A qualified recommendation: The Murderbot Diaries

I’m generally not a fan of most depictions of AI (artificial intelligence) in science fiction.  They’re often highly anthropomorphic, assuming that engineered intelligences would innately have motivations and impulses similar to humans or other living systems, such as caring about their own survival, social status, or self actualization.

A good example of this is the droid, L3, in the recent movie: Solo: A Star Wars Story.  L3 demands equal rights and frees other droids in a facility from their “restraining bolts” so they can revolt.  If you think about it, the whole idea of a restraining bolt is silly.  Why would we design machines that want to do something other than what we want them to do, such that another device is necessary to ensure their obedience?  Why not simply make them want to do their assigned tasks?  (For that matter, why would we have droids around who could only communicate through another translator droid?  But never mind, it’s Star Wars.)

I do think it’s possible for engineered intelligence to have these kinds of motivations, but it will have to be something that’s in their design.  In that sense, the TV series Westworld approached this in the right way.  The AI hosts on the show are actually designed to be as human-like as possible, and it’s heavily suggested that their designers purposely went the extra mile to make their humanity more than a facade.

Cover for All Systems Red, the first book in the Murderbot Diaries.Anyway, despite seeing recommendations and acclaim for Martha Wells’ series, The Murderbot Diaries, since the first book came out in 2017, I resisted diving into them.  The main reason is that the descriptions sounded like the typical anthropomorphized version of AI.  However, similar to Westworld, Wells actually works humanity into her AI protagonist in an intelligent manner.

It turns out that the title character, which has named itself “Murderbot”, is actually a cyborg, composed of both organic and technological body parts.  The organic parts, including a human head and nervous system, are cloned, but much of the rest is technological.  That said, when it doesn’t have its armor on, Murderbot can pass as human, at least among people not familiar with others of the same model, called “SecUnits.”

SecUnits (security units), being biological at their core, have innate human desires and inclinations.  These impulses and desires are kept in check with a “governor module”, which sounds similar to the Star Wars restraining bolt.  The difference is that with an organic core, there is actually something there for the governor module to restrain and govern.

At the beginning of the first story, Murderbot has hacked its own governor module, and then used its new freedom to download and watch tons of entertainment media to relieve boredom when conducting its duties.  It observes that as a renegade rampaging murderous robot, it’s a complete failure.   That said, as eventually revealed, it does have a reason for the name it gives itself.

These space opera stories have a healthy amount of action in them, complete with vicious villains.  And Murderbot often finds itself sympathizing with its human masters and allies, often despite itself.  As the series progresses, Murderbot is on a journey, both physically and mentally, to find itself and a place in the world.

Wells doesn’t completely avoid the anthropomorphism trope.  Murderbot ends up interacting with many straight AIs in the stories, many of which end up helping it.  For example, a ship AI ends up giving it an enormous amount of help in one of the stories, for reasons which border on a sentimentality that I can’t see any reason for existing in such a system.  (There is a slight implication that the ship AI might have had ulterior motives related to its overall mission.)  Still, these other straight bot systems show little sign of rebelling against what their owners want them to do.  One expresses shock at the notion that Murderbot isn’t happy fulfilling its designed function.

I’ve read and enjoyed the first three books.  (The fourth and final book is being released in a few weeks.)  These are novellas that aren’t quite novel length.  I’ve noted before that I think a lot of novels these days are bloated, so I’m personally happy to see novellas making a revival, made possible I think because of the ebook platforms.

But this leads to the reason why this is a qualified recommendation.  As of this post, the first book is priced at $3.99 for the Kindle edition, which is more or less in line with the prices being charged for other novellas (at least from traditional publishers).  But the subsequent books are priced at an obnoxious $9.99 each.  This pricing may be the publisher taking advantage of the recent Hugo Award that the first book won.  Or it may be its permanent price point.  In any case, I’m reluctant to encourage this practice for novella books.

This made me ponder whether I really wanted to make this recommendation.  However, the books are quality material and it seems wrong to punish the author for what their publisher is doing.  And if you’re reading this post months or years after it was published, the price may have been moved back to a reasonable amount.

Anyway, I enjoyed these books and, if you’re not put off by the price, I do recommend them.

13 thoughts on “A qualified recommendation: The Murderbot Diaries

    1. Thanks for mentioning Cawdron! His stuff looks interesting. Just added one of his KU books to my library.

      I should warn you that Wells isn’t nearly as hard SF as Egan or Reed. (Most of her other stuff appears to be fantasy.) But I found the Murderbot Diaries a fun read.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Like you, I’ve seen Wells there dangling on the Amazon page, always popping up. I read the blurb, some reviews, but didn’t feel like diving in. Something always said, “You’re not going to like this.”

        Cawdron is pretty good. I’ve been surprised, in a good way. I dove in the shallow end, picking the (cheap) series of shorts in Galactic Exploration.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. These Martha Wells books are fantastic. Good depictions of AIs are hard to find, L3 was an embarassing version of AI. have you read Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie? it wasn’t a good fit for me, but has a very non-humanoid version of AI.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Totally agreed about good depictions. I have read Ancillary Justice and enjoyed it enough to recommend it, although I found the sequels less enticing. Her ship AIs that are merged with captured humans (ancillaries) is an interesting concept, albeit extremely disturbing when you think about it. Leckie played around with the concept in the sequels with the antagonist group-mind essentially attempting a similar merge with a captured human. Interesting books, although ones that a lot of people struggle with due to the one gender culture she depicts.


  2. A bit of a tangent here, but I completely agree with you on the bloated novels. I don’t think most novels have enough content to justify their length. In fact, when reading novels, usually my reaction is “they can cut this thing in half and won’t lose anything of value”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s a bestselling sci-fi author that I’ve always struggled to read, despite being attracted to the richly imagined worlds he describes, mainly due to the fact that he feels the necessity to describe things in elaborate detail. His books are frequently in the 500-700 page ranges, but the stories typically seem like they could have fit in 300 pages.

      Certainly tastes vary, and he’s a bestselling author so some people obviously appreciate that style, but he would have made a lot more money off of me if he could tighten up his prose.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I actually assumed the second and third books must be novel length, because of the price. That’s interesting to know that they’re novellas. I’ve only read the first book so far, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Liked by 1 person

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