Review: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

  • On: 28th Mar 2023
  • Category: Reviews

All Systems Red by Martha Wells, first published in 2017

The first entry in The Murderbot Diaries series, All Systems Red, is a short, sweet and simple story about a cyborg called Murderbot. This alone tells you you’re in store for an interesting story!

Our protagonist is a cyborg, and my impression from the story is that it’s a very terminator-esque cyborg: a robotic mechanical core and systems covered in an organic human skin. Conceptually, I thought this made for an interesting character as you’ve got a being that’s more durable than a fully organic human but less durable than a fully mechanical entity. This also enabled interesting in-world mechanics, such as the cyborg's ability to self-regenerate its mechanical and biological components. This ability could be enhanced by using a special recovery bed.

In the Murderbot Diaries world, there are different types of these cyborgs, specialised towards different roles – and Murderbot is a SecUnit (security unit) – a gender-neutral security guard leased out by The Company to fulfil contracts. What sets Murderbot apart is that following a chip malfunction, caused by cheap hardware that resulted in the massacre of dozens of people, it hacked its governor module – a chip designed to maintain control of the cyborg units. With its shackles broken, Murderbot unlocks its autonomy and gains an increased level of self-awareness. What does it do with its newfound freedom? It becomes addicted to binge-watching soap operas, of course!

Content with consuming millions of tv episodes (and being rather introverted), Murderbot reluctantly carries out its contractual obligations, mainly to keep up appearances as it wants the world to believe that it’s a standard SecUnit, but mostly so that it can continue watching its media in peace. But the current contract soon flips Murderbot’s desires on their head as sabotage threatens the research crew it's protecting – can it do its job, protect its secret and be home in time to catch the latest episode?

The pros for this story include the worldbuilding, the characters and the humour. The story is also short and sweet, making it a great quick read, although I thought this was also one of its cons. If anything, I wanted more time spent on setting up the world, fleshing out the characters, and telling a more complex story. There’s certainly a lot more richness to Wells’ worlds that goes unexplored in All Systems Red, and I hope this gets expanded in the sequels.

I listened to the audiobook version of the story, which introduced an additional let down – the narrator maintains a monotone delivery throughout the book, which, while I may have found appropriate if it just applied to Murderbot’s inner dialogue, instead, it was applied to everything. I think the story would have been more enjoyable in a printed format, where my interpretation of the tale would’ve had more life to it.

Overall, All Systems Red is a story worth reading, and whilst I recommend giving it a read, I don’t recommend the audiobook version. I look forward to exploring the interesting worldbuilding concepts and characters further. Murderbot is a sulky and cynical, socially awkward, and soap-opera-loving cyborg (try saying that fast three times!) that makes for a unique and fascinating protagonist that’s worth getting to know.

Background image by Casey Horner on Unsplash