Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

Book three of the Murderbot Diaries keeps us right on track, and they’re so slim and easy to read, it takes willpower not to binge them. Our murderbot takes on a new name for this adventure, and a new self-designed mission; both of these are outside the normal range for murderbots (or SecUnits, for security units). But our SecUnit is special. In some ways, this episode resembles the last, in Artificial Condition: the murderbot hitches a ride, hoping to quietly take in some shows and maybe a little light reading and be left alone until arrival at the next place where it hopes to do a little research, solve a mystery. But it gets 1. recognized by a bot it didn’t anticipate and 2. tangled up in the plans and lives of a group of humans it regrets feeling something for, and therefore 3. roped into protecting them – like in its old life, but on its own terms.

The pattern here continues to develop an important point: bots and SecUnits are rather closer to being “people” than we are originally led to believe, meaning they have loyalties, feelings, and personalities. This allows for some ideas about liberties, responsibilities, and “human” rights (which in this world may need to apply to some beings that are not strictly human). It also makes me look forward to what is to come. Our murderbot (of the several names, now) will carry on, growing into its own. It will continue to meet more characters that will test its understanding of bots (etc.), and eventually I imagine it will have to redefine that understanding, as I am doing as reader. I can’t wait for more adventures. And I love the murderbot’s sense of humor and irony as much as ever.

Another fun twist in this novella was the murderbot – an avid consumer of serial entertainment shows, remember – forming some opinions about what would and wouldn’t make good entertainment feed narrative. I’d love to see it get into the writers’ room!

This was book three and there are only six; I’m already sad. One of these is a full-length novel, though? That will be fun!


Rating: 7 core samples.

Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

These Murderbot Diaries are going down way too easily; Martha Wells is not writing quickly enough! Wonderful fun. After book one, All Systems Red, it felt great to see our murderbot again, still addicted to entertainment media and wishing it could just be left alone to take in its favorite shows and not have to communicate with humans. (“I liked humans, I liked watching them on the entertainment feed, where they couldn’t interact with me. Where it was safe. For me and for them.”) There was never such a loveable, socially awkward creature. It’s the genius of this series that this protagonist is not human, but has all the personality and foibles we want in our favorite human characters. “When constructs were first developed, they were originally supposed to have a pre-sentient level of intelligence, like the dumber variety of bot. But you can’t put something as dumb as a hauler bot in charge of security for anything without spending even more money for expensive company-employed human supervisors. So they made us smarter. The anxiety and depression were side effects.” “I wish being a construct made me less irrational than the average human but you may have noticed this is not the case.”

In this installment, the murderbot has its own agenda for the first time ever, arranging for its own travel (only a little bit under false pretenses) and going looking for answers to a mystery it wants solved for its own sake. It runs into trouble when the research transport ship it hitches a ride with turns out to be a bit smarter and more sentient than our hero had bargained on. This is either going to be the murderbot’s first friend or next enemy. Also, to get onto the moon it’s headed for, it needs an employment pass, and so it needs employment, which (again) it’s never arranged for itself. This is how it ends up with another group of humans to care for, which raises some of the same concerns that it did in book one.

Where it took me a little while to get into All Systems Red, this one had me in its grasp from minute one (maybe because I understood the world I was stepping into). I’m smitten. These stories are short, funny, and moving. I want them all.


Rating: 8 facial expressions.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Thanks Liz for this fun recommendation, a bit off my usual path, but right in line with The Expanse (remember that series?!). The Murderbot Diaries is a series of sci-fi novellas; book one, All Systems Red, was an easy single-sitting read. I found it took me a little while to engage. The story begins in media res, which has its advantages, but in this case left me a little murky on some of the situational details and I think delayed my reader-brain clicking into gear. Partly this feels like a sci-fi issue (in media res maybe works less well here, where the reader needs to learn the rules of your world?) and partly, as usual, I’m sure it’s a me issue, because I’m not a very experienced sci-fi reader and it’s been a while since I’ve read any.

