Fugitive Telemetry, the latest instalment of the Murderbot series, shows readers still can’t get enough of the killing-machine that prefers boxsets to interacting with humans. What’s its secret, asks Sally Adee
14 April 2021
Murderbot must figure out how to relate to and live among peoplegremlin/Getty Images
Fugitive Telemetry, The Murderbot Diaries, volume 6
WHO loves Murderbot? We all love Murderbot. Many of the books in Martha Wells’s series have won (or been shortlisted for) Nebula, Hugo, Locus and other awards. Writers and reviewers are open about their feelings for the eponymous protagonist. “I love Murderbot!” was sci-fi writer Ann Leckie’s take. “I might have a little bit of a thing for a robot,” wrote Jason Kehe, a culture critic at Wired. I have to sheepishly put my hand up as well.
So why are we fawning over a grouchy, ungendered hybrid of human neural tissue and integrated AI combat weapons?
Fugitive Telemetry, the latest instalment, only deepens the devotion. The 176-page novella is set between the five novellas of the All Systems Red series and the novel Network Effect.
Here we find the titular android settling into the uncomfortable novelty of working with – not in the forced service of – humans.
It has just defected from the Corporation Rim, where it was manufactured to kill people and protect others, according to the priorities of whoever purchased it. This is how it lived for years before secretly hacking the module that controlled it. (Murderbot isn’t its official name – it is how the security android, or SecUnit, wryly refers to itself in private.)
Having decamped to a faraway station whose governing principles are decidedly more communal and humane, Murderbot is trying to figure out how to relate to and live among people when none of them can tell it what to do.
“Murderbot is lonely because of the gap between how people see it and how it feels inside”
But before it can do much introspection, someone turns up dead. Thus ensues a great noir-ish, Agatha Christie-ish murder mystery typical of the series, with far less shoot-’em-up than the series name suggests, plenty of deduction and the navigation of awkward relationships.
Like all the Murderbot books, the plot is fast and the dialogue punchy, a snappy vehicle to carry the bigger narrative arc of Murderbot as it emerges from its defensive psychological cocoon.
None of this explains why everyone is catching feelings for the SecUnit. However, like the deeper plot points that join it to the previous books, Fugitive Telemetry shows the android’s tentative, insecure integration into a tight-knit group of humans, doubting all the while that they really like it for who it is inside.
If this is starting to sound familiar, that is because this is a basic coming-of-age story. Like all sensitive adolescents, Murderbot’s grumpy mien is a front to disguise its loneliness. It is lonely because of the gap between how people see it and how it feels inside.
Another clue to our feelings might lie in the inspiration for the character. Wells has acknowledged that the series was inspired by a sci-fi love story called The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee. She was intrigued, she told tech website The Verge, that this human-robot romance focused on the bond that might develop between a young woman and a robot rather than the usual “robots take over” fare.
If you like your robot stories to focus on relationships, I have another book for you: Marge Piercy’s underrated and underread He, She and It, which was published in 1991 and immediately disappeared under Snow Crash, Neuromancer and the rest of the cyberpunk genre.
It, too, is a story of a human and a robot learning to look at who the other really is, not who each was built to be. That, I guess, is what a good love story is always about.
Sally also recommends…
Tor/Forge Autonomous is another great love story, between a military agent and his robotic partner in hot pursuit of an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, by New Scientist columnist Annalee Newitz. Read their latest column on page 22 More