All Systems Red by Martha Wells is the first novella in the Murderbot Diaries series by the author. This first book was published in 2017. The series currently (May 2022) has six books in print. I think that each book in the series is also of “novella” size. Novella is a term I do not really use – because I am old and grouchy and generally prefer easy to parse categories like short story or novel or poem. But books the length of this work (149 pages) force me to use the word ‘novella’ and it makes me feel awkward and uncomfortable like the narrating character in the story, Murderbot.
This is a short work, so I do not want to give anything away. I read the book throughout the day, finishing it just before sleep – turned out the bedside light and goodnight. The story is the intersection of corporate work, scientific planetary research, and A.I./bots. Since the story is told from the perspective of the bot, SecUnit (short for Security Unit), the writing is sparse and very matter-of-fact. A security bot that really does not have the utterly human need to explain, ponder, and relationship everything keeps the storytelling breezy and straightforward.
Readers who have ever taken a contemporary philosophy class are going to feel some kind of way about how Murderbot does/does not have feelings, opinions, and humor. A lot of times it uses words that probably would not be strictly logico-mechanical. So, its language processing is high-level – as would be expected for a machine that was programmed in order to frequently interact with humans. So, is it using language in the same way? Does the language it uses have the same meaning?
Well, in a sense, this is lightweight story that never drills into these questions or investigates these matters. Like I said, this is an extremely matter-of-fact telling. The SecUnit does not “care” and well, maybe neither should the reader. Except, well, but, the lingering part of the story that is layered under all of the rest of the words is literally the quesiton of what the status of this “bot” might be.
And what if the bot is not entirely machine, but has organic components?
Anyway, the story starts in media res, there are some action scenes, but from the standpoint of the SecUnit, the events are related in a rather even – almost dull – manner. The technology is pretty cool – though none of it is at all explained, but the reader gets used to the brute fact of there being whatever technology; be it communication tech or medical tech. The Murderbot has some quite amusing lines throughout that most readers will find relatable and amusing.
Overall, though, the story is somewhat predictable. Even though it is enjoyable, I did not find anything here that would make me re-read the book, nor anything that would make me ponder anything in it longer than this review. I do intend to read on in the series and I do recommend this for most science fiction fans – if only because it is short and easy breezy.