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All Systems Red chronicles the life of a robot that calls itself Murderbot

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The start to a promising universe

Photo by Andrew Liptak / The Verge

“But as I said before, these weren’t intrepid galactic explorers. They were people who had been doing a job and suddenly found themselves in a terrible situation.” These lines sum up the general attitude of Martha Wells’ novella, All Systems Red. It’s a snarky adventure set in the depths of space, told through the eyes of a security robot that’s taken to calling itself Murderbot. While it’s short, this book packs a nice punch, and nicely sets up a great playground for countless other adventures.

Our protagonist got its name after killing a bunch of company employees on another planet a couple of years ago, but while it has a bit of a bloodstained history, this isn’t Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a dour security bot that likes to watch steamy soap operas, and would rather be left alone. After its murderous rampage, it hacked its own governor module, not wanting to fall victim once again to hardware manufactured by a company that cuts corners to save a buck.

Now, Murderbot has found itself deployed to a planet surface along with an exploratory crew researching a new world. While they’re down there, they find that a neighboring mission has gone dark, murdered by their own security bots. The explorers must not only figure out what went wrong, but how to stave off an attack of their own. This is where the android, a hybrid mechanical / organic machine, puts aside its general disgruntlement to jump into action. It describes its line of work as a sort of war of attrition: put more holes in the enemy than you take, and this programing or worldview helps make for a character that’s a person, but doesn’t necessarily think like a human. It’s a nice change of pace, and it shows that there are more options out there from benevolent servant or murderous machine.

All Systems Red is a pretty basic story, but it’s a fun read that feels a bit like a throwback to the science fiction stories of the 1960s and ‘70s. Wells puts together a story that relies entirely on smart people reasoning their way out of trouble, with some modern twists that update the style for 2017. It feels very much like a good pilot for a television show coming to something like the Syfy Channel, and it briskly runs along as Murderbot follows its human contractors along and gets them out of trouble.

This feels like the right approach for this type of character: a nihilistic robot that doesn’t want to get attached to the people it’s contracted to protect. This format is ideal. It allows Wells to tell Murderbot’s story through discrete installments, and opens up the opportunity for endless variations, missions, or backstory in each adventure.

While it’s a fun read, what’s most promising about this novella is that it feels like a tiny step into a much larger universe. There’s elements of hard science fiction in its world-building, cool robots, space corporation intrigue, and an ending that signals that there’s more to come. (The next novella, Artificial Condition, is due out in January 2018.) This book comes out of, and as we’ve seen with Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series, these are books that don’t overstay their welcome. They’re short, to the point, and incrementally build up a longer, serialized story and world. I already can’t wait for the next one.