With the upcoming release of Fugitive Telemetry, the sixth book in the Murderbot Diaries series by Martha Wells, I have been thinking about how Murderbot explores more and more of what it means to be a person in each book. Specifically, I’m thinking about the family relationships it encounters and participates in in Network Effect, the most recent book in the series. If you’re in the mood for some Deep Parenting Thoughts and also A Lot of Spoilers, come along!
As a parent and also a person, I’m interested in how parenting changes how we think of ourselves as people. It famously changes our priorities (caring about someone else more than ourselves), and I think also is seen as a kind of marker of adulthood in many communities. Looking through a speculative fiction lens, there’s the opportunity to see how parenting influences ideas of personhood with the idea of humanity kind of set aside. In speculative fiction, we can see AIs or alien sentient ooze, or elves as people even when they’re not human. We can see what they DO that makes them people, without making them human, and therefore of course I looked for parenting aspects in the interpersonal dynamics of one of my favorite non-human characters, Murderbot, and how parenting actions help shape its personhood in Network Effect.
In the first book of Wells’ Murderbot Diaries series, we are introduced to a Security Unit, who is a construct — made with some human parts and a lot of robot parts — who has dubbed itself Murderbot and hacked its own “governor module” so it doesn’t have to obey orders that might hurt people. It uses its newfound freedom to watch soapy serialized fiction and suppress its traumatic stress from being created and enslaved by an evil corporation. Over the first four novellas of the series, it breaks free of the corporation, rescues people, and establishes ties with non-corporate humans who respect it. These four novellas form an overarching plot arc that’s like a coming of age novel in which Murderbot finds its place in the world (kind of) and becomes self actualized (again, kind of). Murderbot is still a mess.
Network Effect is the fifth installment in the series and the first full-length novel. It’s really the first time we see family dynamics, and those family dynamics present new ways for Murderbot to become more of a person. As Network Effect opens, Wells presents the protagonist embedded in its favorite human’s family, and later, exploring and navigating some possibilities of creating its own found family structures.
Parenting is not the overall focus of the book. When I chatted with pals about this idea, it was pointed out to me that Murderbot is not stereotypically parental because while it cares about safety a lot, it does not care at all about enforcing rules. It was also pointed out that Murderbot itself is a lot like a traumatized adolescent rather than a parent figure, and itself in need of some parenting from the adult humans who love it. That’s all absolutely true. But the parenting stuff is there, too. Network Effect presents parenting as an activity people participate in, in a range of ways, and Murderbot’s acceptance of that, and participation in parenthood is part of its increasing sense of self and personhood.
There are two ways this happens in two different chunks of the book. The first is in which Murderbot finds a role as a new adult figure in an existing human family, and the second is when Murderbot strategically self-replicates with the help of its friend, the AI of a research transport called Perihelion. Murderbot calls this friend ART, which stands for “Asshole Research Transport.” They have a lovely relationship. At one point in the text, Murderbot and this Significant Other bot work together to create a pared-down software copy of Murderbot, in a way that is explicitly called out in the text as being an analog to “making a baby.” (More on this later.) These two different experiences of what parenting could potentially mean for Murderbot as a non-human person (one: embedded in a human family, two: doing a weird creative act with an AI) are both necessary for it to explore what its role in family dynamics could potentially be.
So, first, Murderbot is installed into the family structure of its “favorite human,” Dr. Mensah, who figures largely in the preceding series of four novellas. Murderbot is then confronted, unwillingly, with expectations that it will fulfill a parental role in Dr. Mensah’s family, which includes multiple spousal partners and many children, some of whom are suspicious and uncertain of how Murderbot now fits into this family. The ones who are not small children ask, “what are you to Mensah?” and the underlying question there is “what will you be to me?”
I’ve read some family psych studies that suggest this is pretty analogous to how a family reconfigures when a step parent is incorporated into a family. There’s a new grown-up shaped person in the household; everyone figures it out. Those studies are focused on the effect on the kids’ psychological development.
I learned about the “family systems” theory, which “posits that families form multilevel, adaptive, and regulatory systems,” and that “families seek equilibrium. Yet transitions such as changes in family structure, can disrupt family systems, causing family systems to reorganize and adapt to new circumstances” which is a quotation from Velma McBride Murry and Melissa A. Lippold’s article “Parenting Practices in Diverse Family Structures: Examination of Adolescents’ Development and Adjustment.” In Network Effect, we see Murderbot join Mensah’s family structure and family system, giving us a really explicit example that like McBride Murry and Lippold say, “new patterns of who is ‘in’ and ‘out’ of the family may create new challenges for family relationships.”
For Mensah’s family, Murderbot’s arrival signals just such a new pattern. Murderbot is neither a child nor an adult human, neither a spousal partner nor offspring. Thus it cannot join an existing role in the family, and while many of the kids are fine with that, Mensah’s spousal partners and Mensah’s adolescent kid struggle more with finding a category for Murderbot to fit into. Murderbot does, too.
