Book review of All Systems Red, by Martha Wells. There are no spoilers in this review.
This cover captured my attention quite a while ago, but frankly, I wasn’t that enthused about reading a novella. I thought it would get lost in the space between a short story and novel and wind up being unsatisfying. Then I saw it had won the Hugo award for best novella this past year, and decided to take a chance on both it and Binti. But even though Binti disappointed, I’m glad to say that All Systems Red more than met my expectations and has made me a fan of the novella format.
All Systems Red is told from the point-of-view of a security cyborg that has been hired to protect a scientific expedition that is exploring part of a new planet. The story begins with a bang by dropping the reader immediately into a field expedition that goes horribly awry. The cyborg, which we learn has at some point in the past hacked its governor module so that it no longer has to obey commands, nonetheless chooses to do its job and saves one of the research team members, even though the cyborg itself is badly injured in the process. It manages to get both of them, as well as the rest of the team, back to the expedition base, where they recuperate with help from advanced medical technology.
The cyborg, which has nicknamed itself “Murderbot,” due to an unexplained incident that happened in its past, discovers the base’s main computer provided the team with a map that for some reason had critical information redacted. After another incident involving faulty data, Murderbot and the rest of the scientific team begin to wonder whether someone or something is trying to sabotage their expedition. The rest of the story details their efforts to find out if this is the case, and if so, who or what is behind it.
After reading this book I wondered if I’ve got a thing for first-person point-of-view stories in which the narrator and hero have disgruntled robot/human hybrids, because the story was in very reminiscent of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, another a book I really enjoyed. In fact, a promotional blurb from Ms. Leckie appears on the cover of All Systems Red. I say this because when I break apart the various aspects of this story I feel like I should only give it four stars. The writing was good but not exceptional, the plot was nothing new, and there was nothing ground-breaking about the science or technology involved.
Nonetheless, this wound up being one of those “greater than the sum of its parts” books for me. I enjoyed the wry narrative perspective of the Murderbot, particularly its struggles to suppress its human side when dealing with the research team it was hired to protect. I thought the writing and dialog were strong overall if not top-notch, and I thought the narrator, Kevin R. Free, did a solid job as well. I also eventually realized what I’m really a sucker for isn’t cyborg first-person narratives but noir mysteries. You would think this would have been obvious to me since my publishing imprint’s name is Tech Noir Press, but it took me a bit to realize that’s what this book really was — a noir mystery that happens to take place on a different planet in the future.
I’ll also say that, unlike Binti, All Systems Red definitely stood on its own and was appropriately marketed as a stand-alone novella (it was also published by Tor). However, I find it annoying that the books are priced such that, if you were to pay full price for all four novellas in the series, each of which is only 160 pages, it would cost you $35. Umm, no thanks. Instead, I chose to rent an audiobook copy from my local library through the RBdigital app, and it worked perfectly. But regardless of whether you’re as price sensitive as I am or not, I highly recommend this book.
Science fiction writer