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.

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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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Book Review: Nyxia

A swift, fun read with plenty of twists and surprises, cunning strategic moves, and touching moments between characters.

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Nyxia by Scott Reintgen

Synopsis

Emmett Atwater isn’t just leaving Detroit; he’s leaving Earth. Why the Babel Corporation recruited him is a mystery, but the number of zeroes on their contract has him boarding their lightship and hoping to return to Earth with enough money to take care of his family.

Forever.

Before long, Emmett discovers that he is one of ten recruits, all of whom have troubled pasts and are a long way from home. Now each recruit must earn the right to travel down to the planet of Eden—a planet that Babel has kept hidden—where they will mine a substance called Nyxia that has quietly become the most valuable material in the universe.

But Babel’s ship is full of secrets. And Emmett will face the ultimate choice: win the fortune at any cost, or find a way to fight that won’t forever compromise what it means to be human.

(Via Goodreads)

About the Author

Scott Reintgen was always a back-row dreamer. As early as kindergarten, teachers noticed his tendency to stare out of classroom windows and disappear to more interesting elsewheres. In high school, he began laboring away on the opening chapter of his first fantasy novel. One of his favorite English teachers agreed to read the pages and the very next day she switched him (illegally) out of Spanish and into a Creative Writing class. The story got tossed eventually, but he never lost the confidence he was given by that single act of empowering faith.

Convinced he would one day be a writer, Scott spent most of college and graduate school investing in the world of literature. This eventually led to a career teaching English and Creative Writing in North Carolina. He strongly believes that every student who steps into his classroom has the right to see themselves, vibrant and victorious and on the page. It’s his hope to encourage a future full of diverse writers. As he’s fond of reminding his students, “You have a story to tell and you’re the only one who can tell it.”

(Via the author’s website)

My Impressions

At the same time that I picked up Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince (my review about which you can read here), I also picked up Scott Reintgen’s Nyxia, which happened to be displayed on a nearby shelf and had lovely dark cover art. The blurb was just The Hunger Games enough to catch my attention, but Emmett, the main character, sold me on the first page. He has attitude, sharp perception, and a unique perspective. He bears the burden of an atypical (and personally familiar) dysfunction, which he must learn to overcome as he battles for even a chance at success. Plus, he listens to music constantly and, honestly, can relate.

What a clever little tale Nyxia turned out to be. Reintgen’s science fiction involves three things: a new planet capable of supporting life, a new species with particulars about alien ages, and a new substance called nyxia. With those three elements, he creates an experience removed from contaminating outside variables, and boils down the narrative to pure competition. Not precisely for life itself, but for money, which might as well be the same thing. Yet within that competition and within the expectations of science fiction, the perspective of Emmett has the focus on the characters more than on the particulars of the genre. His attention explores the evolution of each character as they struggle toward the whisper of something beyond mere fiscal sustainability: meaningfulness.

I appreciated the even gender representation as well as the platonic nature of the relationships Emmett developed with (most of) the female characters. Curiously, the love interest doesn’t appear until halfway through the book, implying that Reintgen means to develop their romance slowly over the course of what I assume will culminate in a trilogy. The story itself was a swift, fun read with plenty of twists and surprises, cunning strategic moves, and touching moments between characters. I’m genuinely curious about how things will progress in the next book, because Nyxia ends not only on a satisfying overarching cliffhanger, it also leaves the fate of one of the more beloved side characters in question. I expect I’ll be picking up the next book to find out.

I recommend Nyxia for fans of The Hunger Games and competition-style stories, as well as for those who enjoy light and creative aspects of the science fiction genre.

My rating: 4/5 stars
Goodreads rating: 4.11 stars


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Book Review: Leviathan Wakes

I can go along reading it for quite some time before it’ll do something to irritate me.

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Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey

Synopsis

Humanity has colonized the solar system – Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and beyond – but the stars are still out of our reach.

Jim Holden is XO of an ice miner making runs from the rings of Saturn to the mining stations of the Belt. When he and his crew stumble upon a derelict ship, the Scopuli, they find themselves in possession of a secret they never wanted. A secret that someone is willing to kill for – and kill on a scale unfathomable to Jim and his crew. War is brewing in the system unless he can find out who left the ship and why.

Detective Miller is looking for a girl. One girl in a system of billions, but her parents have money and money talks. When the trail leads him to the Scopuli and rebel sympathizer Holden, he realizes that this girl may be the key to everything.

Holden and Miller must thread the needle between the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations – and the odds are against them. But out in the Belt, the rules are different, and one small ship can change the fate of the universe.

(Via Goodreads)

My Impressions

As a fan of the “Mass Effect” video game series and Artemis: a novel by Andy Weir, Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey (pen name for fantasy authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), tickles me in all the right places: it’s got believable technical space jargon without being so overbearing as to detract from the story, sufficient mystery and moving parts to keep the reader guessing, good dialogue, solid pacing, and characters that were probably quite relatable at the time of its inception. In fact, I suspect a lot of the details from both “Mass Effect” and Artemis may have been inspired by Leviathan Wakes/the greater Expanse universe as a whole. I can go along reading it for quite some time before it’ll do something to irritate me (which is saying a lot for the tradition of the science fiction genre), possibly because it’s such a big book that it has a lot of wiggle room for mistakes.

However, here are the ways in which it made my shit list:

  • At least two female characters have died for Man-Pain
  • The two white, cishet, male main characters are so similar that I have a really hard time telling them apart
  • One (living) female character
  • Said female character has been in love with one of the main characters, Holden, since 17 days after they met (blargh)
  • One of the dead female characters is essentially a Pixie Dream Girl for the other main character, Miller (only exists for him because she’s dead and a literal a product of his mind)
  • Little racial diversity; probably still more than was normally seen at the time
  • The mentally unstable character sacrifices himself (right after committing to impending suicide) instead of, you know, getting/being offered some professional help

It was okay. The development of the crew dynamic was probably the main thing I liked.

Goodreads rating: 4.21 stars
My rating: 3/5 stars