07 February 2022

A New Cross-Genre Hero: Murderbot

After reading mysteries for sixty years and writing them for twenty, I've become an appallingly picky reader. I seldom discover a new-to-me author whose book I want to read all the way through, much less one on whose series I rush to binge. Yet that's exactly what happened when I heard about fantasy author Martha Wells's Murderbot Diaries on DorothyL, the venerable e-list for mystery lovers. Someone said, "They do have 'murder' in the title, and they're wonderful!" Someone else said, "I love Murderbot!" Others chimed in enthusiastically, pointing out that crimes and at least one murder mystery could be found in the series. So I picked up the first novella, All Systems Red, and I was hooked. I literally bought and read straight through the whole series before going on to any other reading. And I was in good company. All Systems Red won the Nebula, Hugo, and Locus Awards for Best Novella.

Murderbot is not your typical antihero. If I said it's the most lovable android since R2D2, you'd get completely the wrong idea. First, you'd better not call it Murderbot. That's private. It's SecUnit to you. Second, don't touch it. Pats on the head, the shoulder, the back, or the arm are not welcome. Third, if you value your life, don't ask it how it feels. It has a thousand ways to kill you, and it doesn't give a damn that you meant well.

Murderbot is a rogue SecUnit who's hacked its governor module and is making a break for freedom. As the story arc unfolds, we begin to understand what being controlled by a governor module was like for a sentient being and why Murderbot is chronically grumpy and doesn't trust humans. Unlike the humanoid androids in most science fiction, the last thing it wants is to be human itself. Humans are stupid. They think slowly. They invariably do the wrong thing in a crisis. They constantly put themselves in danger, from which SecUnit is programmed to rescue them, even at the cost of its own life. Somehow, even without its governor module to punish it for failing, it can't help doing that.

In the course of its adventures, Murderbot gradually comes in contact with a few humans who treat it as a fellow being rather than as a piece of equipment. It doesn't want to care about any of them. Caring isn't in his programming. It tells itself this unfamiliar response must be a system glitch. But caring as well as curiosity keep leading it into new friendships (sorry, Murderbot, I didn't mean to use the F word) with both humans and other machine entities as it hitchhikes through space investigating the mysteries in its own past.

Because Wells is a highly experienced and imaginative writer who serves up a unique brew of world-building and character and humor and plotting that is superior to all the "gripping, compelling, if-you-like-Martha-Wells-you'll-love" imitators I'm sure will come along if they haven't already, she avoids easy solutions. For example, at the end of one of the novellas, the human SecUnit finds the least intolerably stupid, slow, disorganized, and irrational, one who's almost possible to work with in a crisis involving humans, offers it a home. Her world is free from the corrupt influence of Murderbot's former corporate owners and of bigotry toward bots. But our hero is not a bot. It's a SecUnit—a valuable piece of lethal equipment—and although its not-a-friend might call it her teammate or family member, whichever it prefers, she would have to be its legal owner to get it onto the planet. In other words, it would be a slave again. So Murderbot, who can't possibly be feeling a bit conscience-stricken, slips away to have more adventures. Since these include investigating murders as well as stopping various bad guys from preying on both humans and sentient machines, Murderbot fans can rejoice. By the way, don't tell Murderbot it has fans. It would be so embarrassed. If SecUnits could get embarrassed.

Artificial Condition, the second in the five novellas that make up The Murderbot Diaries, also won the Nebula and Locus Awards for Best Novella.

Network Effect, the Murderbot novel, won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards for Best Novel and was a New York Times bestseller.

Rumor has it that Wells has signed a contract for several more Murderbot works.


  1. Something new is always welcome! Thanks for the tip.

  2. Janice, if you like a unique voice, you won't be disappointed.

  3. I haven't read sci-fi in quite a while. Guess I'll have to take a look at these.

  4. I usually don't either, R.T., but Murderbot is more about the story than the science—the problem, the action, and the relationships—though SecUnit is even less fond of the R word than the F words (friend and feelings).

  5. Liz, thanks for the tip. I too am tired of same-old but wouldn't have looked to sci-fi for a change-up.

  6. Apparently Wells and I share a favorite cross-genre writer on the SF shelf, Lois McMaster Bujold, so I knew going in her standards were very high indeed. I've blogged about Bujold before and will do so again this year.

  7. I love science fiction & the Murderbot books & novellas sound amazing!

  8. What a wonderful review, Liz, although you slipped up and used 3 ƒ-words: friends, family, and fans. I love it.

    I also confess that halfway through reading your review, I interrupted to order the first two from my library. Really, what an outstandingly persuasive essay, Liz. I'm already waiting for the movie version.

  9. Let me know how you like 'em, Leigh.

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