But once I clicked in I was decidedly engaged. The story is told in first-person (something of the ‘diary’ effect) by a creature who calls itself Murderbot. It’s a SecUnit (security unit) for ‘the company,’ which has been rented out to a survey team doing scientific work on an unsettled planet. (Some features of this world are very similar to that of The Expanse.) It opens quite intriguingly:

I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites.

What is special about Murderbot is this fact, that it has hacked its governor module and therefore has personal agency, which is unusual among its kind. The humans and augmented humans that it works for don’t know this. It has to remember to appear to be following the rules. But the first odd surprise is contained in that first sentence, too: rather than undertake some evil genius scheme, our Murderbot is most interested in vegging out and binging some telenovelas. (It is forever waiting for the humans to take a break so it can watch tv, basically.) This is unexpected, endearing, a little absurd, and very human, despite the Murderbot being not human. It is a ‘construct,’ containing both organic and inorganic parts; perhaps roughly half human and half bot, although it resists that framing. “It makes it sound like the halves are discrete, like the bot half should want to obey orders and do its job and the human half should want to protect itself and get the hell out of here. As opposed to the reality, which was that I was one whole confused entity, with no idea what I wanted to do.” Again, sounds awfully human. “I know I said SecUnits aren’t sentimental about each other, but I wished it wasn’t one of the DeltFall units. It was in there somewhere, trapped in its own head, maybe aware, maybe not. Not that it matters. None of us had a choice.”

In fact, Murderbot’s kind of lazy and a little negligent. “I don’t know… because it’s one of those things I’m not contractually obligated to care about.” When its assigned team of humans gets into trouble, it has to admit that it didn’t even read the info packet that came with this contract, and has no idea who its team is. (It deleted that file to free up storage space for entertainment files. I am tickled by our tv-addicted SecUnit.)

There is an adventure with the humans; there is danger and action and intrigue. But this is all backdrop for the human drama, by which I mean the humans on the assigned team and, primarily, Murderbot navigating its relationship to the humans. We get to know the protagonist a little bit, begin to see it reveal personality (very begrudgingly) and loyalties, even perhaps desires. This world has more than a few elements in common with that of The Expanse, but also, that human drama at the heart of things is what appeals to me in both cases. At the end of this very quick read, Murderbot has an opportunity open up; and then cliffhanger. I’m absolutely in for the next one.


Rating: 7 little hoppers.

Auberon by James S. A. Corey (audio)

Early in listening to this novella, I was pleased to be returned to the world of Corey’s imagination (and guided by the familiar reading voice of Jefferson Mays, thank goodness). By the time I looked up and saw that it was half over, I felt a little perplexed by the failure of the plot to draw me in. By the end, I felt frankly disappointed. It was a mildly entertaining return to the worlds of The Expanse, and I do not regret it, but this installment is not a stand-out. I recommend it for completist fans only; Auberon is not a good representation of the extraordinary power of this series.

Auberon is a recently settled planet, even more recently under the control of the far-reaching arm of Laconia. The novella begins when Laconian Governor Rittenaur arrives to take power, hoping to establish a firm but not abusive government. His wife, Dr. Mona Rittenaur, is to take over research operations. In an early scene (and one of the more gripping ones), a sinister older man named Erich with one bionic arm threatens the new Governor, referring to an old Earth western frontier tale: “silver or lead?” he asks, meaning will this leader be purchased by bribe or take a bullet? In the end it is a different vulnerability entirely that will expose Rittenaur to the forces on Auberon.

I found Erich’s scenes (and the bionic arm itself) the most compelling parts of this story. The characters of Governor and Dr. Rittenaur, and the moral challenges they each face, were perhaps meant to be the central and most moving bits, but I found they both fell a little flat, perhaps for lack of development. The original/central foursome of The Expanse–Holden, Naomi, Amos and Alex–captured my heart completely (and make the whole series work), because they are complex, loveable but conflicted, deeply, fully developed as characters with backstories. A little more investment in the Rittenaurs might have made this novella work, but such is the challenge of the novella-length story. (For the record, Corey has sometimes knocked this shorter format out of the park. Just not here.) For me, Auberon didn’t really work. It was a fine few hours, but like I said, I don’t especially recommend it. I’m looking forward to the next Expanse novel or novella, though! This one just whetted my appetite again.


