Martha Wells’ Murderbot series must surely be counted among the biggest hits of contemporary science fiction. The story of an artificial being – half-machine and half-clone – who became a freelance bodyguard was originally told over the course of four novellas: All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, and Exit Strategy; with Network Effect, it received its first full-length novel.
Murderbot, no longer masquerading as an augmented human, is now accompanying a scientific expedition. Its job is to defend the researchers from hazards, and one such hazard becomes apparent when the expedition is attacked by a spaceship. The craft in question is familiar to Murderbot: it is the ship run by the AI known to our protagonist as ART (Asshole Research Transport). But something has happened to ART to affect its personality; the ship is now inhabited by mysterious grey-skinned people; and the vessel appears to have been contaminated by some sort of alien organic remnant. And so, Murderbot is embroiled in a mystery that stretches deep into the series’ corporate intrigue.
Given the digital mind and shady past of the protagonist, the Murderbot series has one foot in cyberpunk. But just as the contemporary Lady Astronaut series by Mary Robinette Kowal is founded upon an acceptance that the space age is already over, Martha Wells is one of the authors forcing cyberpunk to adapt for changing times. So much that was predicted by the genre has come to pass, and a lot of it has turned out to be a lot sillier than William Gibson ever envisioned. Even the stuff of dystopia is silly: we live in a time when political extremists embrace bizarre cartoon memes.
Although Wells locates her story against a far-future backdrop of interplanetary colonisation, Network Effect (like the rest of the series) is quintessentially “now”. Like so many of us who have split our minds between brain and net, Murderbot is preoccupied with pop culture. It has memorised vast reams of (implicitly trashy and unrealistic) historical dramas, and uses these as reference points when navigating reality. Although Murderbot knows that such fiction is not entirely trustworthy (for one, we are told that the media almost always depicts its fellow SecUnits as evil) it nonetheless comes in useful when understanding the strange realm of human feelings.
In narrating the novel, Murderbot uses a degree of wryness:
I trusted Arada’s judgment to a certain extent. She and Overse had always been firmly in the “least likely to abandon a SecUnit to a lonely horrible fate” category, which was always the category I was most interested in. They were my clients, that was all. Like Mensah, like Ratthi and Pin-Lee and Bharadwaj and Volescu (who had opted to retire from active survey work, which gave him the award for most sensible human) and yes, even Gurathin. Just clients. And if anyone or anything tried to hurt them, I would rip its intestines out.
While this is reminiscent of the Whedon-Scalzi school of snark, it soon becomes clear that Wells is achieving something more sophisticated than simply nudging and winking at the reader. Murderbot’s comical asides feel like the product of uncertainty, the humour being the humour of a person giggling their way through a tense or unfamiliar situation:
(SecUnits make humans and augmented humans uncomfortable and on my contracts, my clients had acted in a variety of nervous and inconsistent ways when I was around. (No matter how nervous they were, just assume I was more nervous.) But in a situation like this, it’s more about how other humans expect each other to act and not how humans actually act, which literally might be anything.)
As Murderbot navigates the world(s) around it, the character takes on a distinctly childlike aspect. By extension, the novel’s more action-oriented portions fit into a tradition that stretches back to the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Kidnapped, where a child protagonist is tossed into a conflict between various adult characters of differing moral stripes.
The touch of childishness has always been part of Murderbot’s character, but Network Effect finds new ways to explore it – one of which is to turn it on its head by inserting Murderbot into a parental role. The protagonist’s job as SecUnit involves spending time with Amena, the teenage daughter of scientist Dr. Mensah, and keeping her out of trouble. They have a degree of common ground, with Murderbot being in many ways a moody adolescent itself (as one of its narrative comments says: “Ugh, emotions”) yet Murderbot must ultimately act as what Amena calls her “third mom”, even breaking up a relationship if it deems the partner a potential danger.
Murderbot ends up with another surrogate child when it creates a viral copy of its own personality, dubbed Murderbot 2.0. One of the novel’s more overtly cyberpunk plot elements, this turn of events leads to a moral debate: is Murderbot effectively sending its own baby on a suicide mission? Murderbot 2.0 then becomes a part-time narrator, plugging questions of ethics and identity into the novel’s formal structure.
This human element provides ample contrast with the coldly inhuman economic considerations that lie beneath much of the novel’s worldbuilding. As Murderbot summarises: “In Preservation culture, asking payment for anything considered necessary for living (food, power sources, education, the feed, etc.) was considered outrageous, but asking payment for life-saving help was right up there with cannibalism.”
Colonies are established by corporations, and conflict between different corporations can potentially lead to the loss of valuable data or even the destabilisation of whole worlds. Bankruptcy, meanwhile, can result in a colony being cut off from the rest of humanity. After this happens, the colony can then be claimed as salvage by another corporation — regardless of what the people stranded there might have to say. As it happens, this is what occurred on the star system in which the main characters find themselves. They can be rescued — but only if they pay a fee. All of this, it transpires, turns out to be connected to the mystery of those troublesome grey-skinned joyriders.
Network Effect retains the ingredients that made the novella quartet a success:: a taut plot; a protagonist who is at once convincingly inhuman and thoroughly relatable; a constant sense of humour; and worldbuilding based on a solid set of science fiction concepts. To this list can also be added a brisk length. While longer than the novellas, Network Effect is nonetheless fairly slight as novels go, befitting a series that has found a home within smaller-sized formats.
For a second opinion, read Emily Lauer’s review of Network Effect.