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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The Hopeful Wanderer.014 – A Ghostly Guardian

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A thick cloud came to rest over farmland and countryside, shading the afternoon in sepia tones and muffling the distant sounds of highway traffic. To avoid a wide, unnecessary loop of interstate, I was cutting across an open field, boots squishing in mud from overnight rainfall. Yellowing grass swished against my knees, soaking my pants legs to my ankles, and moisture beaded in my hair, dripping cold down my face. Everything smelled damp, full of possibility.

Watching where I stepped, I almost missed it. A gentle whuff of breath and warmth radiating at my side alerted me to the presence of another walking with me, pace sedate, bearing regal. Just visible in the fog was an enormous buck, brown coat fading into the the landscape. Its antlers grew shaped like tree branches, winter dull twigs rattling together as it turned its head toward me.

A guardian. Legends spoke of the wisdom of the ancient guardians, rarely seen, who imparted their knowledge to those they deemed worthy. Shocked, I stopped, and when it realized I no longer kept pace, it paused ahead.

I stared. It looked back at me. The thudding of my heart crashed in my ears.

“I have questions,” I whispered. My voice sounded like nothing at all. “Please.”

Those liquid black eyes bored into me. My breathing stalled altogether as I waited, hoped. A beat of time passed, but then slowly, silently, the guardian turned and walked away, vanishing into the white fog.

Alone now, I tipped my chin back, searching for meaning in the swirling mist above. Nothingness and emptiness. I let out a breath and quietly accepted rejection.

Of course we all had questions; that made none of us special. I hoped one day that someone would learn from this guardian what I could not.


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On Madison Ferril

From the cold sprang everything, to the cold all will return. She is that ending, where the end goes on forever. Point zero. Circular. A Russian winter, where powerful bears slumber. Vast as the arctic sea, fathomless as starry space. A cool look from her will stop armies in their tracks. Men fear nothing more than the creeping chill in her blood.

Frosty breath and ice chips for eyes. A ruinous smile, the sort to freeze your heart. Hers is a slow takeover, a silent war, filled with icicle teeth and ruthlessness. No stopping her ascension—she’s already buried her enemies beneath shrouds of snow. Stand aside, if you wish to live.

What powers her is this: a strange blue flower, one whose petals she gives to those she loves. These and the flower itself generate warmth, for they are her true heart. We keep our petals hidden close, to protect ourselves from harm. If you seek this warmth yourself, you must trek across miles of tundra. But should you survive, earning her trust is a gift as unique as a snowflake, well worth the journey.

On Mattie McAlavy

She is all the colors of a late autumn sunset.

‘Long hair and glasses?’ Pfft. That description could fit anyone. Try phoenix hair and plum lipstick, metal in her lip, ink on her skin. Confident swagger; cold, challenging gaze. War paint and armor.

In nature, bright colors signify danger. Poison. She’s just as hard to miss and her aim’s deadly and true. If you cut yourself on her sharp tongue, you have no one to blame but yourself. She did warn you.

With her, you’ll find yourself on uneven ground. Unbalanced, untethered… unresistant to her charming laughter and playful banter. Watch yourself, for if you linger, you won’t leave. Won’t mind, either, because when she counts you as a friend, you have no better place to be.

There’s a difference between her and autumn sunsets, though. Sunsets vanish and autumn dies, unremembered. But she… she is unforgettable.

On Martin Jacobsen

His was a higher calling, the unrelenting drive to solve the crossword puzzle of reality. He was characterized by disillusionment, a clear-eyed inspection and dismissal of the aspects of life that ultimately didn’t matter. A smelting of excess dross down to a heart of the purest precious metal. He had an uncompromising prioritization of himself that didn’t exclude others. Be you, for he will be him. He demanded distinction, greatness, exceptionality. In many cases, he got it, because he not only convinced you that you could be more, achieve more, touch the very stars themselves, but that you would. Prepare yourself for a sharpening of the mind, for if he’s thought you through and discovered your essence, he will not leave you alone to rust.

On Rose Phillips

You could say she was the glue that held things together, because she had a way of seeing which folks belonged where and setting them in their rightful places. Which was to say, connecting them to each other and keeping them that way. But glue can dissolve and hers was a more permanent effect than that. She had the deft finesse of a needle and thread, stitching along the jagged edges of torn up bits of fabric. When she was done piecing the disparate qualities of her friends together, I could see her vision in the whole—a smooth, harmonious quilt, ragged sides lined up with their uneven matches. The only distraction was the stitches, gone every which way in the quest to sew up the most wayward of tears. But this resulted in a marvelous, complex design, unique in its lack of repeating patterns. That essence, her creativity and her commitment, was what made the entire cloth beautiful.

On Natasha Hanson

Just as a skeleton supports the human frame, she was the scaffolding upon which her life was built. All steel and all bone. If she could believe in nothing else, she could put faith in herself, for she was made with the strength to withstand the northern sea. An island, upon which she grew a family and a community, an economy of ambition and love. Storms crashed over her, but she stood fast. Waves broke upon her shores, to no avail. She sheltered her loved ones behind her indestructible ribcage, in the place where her heart beat. Under her protection, they could come to no harm.