All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #01) by Martha Wells – Book Review

This review was originally published over at booknest.eu!

Published by: Tor.com
Genre: Sci-fi
Pages: 152
Format: paperback
Copy:  Borrowed from my local library. Support your libraries, folks!

While browsing through the rows of books in English in the Swedish library I frequent, I came across Martha Wells’ All Systems Red, a novella whose cover I dimly recalled seeing years before on Tor.com. I looked through my To-Read list and – surprise! – this one was nowhere near it…as if that would stop me. I grabbed it, stole away Ada Palmer’s too Like the Lightning as well, in case someone thought this thin novella too conspicuous. Long live sci-fi!

By the end of the night, I’d read through the first of these titles with barely any effort.

All Systems Red offers a fun story from the point of view of an anxiety-riddled robot with several biological components and a touch of misanthropy: “I liked the imaginary people on the entertainment feed way more than I liked real ones, but you can’t have one without the other”. This SecUnit calls itself Murderbot and seeks to avoid all direct interactions with its human wards, interested only in watching the tv, music and game programmes on entertainment channels. If this isn’t enough to make the Murderbot relatable, I don’t know what will.

Stuck on a planet with a band of scientists performing geological studies, our protagonist hopes to avoid any sort of excitement; unfortunately for him, this is a sci-fi novella intent on putting Murderbot on the spot and testing its mettle! A few action scenes are only to be expected – and they were well handled and entertaining.

The prose is serviceable – not quite excellent, but it doesn’t need to be. There’s plenty of great interactions, the dialogue never tends towards the heavily expositional and the personalities of all the scientists, led by team leader Mensah, shined through. Oh, and the humour? Golden: “Yes, talk to Murderbot about its feelings. The idea was so painful I dropped to 97 percent efficiency. I’d rather climb back into Hostile One’s mouth.”

In terms of antagonists, the architects behind our protagonist’s woes don’t make for anything especially memorable; they’re rather archetypal, presenting rather the depths to which human greed tends to go when a group of people goes off the deep end. It works well and keeps our SecUnit and his group of scientists on their toes and pushing themselves as hard as they can to survive.

Once embroiled in a crisis, Murderbot is willing to put its life on the line for the band of humans it has been tasked with protecting – despite it hacking its governance module. The same module that allows anyone who’s signed a deal with the Company – like the scientists – to command Murderbot. By working to save Mensah and the rest of her team from a shadowy enemy, then, Murderbot is exercising its free will – and this is at the heart of what’s examined in Wells’ novel. The question is one of freedom and compassion and examination of the self, and the text goes a long way in showing how Murderbot exercises all three.

My score for All Systems Red is a 4/5. This is a legitimately enjoyable adventure in a science fiction setting with plenty of good zingers and a socially awkward Robocop – what’s not to love?! I’m looking forward to reading more about Murderbot in the future! I’ll definitely be picking up his story when I’m next in my local library!

Articles Worth Looking At (The Week of July 29) – The Dragon Republic, Self-Published Fantasy in August, And More!

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Rain from Bookdragonism reviews R. F. Kuang’s The Dragon Republic

I am beyond excited about the second installment of The Poppy War! What’s going to happen with Rin after the…well, the genocide she commited in the last book? Rain doesn’t tell us, of course but…wait a second. Rain…Rin…could it be? Gasp!

Seriously though, Rain’s review of The Dragon Republic is great and it’s gotten my blood boiling with anticipation! And that special announcement…I’m not giving anything away but let’s just say, I’m looking forward to August 5th!

Tor.com takes on The Boys

You ever want to slice open the hero genre? Well, Amazon Studios’ The Boys might be for you. It’s an irreverant take on superheroes, asking us: What if the icons we believe in are in fact facetious, double-faced hypocrites? This article on Tor.com does an in-depth commentary on the show’s strengths and weaknesses, with some spoilers. I don’t agree with all of them but with that in mind, I think it’s an excellent article.

Another Month of Self-Published Fantasy Novels Begins!

