40 pages • 1 hour read
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All Systems Red (2017) is the first novella in the science fiction series The Murderbot Diaries by American author Martha Wells. The series gained acclaim for its fresh take on the classic subgenre of a robot acquiring human emotions. Wells is a prolific author who has written essays as well as science fiction, fantasy, and young adult novels. All Systems Red introduces Murderbot, the protagonist whose feelings and exploits drive the series. The novel won several awards, including the 2018 Nebula Award for Best Novella and the American Library Association’s Alex Award. This guide uses the 2017 Kindle eBook edition.
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All Systems Red is set in the far future in Corporation Rim, an interplanetary system that is controlled by an all-powerful company. The narrator is the protagonist, Murderbot, a Security Unit (SecUnit) that is part human clone and part robot. Robots or constructs, as they are called, are usually under the control of a governor, a software system that limits their functionality based on their role. On a previous mission, however, a software malfunction made Murderbot kill a crew of 57 miners, which is why it gave itself the name “Murderbot.” Afterward, Murderbot hacked its control module so it would not be subject to such malfunctions. Now, it can choose which information packets to download. Its most treasured feature is that it is free to watch endless hours of media, particularly a drama series called Sanctuary Moon.
Murderbot narrates the novel in the first-person past tense. Its tone is casual and humorous; it is lazy and would rather spend its time watching Sanctuary Moon. Murderbot’s current mission is to provide security for a group of scientists who are surveying a planet for its natural resources. During a routine survey outing, a giant creature attacks two of the scientists. Murderbot saves them, and in the process, it reveals human traits that are not part of its programming: It soothes one of the scientists until they safely reach the habitat. This instance is the team’s first indication that Murderbot is acting without its governor module. The team’s leader, Dr. Mensah, asks Murderbot to help the crew determine why the creature did not appear on their fauna report for the region. Murderbot appears without its armor, and its human face and clothing shock the other team members, who have only seen it wearing its opaque helmet and armor.
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The crew determines that their map is missing hazard warnings for several regions. To confirm this, they take a trip to one of the regions and find that the territory indeed has dangerous areas that are not listed on their maps. The team wonders if the missing hazard warnings are an accident or sabotage. They decide to contact the only other survey group on the planet to see if they have the missing information. Murderbot is more involved in the team’s planning and interpersonal interactions than SecUnits usually are, and this makes the team uncomfortable. Humans usually treat their robots like equipment. Though bots are sentient humanoids, their governor modules make them unable to act of their free will. After a SecUnit’s mission is complete, the company wipes its memory and gives it a new assignment. Though Murderbot wants to maintain its independence, it would prefer that the humans leave it alone so it can watch serials in its cubicle.
When the team arrives at the other group’s headquarters, they find all the members dead, killed by rogue SecUnits. Murderbot kills one of the rogue units, but the other attacks Murderbot and implants a combat module into the hard drive in the back of its neck. Mensah manages to rescue Murderbot, and back at the habitat, Murderbot shoots itself in the chest to keep the combat module from controlling its systems.
After Murderbot wakes up, it learns that one of the scientists, an augmented human named Gurathin, has removed the combat module. In the process, Gurathin discovers that Murderbot hacked its governor unit and has been obeying their commands out of its own free will. Gurathin reveals that Murderbot has downloaded thousands of hours of media and that it has named itself “Murderbot.” Murderbot is upset that Gurathin has violated its privacy. Gurathin believes Murderbot is dangerous and wants to keep it immobilized, but the other team members, including Mensah, have come to see Murderbot as a human member of their crew and do not believe it is a threat.
The group realizes that they too are in danger. Murderbot assures them that the company is not trying to kill them because Mensah is an important political figure, and the company would not purposely endanger her. They determine that there is a third survey group on the planet that has kept its presence hidden. “EvilSurvey,” as they call it, must want to secure planetary resources before the other groups do. They realize that EvilSurvey has damaged their emergency beacon, and they vacate the habitat.
EvilSurvey contacts them and tells them to meet at a rendezvous point to negotiate. Murderbot plans to distract EvilSurvey by bargaining with them for its freedom while the team members launch an emergency beacon. The plan goes awry, but Murderbot saves Mensah by jumping off a cliff to protect her from the blast of the emergency beacon’s launch.
When the team returns to the company’s central station, Mensah tells Murderbot that she has bought its contract and that the team will take it to Preservation territory, where bots have full citizenship. Murderbot is skeptical because though robots are free, they must have a registered owner who is their guardian. Mensah tells Murderbot it can pursue educational opportunities and make a life for itself since it no longer needs to be a SecUnit. The scientists are happy to have Murderbot as a permanent member of their team. In the middle of the night, Murderbot sneaks out and boards a cargo transport headed for a distant part of Corporation Rim. Despite Murderbot’s affection for Mensah, it decides to leave because it wants to make its own decisions.
By Martha Wells