Network Effect by Martha Wells

I love the promo copy from Tor’s publishing page enough to let it kick off this review:

You know that feeling when you’re at work, and you’ve had enough of people, and then the boss walks in with yet another job that needs to be done right this second or the world will end, but all you want to do is go home and binge your favorite shows? And you’re a sentient murder machine programmed for destruction? Congratulations, you’re Murderbot.

Come for the pew-pew space battles, stay for the most relatable A.I. you’ll read this century.

I’m usually alone in my head, and that’s where 90 plus percent of my problems are.

When Murderbot’s human associates (not friends, never friends) are captured and another not-friend from its past requires urgent assistance, Murderbot must choose between inertia and drastic action.

Drastic action it is, then.

Here it is! This, the fifth in the Murderbot series, is a full-length novel, some 350 pages instead of 150-175. Wells delivers: this is everything that’s good about books one through four, but bigger and more of it. No, that’s not to be taken for granted. Sometimes the novelist can’t wrangle the short story or vice versa. But Murderbot is every bit as compelling for a novel as it was in novella form, and this scale offers more room for the plot (in both senses!) to grow in some excellent ways.

Murderbot is back on Preservation Station with its new …family? of humans. (It would never use that word, but I will.) It’s still working out its feelings about humans, and its own humans in particular, and trying to figure out where it fits into the world and the human society it’s presently allied with. It still doesn’t know what it wants out of life, which is one of the drawbacks of self-determination. And the human society, and the (real) human family, are still working out how Murderbot (or SecUnit, as they call it) fits in, too. Dr. Mensah, from book one, is Murderbot’s closest human friend, and also its patron (legally, in fact, its owner), and the two of them have a pretty good understanding, but not all of Dr. Mensah’s family has accepted the bot construct’s role. There are some tensions. Dr. Mensah has a teenaged daughter, Amena, who offers another set of challenges: Murderbot’s own eye-rolling attitude up against that of a teenaged human makes for some pleasing gentle conflict; and they share as well an earnest sweetness that they like to hide behind rough edges.

Murderbot and some of Dr. Mensah’s family and friends find themselves on a ship that gets kidnapped, basically, and taken through a wormhole… the space-science stuff can get a little away from me, but it’s okay. There’s a mystery; there are unknowns. There are bad guys – the corporates, as usual, but again unknowns as well, including possibly alien remnants. Murderbot is as usual (in its exasperated tone) having to try to save the day and keep everyone safe, even those who are dismissive of its abilities or foolhardy or otherwise frustrating. What’s gradually changing, though, is Murderbot’s relationships with these humans. It really cares; they care about it. Some of them even trust it.

Spoiler-free: the stakes rise when we begin to suspect that another character from a past novella is behind the kidnapping. Also! Near the end, a new character enters the scene who I am very excited about.

The character Murderbot remains the best part of these books, which is a fine strength to have, since these are the Murderbot Diaries and its first-person POV is the voice of the series. Our hero is sarcastic, bitter, both immature and ultra-competent; soft-hearted but outwardly prickly; it is simultaneously scornful of humans and (in the entertainment media series it so loves) sort of adores them. Its voice is often hilarious, self-deprecating and petty. “I wanted to pick it up and have an emotion over it like a stupid human.” “Target Two whispered something, which FacilitySys rendered as ‘What are you?’ I said, ‘I’m a Shut Up or Get Your Head Smashed.'” It’s interesting what it does and doesn’t know; it finds some words baffling, like foolproof (why isn’t it smartproof?), and gets anagram and acronym confused. When it has emotions, it sometimes has to go face a wall for a little while.

Murderbot still has trust issues, and who can blame it? Many of its humans are just now learning how bad things can be for a SecUnit. “(If there’d been a SecUnit in the colony, there probably would have been a compelling reason why it had to stay behind on the dying planet.) (I don’t actually believe that.) (Sometimes I believe that.)” It learns that “the organic parts of my brain were doing a lot more heavy lifting than I gave them credit for.” And it’s learning some significant lessons about trust and friendship (which will give it emotions).

Some reviewers see Murderbot as being possibly edging toward a romantic entanglement. I do not read it that way. But book six will take us where it will.

This was a really good installment in the series; I was very pleased to spend more time with our grumbly construct, and equally pleased to see Wells’s competence with the longer form. Psyched for book six; just sorry that that one is, to date, the last of the series.


Rating: 8 lines of code.

One Response

  1. […] Telemetry takes place between Exit Strategy and Network Effect, and I was not prepared for this and really missed getting the next installment in the story as […]

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