Network Effect is the fifth and as-yet longest installment in the adventures of Murderbot by Martha Wells, introduced in the multiple award-winning novella All Systems Red in 2017. The novel is a great addition to the series, giving readers exactly more of what we love from the Murderbot books: a beloved and sarcastic unreliable narrator, intricate world-building and plot, lots of stuff getting blown up, and surprisingly frequent moments of warm friendship and empathy.
May 5, 2020
While the first four novellas cohere into a sort of coming-of-age/origin story for the main character, Network Effect can be read as the first ongoing adventure after that arc is complete. In addition to being a really fun novel in its own right, it’s also an engaging look at how Murderbot can now have a new, solid place in its universe.
In a far future where ruthless corporations rule much of the space, Murderbot is an AI with a humanoid body composed of both organic and machine parts, including, as you may suspect, a lot of weapons. It was originally created to be a Security Unit rented out by a pretty shady corporation, but went rogue by hacking its own Governor Module in order to have some free will. It calls itself Murderbot painfully, privately, and ironically and uses most of its free will to ignore people and secretly watch soap operas. That’s all the premise of the first novella.
Network Effect may be the first Murderbot novel, but it clearly reads as a sequel to the four Murderbot novellas that have come before, and it succeeds in maintaining all the things I love about earlier Murderbot books. Martha Wells is to be commended for this, as so often later installments of beloved series don’t seem to realize what drew people to the series in the first place. Wells obviously does.
For instance, one of the things I like about the world of Murderbot is that it is messy. There isn’t just ONE evil corporation. They’re all bad, but can sometimes be played off of one another. Both humans and AIs can have divided loyalties. Relatedly, conflicts of interest abound. There are people on dangerous missions who have romantic or familial ties in the background that understandably influence their decision-making and emotional reactions to situations but aren’t the focus.
In Network Effect, all this depth and nuance in characterization and world-building comes into play in a variety of ways. When the book begins, Murderbot is once again accompanying a group of humans on an expedition as their security detail, but this time as an acknowledged and known member of the team rather than equipment, or masquerading as a human. The group is from Preservation, where Murderbot now lives, and one of the people on the expedition is the kid of Murderbot’s closest human connection. The situation is familiar, but the circumstances are different, and so is Murderbot’s investment.
For much of the book, two timelines are juxtaposed. In some chapters, Murderbot tells a current story of trying to keep its team of humans safe on a survey expedition against all odds (what ELSE is new, am I right, Murderbot?) and in other chapters, Murderbot recounts a related story from its recent past about how it reacted when there was a violent attempt on someone it cared about. The two narrative strands are eventually woven together in a satisfying way.
In addition to the deft world-building and plot construction, like most readers I also wanted more of Murderbot’s voice. Murderbot’s snide tone and warm heart (not literally; it’s a machine) combine to form a constantly amusing and endearing character. I feel this is most apparent in its blindspots about its own emotions and self-worth. For instance, I love when Murderbot gets mad at its humans for considering themselves expendable. No! I can hear it thinking, I’M the only expendable one here! It’s still getting used to the fact that its humans disagree.
In the interest of providing a spoiler-free review, I kept track of my reactions to different parts of the novel:
– I am about a third in to Network Effect and I have gasped aloud.
– I am in the middle of the novel and I am have had to put it down and breathe deeply for a while due to having An Emotion About Friendship.
– I am two thirds of the way through Network Effect and I have unintentionally said “oooh, that’s clever” aloud. My dog is confused.
– About 5/6ths of the way through Network Effect and though it is way past my bedtime I am determined to keep reading because I am so engrossed. I give up when my phone (I’m reading an ebook) literally falls on my face and I finish the next day. It sticks the landing.
In my review for the third Murderbot novella I noted that the book had far too many parenthetical asides. This stays true in Network Effect, and they still annoy me. I have, however, begun to see them as an affectation of the character that indicates Murderbot is struggling with its SecUnit programming to differentiate between relaying needed information and sharing personal asides. So, okay. I see the point of the parentheses and their use has evolved as Murderbot itself evolves throughout the series. Notably, Murderbot’s dialogue to both humans and other AIs has become, over the course of this five-book series, more like its narration, its inner monologue. I include parenthetical asides in this review as homage.
I follow Martha Wells on social media so I know that it was tough intellectually and emotionally to write a novel-length story from Murderbot’s perspective, both because Murderbot is not psychologically healthy and because its perspective is not singular or human. I can say, however, that the effect is successful. Network Effect demonstrates that Murderbot is growing into itself, and fans will be pleased and satisfied by this well-crafted adventure.