Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Big Pile of Books: Oy, Robot

I have a big pile of books at the end of my desk, and in writing all these up, I realize that I've done this before. Not reviewing this particular pile of books, but of summarizing all my book reviews for a year in one series of posts. I did it in December of 2015, and it will likely be five more years before I try this again.

But let's talk about Murderbots:

All Systems Red by Martha Wells, 2017, Tor Books
Artificial Condition by Martha Wells, 2018, Tor Books
Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells, 2018, Tor Books
Exit Strategy by Martha Wells, 2018, Tor Books

Provenance: The first one of this five-book series (the last one comes out later this year) was highly regarded in a lot of SF sites that I cruise. I tracked it down IRL (a difficult thing, it turned out - everyone had the later books, but not the first one), and agreed it was worthwhile. I asked the Lovely Bride for them as Christmas present last year, and she ordered the other three from Amazon. Philistine.

Review: I have warmed up to novellas. My younger incarnation that devoured SF digest-sized magazines found them large and cumbersome in the face of short stories, while the middle-aged reader-self bought in on the "measuring fantasy by the pound" school, and found them slight. Yet time and again in my dotage I am comfortable with the mid-length form - enough detail to engage, but not too light, and don't mind them at all.

Such is the case of the Murderbot Diaries. If lumped together they may seem a bit repetitive, but as individual stories, they are really quite charming. The murderbot is our narrator, who makes Johannes Cabal look positively sunny in his outlook. Our murderbot is also more competent than Cabal in his job, which is to keep the fleshbags he has been entrusted to protect alive despite their best efforts at self-destruction.

The murderbot is a construct of flesh and metal. It is not a cyborg, in that it did not have a previous life. It is a made, sentient, thing, the flesh grown around the metal plates, its programming tightly bridled by an internal governor. Except the murderbot has bypassed it governor and has free will. Which it wants to use primarily to watch pirated VR shows and do the absolute least amount of work.

The murderbot is geared towards self-preservation, not in a "kill all the humans" sort of way, but in a "lay low and let them ignore me" kinda way. It works, sometimes. And when it doesn't, he is roused to action to protect his assigned humans. He doesn't think much of them. He doesn't think much of most of his universe - Lesser AIs are dullards. More powerful AIs are threats. Corporations, with their ruthless pursuit of the bottom line, he hates.

The humans working with him (who he goes back to help when they're in trouble) don't get it. He's not a pet. He's not an oppressed form of human. He's pretty much sure about what he wants, which is to be left alone. He is a positive, well-rounded, humane, sentient, alien creature who is absolutely NOT fascinated with the humans around him. And that makes him interesting, even appealing.

Four of the five parts of the Murderbot Diaries are out now, and the last one is due sometime this year.

More later,