I've heard a lot of good things about Martha Wells and her 'Murderbot' tales, most of which are novellas. This first entry in the series was the book club selection at CoKoCon last year and I finally caught up with it when CASFS had it as their book club selection last month.
Originally published online at Tor.com, it picked up the Nebula Award in 2017 and added the Hugo a year later, both in the novella category. There are now four novellas that apparently contain a series arc, plus a full-length novel, 'Network Effect', published earlier this year. A prequel to the novel is due next year. This is a fantastic beginning to that series and I should dive in deeper.
Much of the joy is in the lead character, the only one Wells is able to fully explore, given the inherent length restrictions of a novella. The lead has no name, because she's a cyborg SecUnit, working to protect the human beings who work scientific expeditions on alien planets. However, she's given herself a secret name, Murderbot, because of a particularly bloody prior mission. She's able to do that and more because she's hacked the governing module installed within her to keep her under human control.
And no, she's not identifying as female but it seemed obvious to me. It was interesting to hear others at the book club suggest that they thought he was male. I'll use she in this review, but she hasn't yet chosen pronouns. Maybe she will later in the series. Maybe it'll be "he/his".
We join her as she continues to do her job, even though her hack means she's no longer forced to do so. The slavery inherent in that comment is deliberate but, even having technically freed herself, she continues to want to keep her people safe. And, without attempting to spoil where this goes, it's that hack that actually enables her to do that, because there are other things going on that we'll soon find out about.
Murderbot is a fascinating character, the most human in the story, ironically because she's technically the least human. She's awkward, she's pessimistic and she's sarcastic. She's very easy to relate to, even if she's a cyborg on security guard detail on an alien planet. And it's a neverending joy that a character as empathetic as this goes by the friendly name of Murderbot.
She certainly looks human but SecUnits have a fantastic ability to heal that goes far beyond human. They're designed to be able to fight and to kill with great efficiency, but in a berserker way as they can sacrifice surprisingly large percentages of their bodies, knowing that they can carry on temporarily without them and they can be restored or regenerated later. She's not human, however she might seem. However, it's also fair to say that she suffers from PTSD from that brutal past mission and that means that she doesn't like to be looked at.
The other characters aren't cardboard cutouts but the novella format doesn't allow them much opportunity to grow. Fortunately, they're not as important to the story and work better viewed through the unique perspective of Murderbot. Her views on human beings are fascinating, especially because she's addicted to a cheap soap opera set in space, which she watches internally when not on active duty. How they interact with Murderbot is telling, especially when the SecUnit is traditionally seen as a genderless object. It helps some, such as Dr. Mensah, to become more human themselves.
I can't go far into a synopsis, because the novella length limits how Martha Wells can explore the story as much as the development of her characters. We certainly want to know more about the latter but the former is simple enough to work well at this length. There's something else on the planet, as we find when it attacks one of the expedition's scientists. Murderbot, because of her hacked governing module, is able to see that the survey packet has been oddly edited, the section on hazardous fauna removed. That sparks her to look much deeper and what she finds shapes the rest of the novella.
I liked this a lot. It's mostly about Murderbot, but it's also about how this cyborg SecUnit feels about the humans she serves and, in turn, how they feel about her. Murderbot isn't newly sentient but this novella could be looked at in similar terms to that sort of story. She is newly free, a term that has a few different meanings as the story progresses, and it's fascinating to learn how she adjusts to that freedom.
And I'm sure it'll be fascinating to continue that journey forward into the second novella, 'Artificial Condition', released a year later in 2018. ~~ Hal C F Astell