Rating: 6 automatic movements.

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

What a glorious book. N.K. Jemisin is a wonder.

I loved the fantasy/sci fi version of our world presented in The City We Became. When cities have achieved something like a critical mass of culture or soul, they sort of come to life in the form of a human avatar, a preexisting person who best possesses or encapsulates the qualities of that city. It takes a long time, a lot of history and life, for a city to become. There have only been a few in the Americas to get this far. New Orleans and Port-au-Prince were stillborn. Sao Paolo, as the newest city in the worldwide community, is on hand to help with the next birth to take place: that of New York.

New York is unique in that it has multiple souls, one for each of the boroughs as well as one for the city as a whole. Like London; except that something went wrong in London. So New York’s becoming is unprecedented and fraught. The novel opens with the perspective of the unnamed man who will, hopefully, be New York: “too slim, too young, and entirely too vulnerable,” Black, talented, homeless. His voice blew me away in these first pages, before I had any idea what was going on. (It also reminded me of the voice of a friend of mine, a talented young writer. You’re in good company, B.) Here’s the thing: in the birth moment of every city, the Enemy is near at hand, threatening. This is why some cities don’t come to life at all. It’s why some are killed: Pompeii, Tenochtitlán, Atlantis. Oh, yes: it’s not that Atlantis wasn’t real. It just isn’t real anymore.

Something is different about New York: the city’s main avatar may be precocious, but the Enemy (“squamous eldritch bullshit”) is much stronger here, too. The risk seems greater than ever. Luckily, New York (and his helper, Paolo) has the boroughs to rely on. Or does he? Manhattan has never set foot in the city before. He can’t remember his name–the name from before–or what he did, but he thinks it wasn’t good. Brooklyn grumbles that she is “too goddamn old to fight transdimensional rap battles in the middle of the night,” but she’ll do it anyway. The Bronx is always ready to rumble; her people have been here since before there was a New York. Queens would rather return to her studies (she hates financial engineering, “which of course is why she’s getting a master’s degree in it”). Staten Island is a real mess, downright antagonistic to her fellows. And what is Jersey City doing here?

As you may have realized, the idea of a place being personified in an individual is right up my alley; I bought into this concept immediately and whole-heartedly. I love the challenges it presents the author. To choose an individual means choosing a gender, a race, personality traits. It means committing: Brooklyn to be contained within one woman? If she’s a rapper, or a city councilwoman, that’s a commitment to one way of expressing all of Brooklyn: it sounds like a losing proposition from the start, but Jemisin knows her stuff. Here’s where I say that I know little of New York and the personalities of its boroughs; but I know how tricky it is to try and sum up a place, and I respect the complexities of The City We Became. (Also, I can attest that this story works even for the reader unfamiliar with New York.)

This book introduces a rich panoply of fascinating characters, with backstories, histories, cultural and ethnic heritages, professions, personalities, sexualities and gender expressions, to represent a richly varied New York. It is completely absorbing. The science and fantasy of the world in which cities become struck the right balance, for me, between sufficient explanation and satisfying mystery. (I don’t show up to sci fi for the science.) The whole thing is fully-fleshed, compelling, the kind of story to lose yourself in, both clearly related to the one I live in and weird enough to take me out of this one. Jemisin gives each character their own compelling voice, and plenty of sensory lushness to her settings–which are, pretty literally here, characters unto themselves. They are all, in their own ways, so smart. “There’s a lot to consider: particle-wave theory, meson decay processes, the ethics of quantum colonialism, and more.” Lovecraft is often present, “equal-opportunity hater” though he was. I had a fabulous time. And this is just the first in a trilogy! I’m so excited.

