ALL SYSTEMS RED by Martha Wells – THE UNSEEN ACADEMIC
This is an occasional series of posts drawing on my excursion into the academic side of creative writing. Having taken a career break from secondary schooling to further my own education with some post graduate study I’ve completed an MA in Creative Writing at Queen’s University Belfast. I’ve now started on a PhD project at the same university with the catchy title “Navigating the mystery of future geographies in climate change fiction.”
So the Hive has kindly given me space to post reviews of climate fiction books as well as blogging thoughts and articles on other aspects of my PhD experience.
Having looked at M.D.Presley’s World Building for Fantasy Fans and Authors in my last post, I found myself reading Martha Wells’ All Systems Red and thinking how this slim volume challenged the convention that works of speculative fiction must all gargantuan doorstop tomes. It seemed to me an excellent example of how authors can meet the need to induct readers into an profoundly unfamiliar setting in a novella length piece.
So I thought I’d set out some ideas below, while also highlighting what made this an entertaining as well as a brisk read.
With the sands of another year fast running out I found myself trapped between the immovable object of my Goodreads target and the irresistible force of my predilection for epic tales of speculative fiction. I was plucked from that peril by a recommendation to try All Systems Red the slim delight of Martha Wells’ first Murderbot novella.
It is refreshing to be reminded that not every story needs to be never-ending. The speculative fiction of the early 70s era was often more Novella than Epic, Moorcok’s Elric of Melnibone a snip at 54,000 words, Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest – barely breaking the 40,000 word barrier. The trend amongst contemporary fantasy and science fiction authors might be a cry that nothing less than a thousand pages (or half a million words) will suffice to detail the intricacies of their world (wailing forlornly “Will no one think of the thrice quilted doublets or the delicious caramelised jodkin’s gizzards that just must be described”).
However, in All Systems Red, Wells shows that world building can be compact and perfectly formed, and still launch us on a compelling story featuring people (and constructs) that we care about.
There are I think several elements that contribute to Wells’ elegant breathless brevity.
- The story is told in just one first-person point of view of the self-named murderbot. This tight focus, seeing the world only through their eyes and only when they are conscious (online) strips the story down to its bare essentials while also immersing the reader in the perspective and priorities of our unusual protagonist (more first-construct point of view than first-person point of view).
- The story starts absolutely in media res. Reader and characters are plunged into disaster in a hole in the ground with the minimum of preliminary introductions. Yes, a team has been assembled and travelled to chart a new planet for potential resource exploitation. But we don’t need to witness that assemblage, we just need to be there when it first goes pear shaped.
- The story is told by a terse dispassionate narrator. Murderbot’s thoughts are littered with comically cynical observations and humanising touches, but they (I remain unsure which pronouns murderbot would prefer) are uninterested in the beauty of the scenery or the philosophical nature of life the universe and everything. The diarist style logging of Murderbot’s experience has an economy entirely in tune with their character – a tight focus on what is essential.
- To that end, the world building within murderbot’s narration is written as though for a contemporary of their own world with technical terms bandied about without descending into detailed exposition. It is a style that immerses rather than patronises the reader. The significance of the governor module is understood through context not through explanation, in much the same way as a contemporary novel would not labour any explanation of what a mobile phone was.
That’s not to say that these measures alone are sufficient to bring a story in at a length the reader can comfortably consume in a day. After all, my longest book in 2020 was – at 727 pages – Angela Boord’s first person tale Fortune’s Fool. Wells keeps it brief by avoiding too many intricacies of plot and subplot, confining key events to a single uninhabited planet. The story has its share of twists into unexpected peril and subplots that illuminate characters in different ways, but it rattles along at good pace towards an action fuelled denouement. Like a diamond simply presented in a solitaire setting, the story manages to sparkle just as brilliantly as any gem encrusted piece of ornate jewellery.
The diamond in this particular piece is, of course, the character – the persona even – of Murderbot themselves. Think of Robocop and the Terminator and Hal and Marvin the Paranoid Android and merge them all together and you get some idea of the charming pathos of this powerful killing machine. The opening sentence reveals that – in hacking their “governor module” – Murderbot has achieved sufficient independence of action to become a mass murderer, but has instead used the new freedom to just download and view unlimited quantities of TV soap operas. Maybe this resonated for me because one of my household has sustained themselves through lockdown with a determination to re-watch every episode of Home and Away from its 1988 launch to the present day (currently we’re up to about 1996).
Murderbot has been rented out as the security unit to a small team of scientists surveying a new planet. As a “construct” Murderbot is part synthetic, part organic – capable of absorbing enormous damage and virtually indestructable provided they have access to a pod where they can repair and regenerate. There is still that unease around the artificial where neither Murderbot nor the scientists are entirely at ease with how they should behave around each other, such that Murderbot much prefers to keep their face shield opaque and take more than just physical refuge behind the shield of their depersonalising armour. The awkward shyness of the narrator, described through their actions rather their emotions, is quite captivating.
The corporation, that hires out Murderbot along with other exploratory equipment, gets a fair few sidewipes from its rogue sec-unit. The impression is of some cross between a car rental company and a ski equipment hire shop, driven by profit and keen to cut corners and still avoid litigation. That said, the corporation is not the villain of this piece.
The plot itself is more functional than sparkling. Its mysteries provide the stage to display the characters and their world, rather than being an intriguing ludic puzzle of its own. Wells throws her people into dangers that challenge them physically and drain them emotionally. Nonetheless this is an entertaining read and it is always the question of what happened to people that compels a reader to turn the page; Murderbot maybe an “it,” a “thing,” a “construct,” but they are still a person!
And to end, just a few lines that made me smile.
Murderbot on the nature of their responsibility
“The planet’s atmosphere was breathable, just not particularly good for humans for the long term. I don’t know why, because it’s one of those things I’m not contractually obligated to care about.”
Murderbot splendidly laconic in the face of catastrophe
“There were eleven messily dead humans in the hub.”
Murderbot displaying a good voice as well as an ability to read the room.
“We’ll be fine,” Mensah said, firmly, with just a touch of I said now.
Murderbot squirming awkwardly as the humans try to treat them with compassion.
“My jaw was so tight it triggered a performance reliability alert in my feed.”