Sci-fi Series Review: The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

The Murderbot Diaries don’t need much introduction, and it’s no accident that it’s the only ongoing series where I’ve caught up on new releases. Martha Wells has been writing speculative fiction with strong characters for years (my introduction to her work came in The Books of the Raksura, which I would also recommend), but she’s taken it to another level with Murderbot, and she’s finally getting the recognition to match.

The Murderbot Diaries are still ongoing, but as it stands at the end of 2020, it consists of four novellas and a novel. The novellas, starting with All Systems Red and finishing with Exit Strategy, each tell their own story while coming together to form a larger arc, while the novel (Network Effect) serves as a sequel to that arc. The structure is a bit like one of those TV series that mixes serialized and episodic content—something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Veronica Mars—where you could reasonably jump in and enjoy a random episode by itself, but you’re better off starting at the beginning and probably shouldn’t start with the season finale.

The narrative is almost entirely first-person from the perspective of the titular Murderbot, a construct made with a mix of artificial and organic components that gets farmed out on security jobs by the nameless company that owns it. Only our hero has hacked its governor module, allowing it a measure of free will. It would prefer to use this sliver of freedom to watch serials in private, but seeing as how humans are always doing something to put themselves in danger, it ends up doing a lot of saving them instead.

Describe the plot to any entry in the series, and it probably sounds like action-heavy sci-fi. And there is a lot of action, and it is very sci-fi (loads of space stations, bots, hacking, etc.). But to describe it as action-heavy sci-fi entirely misses that, at their core, The Murderbot Diaries are the story of an artificial intelligence trying to reckon with newfound agency, unfamiliar emotions, and its uncertain place in a world that doesn’t recognize the personhood of AIs. The series stands and falls on its main character—if you like Murderbot, you will almost certainly like the series, and if you don’t, you absolutely won’t. Fortunately, Murderbot is as relatable as they come and has one of the most distinct voices you’ll find. The social anxiety, impatience with humans, and cynicism about its corporate owners (and other powerful corporations) is delivered with enough sarcasm to make the tone light and enough self-deprecation to not come across as offputtingly arrogant. Murderbot is just an outsider trying to find its place in the world, and its journey is heart-pounding and funny and poignant all rolled into one.

All Systems Red works perfectly well as a standalone, and the novella length makes it an excellent test to determine whether to commit to the series, but Murderbot only gets more fully fleshed-out as the series progresses, with the added bonus of personal growth and even the development of some strong side characters, after the initial novella being pretty much a one-bot show. There are times, however, where Wells’ action scenes let her down. Having read a few of her works by now, I find that Wells is fantastic at writing angsty outsiders but doesn’t always carry that same energy into the action sequences. In general, I find that the action in The Murderbot Diaries is solid, but the finale of Artificial Condition was a bit uninspired (after some absolutely tremendous character interactions in the first half), and my opinion of Network Effect went from “this is going on the list of all-time favorites” to “I loved this” after a closing sequence that was more confusing than it should’ve been. It’s never bad, but action is never the star—the character work, social commentary, and stream-of-consciousness snark are what make this series great.

Highly recommend if you like: character-driven but fast-paced science fiction, snarky-but-also-anxious outsiders

Overall rating: for the series, 18 of Tar Vol’s 20. Five stars on Goodreads. For the individual books, it can be harder to separate, but Artificial Condition is a small step down from the other three novellas. Network Effect, the sequel novel, is probably on par with those three, with a little bit better character work and a little bit worse closing sequence.

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