It is a culmination of that plot arc where Amena, the adolescent in the family, doesn’t trust Murderbot, when she eventually jokingly and fondly refers to it as “third mom.” By this point, I would argue, she sees it as a peer emotionally — though hyper-competent in safety stuff — and trustworthy. She’s fondly and very mildly joshing it just a lil for its care of her safety.
This part, with Murderbot caring for a human adolescent, is the part that has more analogs in existing speculative fiction, and that more scholars have thought about already. There’s Steven Universe, where Steven is primarily parented by multiple sentient magical rocks from space, none of whom are his biological parents, and all of whom love him and help take care of him. There’s the Becky Chambers book, A Closed and Common Orbit, where an enslaved child is “parented” by creepy motherbots who intend to kill all the children in their “care” when they outlive their usefulness to the system, and when that enslaved child escapes (it’s a really good book, I recommend it) she is cared for lovingly and competently by an AI bot pilot of a grounded ship. I’m sure there are lots of other examples like this where the focus is on a child protagonist and the AIs doing the parenting are great characters, but their emerging personhood isn’t the journey the audience is focused on.
That focus on the effect on the kid makes perfect sense, of course. That’s what we’re trained to focus on. Similarly, when I do searches in academic databases on family structure and parenting and AI in parental roles, it’s all about studying the effect on the children, not the psychological effect on the person doing the parenting. In January of 2021 as I started to research this, I emailed smart academic therapists I know to ask, “Should I be using different search terms? I want to find out about how parenting changes the person doing the parenting!” I have not yet received a reply from any of them. I think this is a busy time for practicing therapists.
As I mentioned earlier, in addition to navigating/forging a new role in a human family, in Network Effect Murderbot also forges family ties with ART, partly by their joint creation of a selective software-only copy of itself. This copy is killware, intended to be deployed as a weapon.
When ART originally thinks this is a terrible idea, Amena helpfully but unwelcomely points out to Murderbot, “it’s like you and ART are making a baby.” Whatever family structure this creates for Murderbot and ART, it is new and non-human, even though so many human forms of family are accepted in this world. Like, there are tons of acceptable “family” configurations for humans; Murderbot still needs to branch out to find a family structure that is good for it, a non-human person maybe. This creation of a killware copy of itself is not a thing that is standard for Murderbot’s world. It’s … weird.
My kid is in first grade, and her class just did a science unit studying plant and animal “offspring.” The first grade curriculum for this unit was all about how anything’s offspring has the same structures or eventually develops the same structures. This means that a mom giraffe is only ever going to have a baby giraffe as offspring, and that baby giraffe will immediately have some of the same defenses and stuff as the mom giraffe does, and develop the rest as it grows to adulthood. The offspring of a tomato plant will also be a tomato plant. But as a grownup intellectual, I know the baby giraffe (and the baby tomato plant to a lesser extent) will also be different from the parent. The baby giraffe will have a different pattern of splotches than the mom does. It may be taller or shorter as an adult. It may have stronger legs or weaker legs. Offspring inherits a lot, but not everything.
So if I think of the killware Murderbot 2.0 as Murderbot’s offspring, I am thinking about what it inherits. 2.0 gets Murderbot’s intelligence, but not its sense of privacy. Murderbot didn’t “grow up” like a human kid would. It was constructed from a mix of organic and inorganic parts to look like an intimidating human adult, more or less. So 2.0 inherits Murderbot’s lack of an infancy or childhood. Reinforcing this, almost immediately after it is created, ART asks it anxiously if it knows its directive, and 2.0 replies: “I’m not actually a human baby, ART, I remember the fucking directive — I helped write it.” That lack of an infancy or childhood is inherited automatically because it is innate to Murderbot’s species. However, as software, it does not get Murderbot’s physical form, much less Murderbot’s complicated detesting of its organic parts. It also doesn’t get Murderbot’s hangups about identity and names. The offspring is the same, but different. That’s how offspring work.
And while 2.0 isn’t nurtured the way a human baby would be, its co-creation helps solidify a bond between Murderbot and ART, that they decide to pursue further. I could argue that becoming “parents” is integral to the way Murderbot and ART may create a found family structure with each other in the future. Perhaps.
Even though it isn’t the focus of the novel, Network Effect presents parenting in ways that help Murderbot explore how it can be a person. By divorcing parenting from humanity, Wells still shows how parenting can be creative: in one sense, creating a being, and in another sense, creative problem-solving. Since I’m interested in both parenting and personhood, I think it is worth exploring how experimenting with, and creating, family structures is something that can be part of emerging selfhood.
Note 1: A version of this was delivered over Zoom as a paper presentation at the Northeast MLA conference March 13, 2021.
Note 2: I use a lot of parenthetical asides in this, in honor of Murderbot.