Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Network Effect by Martha Wells

You might have heard of this book; the Murderbot series has made a bit of a splash the last couple of years. But, if not, here's the scoop: this is the first novel-length entry and the fifth book about Murderbot, a construct SecUnit (Security Unit, built from biological and mechanical parts, human-level sentient but supposed to be utterly controlled by a governor module) in a medium-future galactic SF setting. Murderbot, soon before the series began, hacked its governor module, as part of the event in which it started calling itself Murderbot (for good reasons).

The prior books, all novellas, were All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, and Exit Strategy. (Links go to my posts, for those who want more details.) Over the course of those stories, Murderbot (who, by the way, is our first-person narrator and an absolute joy as such) has gotten away from its initial state (chattel of an unnamed company, tasked to protect and probably die for some client) and found something like freedom and what could be friends or family, if you were an entity entirely unlike Murderbot.

Network Effect begins with Murderbot foiling a low-level and mostly bungled attack attempt on its new "family," on a research mission on a random planet somewhere. But, on the way back to their home on Preservation Station, a much better organized, stronger, and more dangerous attack grabs their entire ship and hijacks it into a wormhole, heading off to parts unknown.

It turns out that second attack was related to another "friend" of Murderbot, a brain running a large transport starship that Murderbot calls ART (and whose actual ship name we do learn in this book). So Effect is, as usual for Murderbot books, two things at once: first an action-packed adventure, in which evil forces threaten and are eventually defeated. And, equally as much, an emotional journey for Murderbot, who is learning how to be part of relationships and to function in its world outside of the narrow task it was created for.

Wells does both brilliantly, and intertwines the two portions of the book on every page: the adventure story is the emotional story, and vice versa. I don't want to get into details of the adventure plot, but it's there and suitably thrilling. (Or the emotional plot, frankly.) She's written novels of this length before (and substantially longer, come to think of it), so it's not that she's "stretching" Murderbot plots out longer -- just taking advantage of a larger canvas to do even more of what made the earlier books so good.

I don't read a hell of a lot of SF (or anything) these days, so it may seem like faint praise if I say Network Effect, and the Murderbot stories in general, are among the very best SF coming out these days. But it's what I can say, and I do believe it.

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