Unqualified recommendation: if you appreciate imagination, or a person’s connection to place, or cities, or cultures, or fine writing, get to know The City We Became.


Rating: 10 brigadeiro.

Tiamat’s Wrath by James S. A. Corey (audio)

Tiamat’s Wrath is a terrific addition to the trilogy of trilogies that comprise The Expanse which, though never less than entertaining, have waxed and waned in their proximity to greatness since the publication of Leviathan’s Wake. (from Tor.com)

I concur: Tiamat’s Wrath is one of the better installments in an uneven but generally scintillating series. (Also, bonus at Tor.com: I learned a new word in the author bio. “Niall Alexander is the manager of an extra-curricular education centre, and also, increasingly occasionally, a reader and a writer. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.” I love learning new words.)

Several decades after the end of Persepolis Rising, James Holden remains a prisoner of High Consul Winston Duarte, emperor of all the known worlds. Chrisjen Avasarala has recently died. Naomi lives in isolation in a shipping container, surrounded by tech, where she plays an important advisory role in the Resistance but rarely sees another human. Bobbie captains the captured ship Storm (also Resistance), with Alex as her pilot. Clarissa is no more (see previous book); Amos went on a high-stakes mission years ago, deep in enemy territory, and has never been heard from again. It’s a very somber opening.

Our beloved central characters are getting gray, but those living are still fighting, in their various ways, dispersed across galaxies. Aside from the core, we see Elvi Ocoye return (from Cibola Burn), performing on Duarte’s scientific team but having already, by the time this book begins, figured out she’s on the wrong team. And a new addition to the perspectives that tell this story is Teresa Duarte, the High Consul’s only child, at fourteen his protégé and, well, a teenager pushed to rebel.

A little hint here: it helps to have read The Churn before this book.

The science seems to matter a little more here than usual, or maybe it’s just that it makes more sense? At any rate, I was able (and motivated) to follow it more than I’ve been in a couple of books, and I found that rewarding. One relevant detail is that Duarte has been made immortal by protomolecule technology and with the help of sociopath Dr. Cortázar. But one thing about poorly understood technologies is that you don’t always know what you’ve signed up for.

My engagement with the science part of the science fiction helped me enjoy this book even a bit more than usual. But even more so, I think the plot and the action were at their best. And still more, separating our characters out into their own mini-stories (something that doesn’t always reengage fans, ahem, The Walking Dead) – with only Alex and Bobbie remaining a team – was a great choice here, in my opinion. We got to see each protagonist take on their own challenges, make their own choices, redefine their own values and belief systems. Naomi, in particular, had to expand her self-conception in the best of ways. I love love loved seeing everybody operate on their own, against a bare background if you will.

Our team – the Rocinante‘s crew, even if she’s in long-term storage – experiences surprising losses and surprising gains in this book. We are heading into the final novel of the series from here. I already feel a sense of loss that it will be over (although there are still several novellas and short stories for me to track down). But I also feel like the massive scale, physical, narrative, and moral, that have been undertaken by this series is being honored here in the penultimate installment, and that feels good. Boy, I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

Fan til the end here, me.


Rating: 8 whining dogs.

Gods of Risk by James S. A. Corey (audio)

Another novella in The Expanse series, this one only glancingly including one of our main characters. David Draper is sixteen years old, a gifted chemistry student working long hours in the lab waiting to find out what career/study path he’ll be placed on next. He’s also gotten himself involved with some less savory types, manufacturing illicit drugs in his spare lab time, for spending money but even more for the connections and sense of belonging. One connection he makes will end up getting him into a boatload of trouble, of course. And when things really get serious, surely you can guess who will be there: his Aunt Bobbie, who’s mostly been present in his life as an annoyance, hanging out in his house watching the news feed and lifting weights. (This novella falls between the timelines of Caliban’s War and Abaddon’s Gate.)

