Book Review: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

The first in the Murderbot series, and the first to win the Hugo Award for Martha Wells, All Systems Red started what appears to be a genuine phenomenon in modern science fiction.  All three of its sequels were nominated for the Hugos the following year, and even though Wells withdrew two of them from consideration, she pocketed another Hugo for the third one.  This novella introduces the readers to the engrossing and fairly original universe full of unexplored planets, companies fighting for resources and corporations profiting from this push.  The book does so without unnecessary exposition, which makes it even more entertaining.


The main protagonist and narrator of the book calls itself Murderbot.  It is a human/machine hybrid, who managed to hack its control override, acts on its own, and now is terrified to be found out.  In an ideal world, it would be left alone, so that it can watch TV shows…  This is not an ideal world, though: it is designed as a security unit and tasked to protect a group of surveyors on a foreign, unexplored planet.  The group is first attacked by native wildlife, then finds a competing group all dead and soon needs to scramble to escape an unknown assailant who wants to kill them off.  All the while they are being protected by a bot who it way out of its depth.

As is the case with the first books in many series, the most interesting part is the worldbuilding.  Wells leaves a lot to imagination, and she is very good at describing the rest without getting too deep into exposition.  In her universe, there are many uninhabited planets, and corporations or foundations can receive permission to explore them for commercial exploitation.  Above these companies there is a tier of equipment providers.  They sell everything, from transport to the planet, through tents and survey equipment, to security bots.  In addition to straight payment, they collect and exploit any and all information recorded by the equipment, most notably the bots, and occasionally engage in direct attacks against their clients when that turns out to be more profitable than keeping them alive.  The security bots are an integral part of such business transactions.  This is a world full of hacking, wireless direct communication between people, but also brute force and gunfights with limited consequences for the bots, who can recover from nearly everything.  The entire mix is beautifully balanced, and Wells keeps the action flowing to keep the reader entertained.

While the first book focuses on worldbuilding, it already includes some hints of the Murderbot’s character development.  Even though it’s got its quirks and a largely human-like mind, it is extremely uncomfortable and thus mentally vulnerable in social situations.  It does not know how to act among people and does not know how to react when those it is charged with protecting start behaving towards the Murderbot as a human, rather than a piece of machinery.  This also makes for some delightful reading, rendering this creature that has implanted guns and inhuman strength prone to self-doubt and shyness.

This book is fully deserving of its Hugo award.  It introduced a new universe to science fiction, and the author polished the text so that it is compact, and yet easy to read and very enjoyable.  It’s also non-pretentious, not taking on any big issues or passing judgments on the world’s actors, even though it would be tempting to do so.  This little book is pure, unadulterated fun, which should make for a pleasant reading for an evening.

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