This week’s review is offered by Christian Daoust, who loves science-fiction, murder mysteries, thrillers, comics and graphic novels, and is an avid reader of great books of all kinds. He’s a graduate of Concordia University’s Creative Writing and English lit programs, and holds a degree in Classical Acting for the Professional Theatre from LAMDA, in London, UK.
All Systems Red is an award-winning novella and the first entry in The Murderbot Diaries, a series of science fiction thrillers written by veteran genre-writer Martha Wells. I specify genre-writer because this work is very much the creation of a real pro, one well-read and well-versed in the craft of science fiction and fantasy. If this blog is already too long to read, then before you click off know this: All Systems Red is pure pleasure.
Who says artificial intelligences have to be perfect, cold and calculating minds? They would be conceived or programmed by flawed human minds after all. It seems possible that their emotionless logic would be corrupted by some of our quirks and traits. Just as we learn from observing and absorbing the behaviour of our parents (for better or for worse) so would they.
Thus, we have our narrator, Murderbot: a sentient artificial being, designed to kill, no longer hardwired to take orders, and whose immediate desire is to shut itself in a dark closet and watch endless hours of Netflix. No, this isn’t Asimov and his “three laws of robotics”. All Systems Red asks the question: what if an anti-social killer robot was embedded in a group of politically correct scientists and must keep them safe? It sounds like a joke, but it’s actually a recipe for a thrilling intrigue and subtle character study.
The novella delivers a tight narrative that does away with some of the more esoteric science fiction tropes like dense paragraphs of futuristic/hyper-technological language, and long chapters of thinly veiled socio-political criticism of today’s hot-button issues. The story and characters rely on an augmented version of the science and technology we depend on today, like drones, projectile weapons and communication feeds, rather than high-concept cosmic machines. Nor does it take place in a dystopian future, at least no more dystopian than our present is. It downplays these aspects of the genre in service of story and character. The world-building and storytelling are just as efficient as our robot narrator is efficient at commanding small drones and pirating its favourite tv shows. That is to say, very.
Moreover, Wells doesn’t rely on the oft tiresome—and lazy—characters doing uncharacteristic things because [insert plot point] has to happen. I think we’ve all been there, all had the thought “WHAT?! You IDIOT! Why would you do that??”, when our stoic protagonist loses their temper—and seemingly the ability of rational thought—at a crucial point in the story. It’s the modern equivalent of a damsel in distress tripping and falling while pursued by a masked killer. Whether it makes you cringe or groan like me, one thing is certain: it is not compelling. Not really. It can be frustrating. For me it’s like seeing the awkward seams in a nice suit jacket. Good storytellers, like good tailors, should be able to hide the mechanics of their trade. Martha Wells is a good storyteller. She doesn’t intellectualize, or dumb anything down, she tells a good story through a well-wrought character.