Gods of Risk is not one of Corey’s greatest works, but it’s an absorbing short tale, and it was amusing to see Bobbie through the eyes of someone who doesn’t know how to value her. I listened to the whole thing (read by Erik Davies, but less annoyingly than usual) on the way to and from a bike ride, in a single day, and it held my attention; it’s not much of a contribution to the larger world of The Expanse, but that’s okay. David is a convincing teenager, making poor choices and underestimating certain adults, worshiping the wrong gods, if you will; but his heart is essentially in the right place, as a (slightly over-sappy) final talk with Aunt Bobbie points out. This novella also gives us a bit more background into one of the Martian worlds. Worth the time? Of course! if you’re a completist series fan like me. I’m glad for every bit of this world that I can get, as I head into the eighth novel (for now, the last full-length edition in the series).


Rating: 7 issues with mass transit.

The Churn by James S. A. Corey (audio)

Holy smokes, this is the one I’ve been looking for through all these episodes in the world of The Expanse: Amos’s backstory! I’m super excited.

This audiobook was read not by Jefferson Mays but by that other guy, Erik Davies, whom you recall I did not appreciate in Cibola Burn. He did the same plodding job here, but it’s to the credit of The Churn that I didn’t even care. (Also, he got Amos’s voice right so that it was recognizable, even under – slight spoiler – a different name.)

We are back in Baltimore, and Amos (under a different name) is just “a boy,” although quite a big, strong one – a young man, I’d say, although if his age is ever given, I missed it. He’s got a new job in a criminal organization; he’s just feeling his way, although it’s clear from the start that his calm comfort with violence is already a feature. Also that amiable, puzzling smile. This is the origin story I’ve been wanting all along, although I still have some questions about his sex life.

“The Churn” refers to a cycle of violence where the security forces crack down on the criminal element; things get crazy for a while, but they’ll cycle back to the status quo. This “churn” is only different in that it offers Amos a vital choice that will propel him (pretty literally) into space, and start that other career that eventually leads him to the Rocinante. It also introduces Lydia, whose memory we see again in Nemesis Games. It reveals much, but never quite enough, because I love Amos.

I don’t want to give any more away here. If you are remotely a fan, make The Churn a top priority. Don’t wait.


Rating: 9 bites of ginger beef.

Persepolis Rising by James S. A. Corey (audio)

Book seven in The Expanse!

Jim and Naomi and the crew of the Rocinante – Amos, Alex, Bobbie, and Clarissa – are aging. With the expansion of the known world(s), Earth and Mars are no longer the superpowers that they once were. The Transport Union, composed of those who were once known as Belters, are more or less in control of the 1,300 new worlds in the Ring System. Much has changed. But much has not changed: like human nature, the will to rule. And James Holden hasn’t changed much, in his drive to get involved in sticky situations, his need to do the right thing at all costs, and his tendency to dive blindly in. On the other hand, maybe he’s changed more than we think: early in this novel, Naomi is able to talk him into retirement, which quite catches me off guard. (The Roci‘s crew less so. They’ve been seeing him age all these years, when I just took a short break since book six.) Retirement doesn’t mean that Jim and Naomi will be any less involved in the next major historical event, however.

In this episode, a military superpower invades Medina Station, and the Roci‘s crew ends up working with former OPA factions as part of a small resistance band. Amos is asked to practice diplomacy; we can imagine how well that goes over. Perhaps I’ll leave my plot summary there.

Alex and Bobbie have become fast friends over the years, closer than ever, and the same goes for Amos and Clarissa. Neither of these alliances is romantic, but both are almost mystically deep, and one will rupture before this story is over. Naomi and Jim have a heartwarmingly constant romance, but old problems still plague, and certain practicalities are left up in the air. In other words, like all the others before it, Persepolis Rising is about people above all else. I admire Corey’s gifts: not only mind-expanding (ha) world-building, but the ability to follow this world through over many decades (not to mention the past centuries that brought us here). This volume broadens my sense of what is possible for this series, while also limiting it: if our core characters die, is there any Expanse left?

