Book Review: Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

Second in the Murderbot series, Artificial Condition is an endearing piece of science fiction, which has a lot going for it.  In particular, it’s not pretending to be more than it is: an inconsequential story in a large, fleshed-out universe.  I really like these kinds of works.  By focusing on the adventures of a person or two, during a very short time period, they are usually very tightly written and their personal insights into the fictional universe are more important to me than descriptions on a monumental scale.  This novella is a good example of such a story, but the writing isn’t as focused as I’d like it to be.

I must admit that I haven’t read the other Murderbot novellas.  At a Kindle price exceeding paper versions of much larger novels, I simply had them too low on my shopping list to get to them.  As such, I was new to the novella’s protagonist and the universe the story takes place in.  That didn’t matter, though, as Wells does a very good job introducing all the main concepts, so that a novice reader like me grasps them.  Remarkably, she does it with almost no exposition.

The narrator is a security droid who hacked its own failsafe and now operates on its own: a murderbot.  It is trying to uncover a piece of its past, when it stood accused of massacring an entire group of its clients.  To get to the truth, it needs to sneak on board of a transport bound to the planet where the incident took place and then infiltrate the area of interest.  It picks a transport that happens to have a far more powerful A.I. that could be expected, and they strike a bond, with the A.I. first disguising the Murderbot as a human, and later helping it get to its destination.

Once on the planet, the bot gets roped into a job to protect a group of scientists who are trying to get back their stolen research.  While this at first seems like a side quest, it quickly becomes evident that this storyline is the heart and soul of the novel.  The bot, as well as the transport A.I., are artificial after all, and human interaction is new to them.  Due to its outward appearance, the bot has to make others believe it is human.  The process of learning how to act human, while feeling uncomfortable about it and not actually feeling any more human at the end of the story, is very believable and endearing at the same time.  Ironically, it humanizes this killer droid: it gives it a set of internal vulnerabilities and a quirky personality.

This character development is the greatest strength of the book.  For most of the time, it further benefits from focused writing, which does not deviate from the narrator’s point of view.  This fictional universe is very richly developed, but nothing that does not concern the protagonist is described.  At most, things such as complex political and legal structures or ancient alien civilizations are only hinted at.

Unfortunately, I had an issue with one aspect of the author’s writing: she seems to be obsessed with the hacking of security systems, but does not offer a conflict or at least challenge here.  The most prevalent technology is a sort of Internet of Things where everything is computerized and wireless communication is trivial.  In some scenes, this is merely hinted at as a mundane thing.  For example, secure communication between the bot and humans, which have their communication augmentations, is treated merely as  regular speech.  However, a very big part of the story concerns hacking security cameras to erase or fake recordings or to take over their feed, and the protagonist often comments on the quality of the given security system.  To me, this felt as filler text.  The bot has almost no problems hacking any security system in its way.  Without any real challenge on its part, I grew bored with the repetition of this story element.

All in all, though, I liked the book.  I felt that its premise and character development were so original that I purchased another Murderbot title (it was on sale, making it comparable to used books in my local bookshop).  The greatest strength of Artificial Condition lies, in my opinion, in its small-scale storyline.  Novellas are the perfect vehicle for small stories about small people in large settings, and this is a prime example of how it’s done.  Unfortunately, while most of the writing is tight and focused, I think the superfluous and repetitive description of wireless hacking detracts from the overall enjoyment of the story.  I haven’t read the previous Murderbot novella, which received last year’s Hugo Award, so I can’t determine whether this story is equal to it in quality or not.  At this point, I believe this is a worthy nominee, but I must reserve my judgment whether it deserves to win the award.

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