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Exit Strategy
Murderbot Diaries #4
by Martha Wells
Tor, $17.99, 176pp
Published: October 2018

Martha Wells wrote four novellas about Murderbot and this is the last of them. Fear not, avid reader, as she continued the story on into a full novel, 'Network Effect', published last year. I've enjoyed each of these novellas but the primary flaw in each is the same and that's the lack of a sufficent page count to do full justice to a character this complex. Hopefully the novel will solve that.

In many ways, of course, the four novellas combine to create a sort of novel, but each is concerned not only with progressing Murderbot forward as a character but in wrapping up the particular section of story she happens to be in at the time. Those sections do have a shared story arc but, thinking back at this juncture, it's not a particularly complex one. There's a company doing bad things and Murderbot is on the case, like an incredibly deadly Nancy Drew. 'Exit Strategy' is where she delivers the evidence that she gathered in 'Rogue Protocol' to Dr. Mensah and the story arc can neatly wrap up.

Well, it's not quite that simple, because Wells throws complications at it. For a start, Dr. Mensah is on HaveRatton Station but has apparently disappeared, presumably the victim of foul play during a visit to her enemy, GrayCris, that evil corporation, to answer to a suit of corporate espionage. Fortunately, Murderbot is on the way, but station authorities have been alerted to her imminent arrival and she'll therefore have to use her imagination to even get onto the station, let alone fulfil her self-appointed mission unrecognised.

As in previous novellas, these complications are a heck of a lot of fun. Wells is surprisingly successful at putting locations together, given that these faceless space stations are of functional design, which doesn't give them much of a flavour. I often found myself imagining BBC sci-fi shows of the seventies and eighties in which the characters got to run down a lot of corridors. Murderbot has more sense of where she needs to be, but the environment around her was surprisingly vivid for being inherently a sterile and generic backdrop.

Also, as in previous novellas, the complications aren't the point. Everything here is character, mostly but not entirely on the part of Murderbot herself. Technically she has no name and no gender either, come to mention it, being a cyborg SecUnit, tasked with keeping human beings safe in what are often dangerous alien environments. However, she's hacked her governing module and gained autonomy, a scary thing to most people in this particular future, who don't want highly powerful killing machines wandering around free to do whatever they want.

So, without any template to follow, she gives herself a name and explores her function in life. This all fortunately, comes out while she's working for a group of humans who are willing to see her less as a servant or slave and more as a friend and co-worker. Dr. Mensah effectively frees her from bondage, a kindly act that she doesn't remotely expect will prompt Murderbot to wander off to travel the galaxy in an attempt to stop the corporation that attempted to kill them all in the first novella, 'All Systems Red'.

As that suggests, Murderbot both embraces her freedom and somehow sees her first task under it as to continue to help out the people she was working for. She knows she doesn't have to, but she clearly wants to and she puzzles on the concepts of independence and duty and friendship throughout, as the mere beginning of wider thought about what it means to be alive. It's fun to acknowledge that much of what she learns about being human comes from space operas like 'Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon'.

Ironically, given how capable she is as a SecUnit, she's massively insecure and she constantly struggles to interact with humans, not from a standpoint of fear but from one of doubt. She's worried that they might like her and she's worried that they might not. She's progressed greatly through this series, as she interacts with a series of humans, but she's still insecure. She's worried that Dr. Mensah thinks of her as a friend, but she's also worried that Dr. Mensah doesn't. What does friend even mean and how can a trained SecUnit interact with that concept?

Of course, as those who've read the previous novellas know, all this introspection, which often shows up at notably inopportune moments while the fit is hitting the shan, is delivered in a magnificently sarcastic tone. Nobody but nobody snarks as well as Murderbot: "So the plan wasn’t a clusterfuck, it was just circling the clusterfuck target zone, getting ready to come in for a landing." It's the majestic sarcasm combined with touching insecurity that makes her so memorable.

This may be the best of the four novellas and it wraps up their story arc believably well. Its flaws are the flaws of the series, inherent in being a novella. I'm looking forward to the full novel with tender anticipation. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by Martha Wells click here

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