Sci-fi Novel Review: System Collapse by Martha Wells

This review is based on an eARC (Advance Reading Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. System Collapse will be released on November 14, 2023.

The Murderbot Diaries have rocketed Martha Wells to genre stardom, and it’s easy to see why. They’re fast-paced and fun, with a part-mechanical, part-organic construct—the titular Murderbot—whose social anxiety sets the stage for some heartwarming character growth and whose facility with weapons and desire to save humans from mortal peril provide a healthy dollop of plot-related tension. After enjoying the first five novellas and single novel, there wasn’t a question of whether I would pick up System Collapse, the only question was when. 

Though seventh in publication order, System Collapse picks up directly after the events of the fifth book, Network Effect. A 3.5-year publication gap can make it hard to remember some of the background details, but the narrative gives enough clues to help a forgetful reader infer from context. But Murderbot and friends are in a scrape, as always. The difference is that in this case, Murderbot is sufficiently traumatized from its last adventure that it spends the opening chapters redacting references to the whole episode. 

Though System Collapse is the second full novel in the series, it’s significantly shorter than Network Effect, and it’s structured more like an extended version of the novellas than like the previous novel. It opens with exploration of an uncertain situation, introduces Murderbot to unfamiliar bots and humans, and ends with a big action sequence in which Murderbot must save the day. 

It’s a good formula that has worked well so far. I find that the character moments are usually better than the action sequences, but the stories are compact enough that the latter never overstay their welcome. While System Collapse generally sticks to this structure, Murderbot’s PTSD forces a more internal focus, with relatively less interaction with others. This change is something of a mixed blessing, as Murderbot’s attempts to work through trauma provide some of the most compelling aspects of the novel, but at the expense of the character interactions which had truly been the highlight of the series. 

The result is an entertaining and bingeable book, but one that doesn’t reach the lofty heights of the previous novel. Murderbot’s own progression makes for a compelling read that fits very well with the established character, and the interpersonal midway climax is exceptional. But the action-packed finale isn’t quite at the same level as what comes before, and some of the interpersonal energy from previous books is missing here. It’s a really good read that will doubtless please series fans, but at the same time, it’s not Network Effect

Recommended if you like: Murderbot, mental health focus.

Can I use it for Bingo?  It’s hard mode for Sequel, and it’s also Published in 2023,  Features Robots, and has a Queernorm Setting. 

Overall rating: 16 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.

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