In this book perhaps more than some others, I zoned out on the technical details. I really don’t care, and am happy to just trust that people can be in places when the story says they can be, etc. Was there more of that stuff than usual, or was it just the effect of a very long drive (West Virginia to Texas) that let me drift off? No matter; I enjoyed the overall effect – that human story – as much as ever, and I’m quite looking forward to finding out what happens in the end. I’m also worried. I think book eight is recognized as the last one. There are just a few more novellas to track down; and then what? (Things don’t look good for Holden, in this light.)

I’m rambling now. These books thrill me, and I am entirely converted to the concept of sci fi, if done this way: people first.


Rating: 7 bombs.

Strange Dogs by James S. A. Corey (audio)

The Expanse series: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, Abaddon’s Gate, Cibola Burn, Nemesis Games, Babylon’s Ashes. Then there was The Vital Abyss, an extra novella, like this one. Strange Dogs falls between Babylon’s Ashes and Persepolis Rising.

The day after the stick moons appeared, Cara killed a bird.

And a strange one it is. Like The Vital Abyss, this installation stars different characters and takes place in a different setting than the main thread of The Expanse, but in the same general world (in the sense of worldbuilding, universe, galaxy, although none of these are accurate terms in the “world” of The Expanse). These extra novellas are digressions from the central storyline, but in the same way that each novel also enters new subplots and introduces new characters; the difference there is that the novel then returns to Holden et al, where these novellas live and die in the otherworld.

Here we are on Laconia, one of the “new worlds” opened by the ring gates, and we center on a young girl named Cara. I believe she is eight year old. She was born on Earth but taken by her parents to Laconia as an infant; it’s the only world she’s ever known. While this novella forgoes the first person perspective taken by The Vital Abyss, its close third person means that we see Laconia through her eyes, which I think is a useful way to learn about both the planet and the girl, and the blind spots and confusions natural to her experience: her misunderstandings of Earth and the two worlds’ differences, for example.

In a nutshell, this is a retelling of Pet Sematary. While spending a day down at the pond like she likes to, Cara encounters some (yes) strange dogs she’s never seen before; but when she tells them to leave, they do so. She offers bread to a sunbird (something like a duck), because she saw a woman do just this in a book, from Earth. (Please note: bread is bad for ducks on Earth, too!) This kills the bird. Cara is distressed. Against her mother’s wishes, she then steals the family drone to try and save the ducklings she has orphaned. Cara accidentally breaks the drone as well: Mama Bird and drone, both broken. But lo, the strange dogs return and bring Mama Bird back to life, and they fix the drone as well. When Cara’s little brother is hit by a car and killed, guess what she thinks to do with him.

I find it a little odd how closely this book rips off Stephen King, but I’m not upset about it; there’s nothing new under the sun. Picasso said “good artists copy; great artists steal.” And if you’re going to steal, by all means King is a great source. There’s only so much mystery, for me, involved in the outcome of bringing little brother back to life; but the events that follow do leave some questions, and the novella ends with these questions unresolved. I’m curious; I hope we’ll learn more in future books, and it sounds like we will. (I spent a little time reading reviews on Goodreads, and reactions vary widely, of course. In fact, a better discussion lives here.)

If this book is an obvious rip-off of Pet Sematary, that doesn’t mean it’s not a creative retelling, well constructed and imaginative. Recall the adage, again, that there are only two stories in the world: a person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. (Other versions have a few more stories in the world, but the point is their finite number.) If there are only a few stories, it’s about how we tell and retell them, right? Corey engaged me with this one. Cara’s difficulty parsing the two worlds – the one she knows, and the one her parents come from – is an intriguing problem. The foreign flora and fauna of Laconia are at the heart of this book’s conflict, and raise concerns that later books (I’m sure) will continue to deal with. We are reminded of the “new world” problems of Cibola Burn. And the ending, which some reviewers have taken issue with, I found thought-provoking and appropriately teasing.

Ready for more, always!


Rating: 8 complexly jointed legs.
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