I love Rob J. Hayes’s work in the fantasy genre. It’s gritty, action-packed and beyond just silly good grimdark fun. But this is someone who enjoys contributing to the wider fantasy writing community, and one of the ways he does that is through his monthly “Self-Published” fantasy post. It’s an in-depth look at plenty of new indie fantasy coming out over August of this year, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to look through it. The book I’ll be reading this month is definitely Steve McKinnon’s Wrath of Storm, the continuation of The Rain-Catcher’s Ballad, which I read for the finals of SPFBO 4 over at booknest.eu. The Lordless City is another novel that sounds like it might just be up my alley!

Global Trade and Empire

In this week’s “How the Hell Did I End Up Here” article, I somehow managed to find my way to a British Library article highlighting Britain’s relationship with India, going in detail about tea trade, Victoria’s relationship with Indian Secretary Abdul Karim, the colonial practice of taking raw materials back to the colonizer’s home territory, manufacturing them into different goods and then selling them back at a much higher price in Indian territories, and more. Here, for example, the reality of life onboard a steam liner is described in detail:

While travel on the liners was often seen as glamorous, the harsh conditions for the lascar sailors working in the hold and firing the engines attest to a different reality. The common perception among ship-owners and the public was that lascars were essential as they could ‘stand the fiercest heat of the tropics better than any other race’. In reality, however, it was their low wages that made them an attractive labour force: while Indian lascars were officially British subjects, they were employed on ‘Asiatic’ contracts, which meant that they received much lower pay than their European counterparts. The hard working conditions led some lascars to settle in British ports. Some were pushed to desert their post, or were stranded by lack of employment. They were the earliest Asian working class in Britain.

I heartily recommend you check out the British Library link; not only is it a fascinating historical record of several of the ways the British exploited India, it also comes with plenty of historical documents — letters, advertisements and so much more.

Another Look at the Tactics of Gondor: These Beacons are Lit

It’s been a while since I’ve read up on Bret Devereaux‘s tactical reading of the Siege of Gondor but this second part is as well thought-out and downright awe-inducing in the scope of its intellectual labour as the first part. If you, like me, have any interest in strategy and tactics, whether from a purely hobbyist perspective or because you want to write believable large-scale battles, this is a series and a blog you need to read. And more often than I do, too!

Let’s start by laying out a theoretical term: defense in depth. Instead of trying to ‘hard stop’ an attacker with a single, maximally strong defensive line, defense in depth seeks to slow down or damage an attacker while yielding space. One of the great virtues (but not the only one!) of such a defense is that it turns friction into an ally. Armies are hugely complex things, involving many moving parts (people, equipment, animals, etc). Friction (pedantry note: here in the sense used by Clausewitz) is simply the tendency for things to begin to go wrong with that system as it moves and fights. As Clausewitz says (drink!), “Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is hard.”

You can think of it this way: when an army first jumps off on the offensive, it has had time to plan and prepare. Positions very close to the army are under good observation, so information is more accurate (and there has been time to sort out the inaccurate reports). Everyone is in the right position, everyone’s weapons are in good condition, everyone is fed and rested. As soon as the first step forward is taken, that begins to break down: key specialists are killed, equipment breaks, soldiers get tired, scared, lost, bored. Intelligence is swallowed in the fog of war. An attack is thus at its most dangerous at the very beginning, before it is worn down by friction. An attacking army is in the most danger at the end of an assault, exhausted and worn down – such a moment is the perfect time to counterattack, if forces remain to do so.

Defense in depth seeks to exploit this tendency, maintaining a measure of defense pressure on the enemy to inflict attrition, delay and friction, but with a flexible enough defense to enable the defenders to repeatedly withdraw to new lines, preserving a potent force for a potential counterattack.

I think we all need someone to decript what that old Clausewitz is sayin sometimes, don’t you? At any rate, this entire series is, to me, a labour of love towards tactics and Tolkien’s world, and I hope that more people take notice of it!

That’s all for this week! Thanks for reading, and I hope that one or more of these words on the Internet might be interesting to you!