I haven’t written about any of these books by Martha Wells because they’re all just really short novellas and I didn’t think they were worth talking about, but I recently finished reading the entire series (there are four of them) and figured it would be worthwhile to discuss them all in one go.
Murderbot is a cyborg SecUnit (short for Security Unit, as in its job is to protect humans who pay Murderbot’s owners for security). It doesn’t have a gender and is very specific about that fact because if it had a gender that would make it a ComUnit (short for Comfort Unit i.e. sexbot) and Murderbot is very clear that that is not what it is.
Murderbot doesn’t really have a name – it has a serial number, but it has named itself Murderbot, even though it keeps that name to itself (and the reader). It takes a while, but it eventually opens up to its current renters to reveal that it calls itself Murderbot, which becomes important later on in the series.
Murderbot calls itself that because it knows that, on its last mission, it killed a whole bunch of humans it was supposed to be protecting, but it doesn’t know why. The company that owns Murderbot wiped its memory after the incident and hired it out again … without mentioning to the new clients that Murderbot had a history of turning on its clients.
But because Murderbot has an organic brain (or at least part of one), as well as a computer chip and software, so it remembers parts of what it did, but like I said, it doesn’t remember why it did it, which provides the basis for the entire mystery of the series.
Murderbot has something called a governor module, which tells it what to do, but Murderbot has managed to hack its governor module and has been downloading and enjoying a whole bunch of TV shows ever since. The trick is to act like its governor module is still functioning, because if anyone catches on to the fact that it’s not, Murderbot will be wiped and reprogrammed and end up right back where it started, so it has to tread very carefully.
The action of this series begins when Murderbot is on location with a bunch of humans (its current clients) who are researching the organic matter of part of a planet when they get attacked by some sort of alien that literally springs up out of the ground. Murderbot does its thing and gets the humans to safety, but then it notices something odd.
Murderbot’s governor module had actually given it instructions to not save the humans. The instructions were given at the time of the attack and Murderbot noticed some kind of warning, but because it had hacked its governor module, it was able to disregard the warning in favor of the more pressing matter of saving the humans it was hired out to protect. Because Murderbot is part computer as well as part human, it was able to rewind, not only to review the attack and everything that happened, but also to review the orders it was given to let the humans die during the attack.
Murderbot tells the humans about this anomaly, and the humans find out about another exploration site somewhere else on the planet that had sent out an SOS that never received a response. They decide to go investigate, which Murderbot tells them is a terrible idea because of said murderous corporation, but they decide to go anyway, dragging Murderbot along for security. They show up to find the humans dead at the hands of their own SecUnits, confirming Murderbot’s theory that the company that owns it is up to no good.
By the time the whole adventure is over, the captain of the mission decides to “adopt” Murderbot (because all cyborgs need a human guardian), which sounds like a pretty sweet deal because she’s really nice and competent to boot. But Murderbot knows a set of gold handcuffs when it sees them, so it slips away and takes a transport ship to another part of the galaxy in order to escape detection.
The rest of the books involve Murderbot trying to learn how to dress and act like a human (or augmented human at least, which is a human with computer parts, rather than a cyborg that has been created from computer parts and cloned organic parts).
Murderbot then proceeds to have a series of adventures in which it somehow always ends up protecting humans, even though it’s no longer being made to protect humans by its governor module. But it becomes a matter of convenience (it needs a way to make money and providing security is really the only thing it knows how to do) and then it turns into Murderbot actually coming to like the humans it works with (or at least some of them), which was really adorable and funny and I absolutely loved it.
Wells does an incredible job writing this series. Murderbot is sarcastic and funny enough to make me laugh out loud throughout each book, but despite the fact that she makes it clear that Murderbot is perfectly capable of forming emotional ties, she also makes it clear that Murderbot is not a human like other humans – as demonstrated by its attempts at trying to act human, which include things like adding algorithms to its own programming that make it move and shift every once in a while instead of sitting still as a statue for hours on end. Murderbot is also not very good and exhibiting emotions, although it’s gotten pretty good at reading them, mostly because of all the TV it watches.
The result is that, while this series was a delight to read, it also raised some very interesting questions about what it means to be human. Murderbot is a cyborg, which means it’s not a robot and it’s not human – it’s both, but what, exactly does that mean? Where does it fit in a society that likes to classify everything as either one thing or another?
The series ended on a note that was final enough that I would be satisfied leaving it at that (although I would miss hanging out with Murderbot), but also open-ended enough to leave some opportunities for more adventures. Murderbot is, in fact, getting its own, full-length novel that is scheduled to come out later this year and I cannot wait!
What did you read this week? Any other great sci-fi series I should check out?