SYSTEM COLLAPSE by Martha Wells (BOOK REVIEW)
Everyone’s favorite lethal SecUnit is back in the next installment in Martha Wells’s New York Times bestselling Murderbot Diaries series.
Am I making it worse? I think I’m making it worse.
Everyone’s favorite lethal SecUnit is back.
Following the events in Network Effect, the Barish-Estranza corporation has sent rescue ships to a newly-colonized planet in peril, as well as additional SecUnits. But if there’s an ethical corporation out there, Murderbot has yet to find it, and if Barish-Estranza can’t have the planet, they’re sure as hell not leaving without something. If that something just happens to be an entire colony of humans, well, a free workforce is a decent runner-up prize.
But there’s something wrong with Murderbot; it isn’t running within normal operational parameters. ART’s crew and the humans from Preservation are doing everything they can to protect the colonists, but with Barish-Estranza’s SecUnit-heavy persuasion teams, they’re going to have to hope Murderbot figures out what’s wrong with itself, and fast!
Yeah, this plan is… not going to work.
System Collapse gives us the second full length Novel in the Murderbot series, after Fugitive Telemetry. From Murderbot’s own time perspective System Collapse stands as an immediate sequel to Fugitive Telemetry. (The non-Murderbot POV novella Network Effect, although written after Fugitive Telemetry actually would – in narrative continuity – precede it, and maybe even precede Exit Strategy, in its depiction of Murderbot settling into their new existence under the protection of the Preservation commune.)
I had thought Fugitive Telemetry a neatly crafted standalone adventure that would open up new opportunities for Murderbot, ART and their respective allied groups of humans to embark on fresh adventures. However, System Collapse slightly confounded that expectation by following almost directly on from Fugitive Telemetry with Murderbot and company dealing with the complicated repercussions of alien contaminated colonists and a very predatory corporation (but is there any other kind!).
The book echoes All Systems Red in opening with a set of humans under threat and Murderbot called into dangerous action to defeat the monster that has them at its mercy. It makes for a gripping in media-res opening, with some story elements delivered or alluded to inbetween the clash of blows and the flash of explosions.
In some narratives I might baulk at Wells’ interspersing of action with exposition – as though a stage actor was breaking off mid sword thrust to deliver a soliloquy to the audience. However, such asides fit the persona of the multi-tasking Murderbot and the credible future world that Wells has created. It is a world of electronic communications with multiple feeds open at the same time and Murderbot able to access them in real time. Thus Murderbot is simultaneously watching their own activities through the eyes of a drone, engaging in conversation through one feed with the trapped humans, fending off enquiries by ART in another feed, and tbh probably watching “media” (Sci-fi soap operas) while doing all that.
In all it makes Murderbot not just a close first-person protagonist, but also something of an omniscient narrator. However, in this outing we have the novelty of an unreliable omniscient narrator, with Murderbot’s diary speckled with instances of “redacted” as though a page or more of narrative had been blanked from our view and Murderbot’s memory. Along with these curiously incomplete memories, we also have Murderbot’s usually decisive and instant analysis of situation and reaction suddenly subject to doubt, uncertainty and – most dangerous of all – delay. The [redacted] that has afflicted our favourite homicidal security unit makes for an ingenious tease through the beginning of the book and a nice complicating flaw towards the end.
Following on from Fugitive Telemetry, Murderbot and co are still in the same system with its abandoned colonists, contaminated machinery and corporate intrigue. The arrival of a fresh force of corporate muscle from the Barish-Estranza corporation has complicated Murderbot’s mission to find some safe, independent solution for the colonists on whose labour Barish-Estranza have none too friendly designs.
While Wells’s imagination has always given us political and technological complexities in equal measure, the range of factions in System Collapse did get a bit baffling. Besides Murderbot’s human allies from Preservation, there is ART’s crew (ART=Arsehole Research Transport aka Perihelion/peri) of Mihira and New Tideland University, the different factions of colonists, and even the division between the original Barish-Estranza agents who know something of Murderbot’s real nature and the new arrivals infront of whom Murderbot strives to pass merely as an augmented human rather than a rogue security unit. It’s one of those situations where the sprawling cast list of diverse loyalties might have benefitted from a dramatis persona as front matter. Wells’s story telling is sufficiently immersive and pacey to sweep the reader along, but every now and then I would have liked a way to check “is that one of Art’s crew, or Murderbot’s friends?”
Murderbot’s distinctive brand of sarcasm continues to speckle the prose with LOL moments, for example when contacting a very old mainframe
It didn’t respond. Yeah, I think I fucked that up. It sent, ID: PSUMNT added to ContactBase. I guess machine intelligences of that era were too polite to say “that sounds fake but okay.”
Or in this sharp perception of corporate venality
So it was unlikely the negotiator (or “negotiator” since we’re talking about a corporation) would walk in armed.
Although Murderbot is not the only acerbic AI as ART chivvies the crew on through a moment of danger.
On the team feed, ART-drone said, You can have your emotional reactions and phatic communication after you restart the vehicle. Yes it’s just as rude to its humans as it is to everybody else.
For all the far future setting and the technologically transformed nature of human existence and being, this is still a story rooted in basic human motivations of survival and the pursuit of happiness in opposition to corporate motivations of the pursuit of profit. As such it speaks to our times and the manipulation of media, emotions and beliefs as eloquently as any work of near-future cli-fi. While there is plenty of purely physical action there is a psychological battle for hearts and minds.
As one character puts it
“I’m serious,” Ratthe said, doing an exasperated hand-wave thing. “If they can’t recognise the truth in an attempt to save their lives, I don’t know what else to do.”
Or in a moment of Murderbot reflection
I knew AdaCol2 vouching for me, if in fact it was willing to vouch for me, was not going to change any human minds. (Let’s face it, actual solid physical or visual evidence will often not change human minds.)
(Which for anybody involved in climate activism and debate feels horribly resonant)
I can’t say much more about how the plot resolves itself, beyond the fact that it involves more action, danger, races against time, and some creative lateral thinking. However, in highlighting human vulnerability to emotive messaging and manipulation, Wells really is telling a story for our times and – in quite a meta way – suggesting how fiction might have a part to play in the vital battle for public opinions.
Murderbot’s latest outing is another relentlessly entertaining work of fiction yet to quote Neil Gaiman, Fiction is the lie that tells the truth.
System Collapse is due for release 11th December. You can pre-order your copy on Bookshop.org