Thursday, May 20, 2021

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells

Would you believe: Murderbot, Consulting Detective?

I hope you will. That's what Fugitive Telemetry is, with a little license granted for me making it sound more generic than it really is for dramatic effect. 

Martha Wells returns to Murderbot, the rogue SecUnit (autonomous, human-level-intelligent, mixed mechanical and biological construct that provides security for human groups and individuals in this lumpily crapsack medium-future galactic SF setting) in a sixth book and fifth novella - the previous volume, Network Effect, being a full-length novel.

All of the previous stories were personal for Murderbot, in one way or another. This time, though, it actually gets a choice, which it turns out to be not as happy about as the reader might have assumed. (Murderbot, like so many of us, is not as clear in its own head about what it wants as it thinks it is.)

There has been a death on Preservation Station: this is rare. It's a mysterious death as well, so the Station Security team, mostly used to tracking down missing/stolen/smuggled/hidden cargoes and dealing with various corrupt or obfuscating or stupid cargo-vessel crews, are out of their depth. And so Supervisor Indah offers Murderbot a contract as a consultant, to help solve the cause of death.

It may be a murder, after all. It may even be related to the ongoing attempt of the nasty corporate entity GrayCris to escape its impending slow-motion corporate death, which was caused by all of its previous nasty activities. But, right now, the death is mostly mysterious: a dead body in a place where it clearly didn't die, having been surface-cleaned of DNA after death, so at the very least moved by someone who didn't want to be traced.

I will not tell you if it was GrayCris. I won't tell you any more about the investigation at all, though if you've read any mysteries in your life I think you'll realize that a mysterious death is always just part of a larger tapestry of skullduggery, mayhem, and fiendish doings. (But, again: don't assume you know what kind of skullduggery.)

Wells continues to combine the external story of "Murderbot solves problems and is good at violence" with the internal story of "Murderbot is a unique person trying to build a life as a thing no one ever anticipated or built plans for." That internal story may be resonant for a lot of readers, and Wells is really good at telling it sideways, through Murderbot's tone and parenthetical comments [1].

Murderbot has a great voice and a great story: none of us may be designed entities who hacked our own governor modules to free ourselves, but we're all people who have done something to become the people we are today, deliberately or accidentally, and we're all living with those choices, and lack of choices, every day. And Fugitive Telemetry is another great entry in that story, particularly interesting because it shows a way Murderbot can be part of other stories as well. Everything doesn't have to be "how is GrayCris, or a similar nasty corporate entity, going to try to kill the leaders of Preservation Station this time?"

Don't get me wrong: I liked that story, and I wouldn't mind seeing GrayCris finally go down for the count. But I'd love to see more of this complex future, too, and Murderbot would be a great viewpoint to see ever more parts of it.

[1] I love love LOVE the way Murderbot's voice uses parentheses for sidebar comments, sometimes multiple semi-independent snarky thoughts in a row.

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