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Artificial Condition
Murderbot Diaries #2
by Martha Wells
Tor, $15.99, 160pp
Published: May 2018

I reviewed the first of the 'Murderbot Diaries' novellas by Martha Wells in October and planned to follow up last month. I completely failed to do that so here I am with the second of four novellas in December. It was published in 2018, a year after its multi-award-winning predecessor, the first of three 2018 novellas to push this story forward.

I liked 'All Systems Red' but, as an origin story in novella form, it felt short. This must be around the same length, but with our primary character very well-drawn before it begins, it feels longer and more substantial. And I like Murderbot very much. She (I read her as female, even though she doesn't have a gender in the stories thus far and may not have one, period) may be the finest example of the robot wondering about what it means to be alive trope that I've encountered in as long as I can remember.

Now, Murderbot (a name she gives herself) is not strictly a robot. She's an artificial construct who's a combination of human and artificial parts, even if, as she points out herself here, there have been enough replaced over an eventful career that there's not much human left. However, she's removed the human yoke originally placed over her, initially by hacking a governor module hardwired into her system and, at the end of  'All Systems Red' with her being freed from the employment she was designed to perform.

'Artificial Condition' begins with her finding her way to RaviHyral, a mining facility somewhere out there in space, in search of answers about her past. You see, the name of Murderbot didn't come from nowhere. During an old job, which she doesn't remember because it was wiped from her memory, 57 died and she was repurposed. We can only assume that she feels a form of guilt over something she was presumably involved in and wants to know what she did. That mystery is explained here.

There are quite a few superbly written lines that stand out, but I would be remiss in not mentioning one of them, which is fantastic. Murderbot finds out which location she worked at on RaviHyral and then figures out where it is, given that it's not on the maps. And, as she walks into the remnants of a massacre, she comments, "I reminded myself that the terrible thing that had most likely happened there was me." There's so much depth within an apparently simple line there, just fifteen words to convey a whole psyche.

Of course, it's not that simple. She has to get to RaviHyral to begin with; a rogue SecUnit very possibly on the news. She manages it by hitching a ride with an unmanned cargo ship, whose immensely powerful AI pilot is frankly bored with the routine tasks given it thus far. That they share a particular fondness for soap operas set in space is a highly endearing quality and one that grounds them immensely from the potential for widespread violence that they carry.

There's a further subplot revolving around a job she takes on RaviHyral. A trio of scientists is being misused by their former employer and hire her as a security consultant to keep them safe while they negotiate terms for the return of their research. They're naive and far too trusting, generally, so Murderbot has her work cut out for her. How she treats this contract is very telling indeed, ably used in her personal growth without seeming to be a plot convenience. The title comes from this subplot and it's crucial.

I enjoyed this even more than I did the first instalment. Murderbot is such a rich character that it's fantastic to watch her grow and evolve. However, the human characters in that first story, none of whom return here except in the background in news broadcasts, aren't missed at all. The new human characters are more interesting and more worthy of further wordage, but they're probably done with their part in Murderbot's story.

I say probably because there are many possibilities that spring out of how this one ends, but I have no idea where Martha Wells will be going next. It crossed my mind to wonder about why she wrote four novellas in two years rather than a novel or two, but it's pretty clear that the first two do what they need to do in isolation from each other. One is clearly a sequel to the other, not the next; however many pages.

None of that should be interpreted as saying that a more complex look at Murderbot wouldn't be welcome. I was originally intending to just read the four novellas, the first one for the CASFS Book Social and the other three because I enjoyed the first and thought they'd be easy to get through. Now I know I'm going to make sure to get hold of the novel that followed them, ‘Network Effect,’ which was released early this year. I'm not just liking this series, I'm loving it.

And now I'm looking forward to finding out what 'Rogue Protocol' is going to be about. I'll find out next month. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by Martha Wells click here

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