writer for the story team of Magic: the Gathering‘s Dominaria expansion in 2018. She has won a Nebula Award, an ALA/YALSA Alex Award, a Locus Award, and her work has appeared on the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Award ballots, the USA Today Bestseller List, and the New York Times Bestseller List. Her books have been published in eleven languages.

(Via Martha Wells’s website)

My Thoughts

I was terrible and picked up both Artificial Condition and its sequel Rogue Protocol from the library at the same time so no one could snag them before me. Muahahahaha!

What I Liked

Plot

Murderbot undergoes some serious character changes in Artificial Condition as it works to uncover its past and, in the end, make some decisions about its future. For once it works for humans it chooses, not ones chosen for it by its company, and though its responsibilities change as such, it still gives all its effort to protect them. Almost as if, given the opportunity, bots might be capable of decency when not controlled and governed by corporate overlords. All this while keeping its own identity as a dangerous rogue SecUnit a secret.

Plots, subplots, and revelations populate Artificial Condition, packing action and intrigue into just a handful of chapters that I wished would go on forever.

Characters

In Artificial Condition, our Murderbot remains ever capable of combat intelligence, but not only does it continue to struggle with social norms, now it must make decisions for itself, a thrilling but terrifying experience for the newly emancipated SecUnit. It also has to deal with the responsibility of when those choices go badly wrong for the humans it contracts to protect.

In All Systems Red, Wells casually introduced polygamy into this sci-fi future world. Artificial Condition zooms in on this aspect with the appearance of three young technologists who are married to each other and a few others still back at their base. To cap this off, one of them, Rami, identifies as a third gender, or a tercera (third, get it?), using pronouns like ‘te’ and ‘ter’ (because ’tis’ would just be confusing). I. love. it. This essentially non-binary character acts centrally to the plot in a leadership role for the other two, making choices that drive the story forward.

Theme

Embracing humanity. Sort of. Murderbot would much rather remain the SecUnit it was created to be, but to get the information it wants, it has to reluctantly keep building on its previous character development and manage to act human enough to fool other humans, even going so far as to dress like a human, shedding its comforting armor.

The narrative of Artificial Condition also shows a Research Transport Vessel whom Murderbot dubs ART displaying emotion, both for humans and for MurderBot as it prods its SecUnit passenger toward character growth. (‘ART,’ ‘Artificial Condition,‘ do you get it?) Even a handful of ComfortUnits show something like soul in their decision making, both in positive and negative choices.

All, however, retain their bot-ness, their otherness, their deep-seated difference from humans. I appreciate so much that the narrative arc for freed bots or otherwise doesn’t just focus on them becoming human. They are allowed to simply equip human behavior where applicable and necessary for individual evolution.

Ending

The conclusion of Artificial Condition kicks ass. After experiencing Murderbot’s fighting capabilities in All Systems Red, the reader knows things are about to go down (possibly in flames) as the plot hurtles toward the end.

My Rating: 5/5 stars
Goodreads rating: 4.31 stars


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Book Review: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Only seven chapters long, ‘All Systems Red’ moves along at a snappy pace, following the tale of Murderbot, an angry, dismissive robot learning how to deal with autonomy and other people during crisis. Can relate.

Capture
All Systems Red by New York Times-bestselling author Martha Wells

All Systems Red Synopsis

In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.

But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.

But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

(Via Goodreads)

About Martha Wells

Martha Wells has written many fantasy novels, including The Books of the Raksuraseries (beginning with The Cloud Roads), the Ile-Rien series (including The Death of the Necromancer) as well as YA fantasy novels, short stories, media tie-ins (for Star Wars and Stargate: Atlantis), and non-fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel is The Harbors of the Sun in 2017, the final novel in The Books of the Raksura series. She has a new series of SF novellas, The Murderbot Diaries, published by Tor.com in 2017 and 2018. She was also the lead writer for the story team of Magic: the Gathering‘s Dominaria expansion in 2018. She has won a Nebula Award, an ALA/YALSA Alex Award, a Locus Award, and her work has appeared on the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Award ballots, the USA Today Bestseller List, and the New York Times Bestseller List. Her books have been published in eleven languages.

(Via Martha Wells’s website)

My Thoughts

How All Systems Red wound up on my Goodreads TBR list is a mystery to me. I suspect I must have seen one of my friends mark it as Read and seriously liked the description, which hints at an angry, dismissive robot learning how to deal with autonomy and other people. Can relate, so I snagged it from my local library.

I was not, however, expecting a novella. All Systems Red is only seven chapters long, about 160 pages, but what an excellent clutch of chapters. Tor will be releasing three more novellas of The Murderbot Diaries throughout this year and I already have the sequel, Artificial Condition, on order. I had never even heard of Martha Wells before, but I believe I’ve just become her newest fan.

What I Liked

Over-Arcing Content

With the constraints of the limited page amount, the plot of All Systems Red moves along at a snappy pace, wasting no time with extraneous details or fluff. Yet it avoids sacrificing important story aspects like emotional investment, character development, and plot twists. It’s interesting from start to finish, cleverly revealing bits of the universe through relevant character thoughts, dialogue, and setting description.

Characters

The main character of All Systems Red, which calls itself ‘Murderbot,’ has more personality as an android than many of the main characters I’ve read in the past. It’s shy, smart, and youthful, has interests, opinions, and wit, and embodies a certain sense of true asexual, aromantic, gender neutrality. The story happens in first person and Murderbot makes a point of indicating that it has zero interest in sex or romance, which is the kind of main character I want to read! Skip the romance fluff and get down to important things, like group dynamic observations and interactions or Big Questions. Murderbot also represents a recognizable dynamic of the Millennial generation — under-educated, over-competent, and winging it at any given moment.

The rest of the crew surrounding Murderbot shines each in their own way. Based on the names, readers can divine a diverse group in ethnicity alongside Murderbot’s observations of their eclectic gender orientations and futuristic lifestyles. Many ladies populate the crew, receiving action, agency, and voices throughout.

Motifs

The spacefaring interplanetary exploration motif put me just a little in mind of the beginning of the movie Alien, but with the draggy elements cut out. The plot features a good mix of exploration, action, and mystery.

The Ending

At first I thought the ending of All Systems Red would be just okay. There are big and small resolutions that tie up the plot itself quite neatly; however, the way things appear to go at first leave Murderbot’s personal issues somewhat reconciled, but certainly not complete or satisfied. I greatly preferred the way the plot actually ends, transferring into a sequel with a little meta tag as the last word. I’m considerably more satisfied with the way All Systems Red subverts typical short-story ending tropes, but I recognize such success arises from the opportunity to continue.

What I Disliked

Perhaps because of the point of view of Murderbot, who doesn’t care about distinguishing human characteristics, it was at first hard to tell the other characters apart. Yet as the plot progressed, it became easier to know who was who based on dialogue, actions, and group dynamics, so it doesn’t remain a problem for very long.

The explanation of Murderbot’s crew identity came off as a little convoluted so that I’m still not quite sure what the narrative meant to relate about their background. Possibly a reread would solve that problem, though.

Recommendations

I recommend All Systems Red for fans of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and the world setting of the Alien movies franchise (minus the alien horror aspect), as well as for readers looking for a total lack of romantic subplot in science fiction.

My Rating: 5/5 stars
Goodreads Rating: 4.15 stars


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