Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #261: Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

I am behind the curve on this series, so I'm probably not telling you anything you don't already know today. (The third book of "The Murderbot Diaries," Rogue Protocol, hit stores last month, and the first one, All Systems Red, recently won the Hugo for Best Novella. A fourth book, Exit Strategies, is coming in less than a month. So Murderbot is cooking.)

But I'm catching up, and I just read the second book in "The Murderbot Diaries," and I'm afraid I'm about to gush about it.

(This book is Artificial Conditions. You can also find my post about All Systems Red, from last year, if you like.)

It's a corporatized medium future, full of habitats and stations and at least moderately inhabitable planets -- no sign of Earth, but full of humans and the various AIs they've constructed. Those AIs can be smarter or more capable than humans, particularly if they run, for example, a giant interstellar transport with impressive armamentation and internal sensors, but they're not gods, and they're almost always tightly controlled by humans through governor modules.

Humans also seem to be pretty tightly controlled, through what looks like the usual mildly cyberpunk universe of weak governments and strong (and often evil) corporations. There are places or moments of relative peace, but it's a world of competition red in tooth and claw, and highly-capable armed humanoform bots are both vital and very common for protection or control or anything else violence and the threat thereof can bring humans.

Those bots are Security Units, called SecUnits for short. Like all other bots and constructs, they have governor modules -- what another writer might have called their "Asimov circuits" -- to keep them obedient and controlled. As far as most people know, "rogue SecUnits" are purely fictional, from the wilder sorts of popular entertainment.

Murderbot is a SecUnit. Murderbot hacked its governor module, and no longer has to obey any orders from humans. (Murderbot, like all SecUnits, has no gender, and feels faintly nauseated in the middle of Artificial Condition at the idea of acquiring one. So I will call Murderbot "it.") In All Systems Red, Murderbot successfully completed a job without being forcibly governed by humans, saved its human employers, and even made friends with them and was given its freedom.

So of course Murderbot has run away secretly, and starts Artificial Condition posing as an augmented human, passing through a transit hub, trying to find a transport vessel, preferably uncrewed, to take it back to the planet Mensah.

Something happened on Mensah: Murderbot was there, with a team of other SecUnits. Many humans were killed by those SecUnits, and the whole thing has been quietly hushed up.

Bluntly, either Murderbot hacked its governor module and then murdered a whole bunch of humans, or something made Murderbot murder a whole bunch of humans and then it hacked its governor module to give itself control.

And Murderbot is surprised at how important knowing the answer to that question is to it -- did it give itself free will to kill, or to stop killing?

Murderbot does find transport to Mensah, in a very powerful AI running a university-owned transport vessel. (Murderbot ends up calling that AI ART -- RT is for "Research Transport," and the A for what any of us might call a very nosy being that keeps demanding to know more about us and poking into our private things.)

Murderbot tells this story in first person, as it did in All Systems Red. It has a professional, compelling voice: casually competent but deeply conflicted about itself and its role, and wanting nothing more than to spend all of its time consuming media about humans. I called it "the world's first slacker killer robot" when I wrote about All Systems Red, and that's still a nice way of encapsulating what's fun and fascinating about Murderbot.

Wells clearly has a trajectory for Murderbot in mind: this isn't just another adventure, but the next step in its story. There are at least two more books to go -- I hope for more, but this isn't the kind of thing that can go on forever. And I'm thrilled to see Wells, a fine writer who I've liked since her great debut novel The Element of Fire, is finally breaking out with this series: it's well past time.

If you're even further behind than me, and haven't even read the first Murderbot book yet, you have a treat ahead of you. What are you waiting for?

1 comment:

Melita said...

I've loved Wells's books since I finally took a chance on Death of the Necromancer after hearing lots of people recommend it on rasta. I'm so pleased that Murderbot is doing well. I watched the Hugos this year for the first time going it or the Raksura series would win.

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