“You don’t need to look at me. I’m not a sexbot.”
Often times, a choice is an illusion presented to the protagonist in cyberpunk. By way of, typically, some sort of omnipresence; an A.I, an authority figure, sometimes societal structure itself. This is only one reason why All Systems Red is important to the sub-genre and what makes it slightly difficult to classify.
In this short and sweet novella, we follow Murderbot. A SecUnit (Security Unit) tasked with safeguarding a team of humans who go on a mission to another planet. Unbeknownst to them, Murderbot has a hacked "governor" module; cyberware that makes them compliant.
In this future Androids have cloned human flesh as well as cybernetic implants (and other non-organic parts). These 'droids are used as disposable labor in a myriad of ways, from sexbots to SecUnits like Murderbot. Interestingly, Murderbot is the closest thing to a name it has and it is assigned by it, not given.
The Company must provide these 'droids to protect their interests at all times. After all, they do have insurance. Part of their ability to do so is through their use of this governor module, which forces commands to the 'droid. That would have been the illusion of choice typical of cyberpunk. Ostensibly, the droids don't know they don't have free will until this module is hacked or removed. Murderbot outright refuses commands, not often, but it is integral to the story as it unfolds; literally from the first page to last.
"It’s wrong to think of a construct as half bot, half human. It makes it sound like the halves are discrete, like the bot half should want to obey orders and do its job and the human half should want to protect itself and get the hell out of here. As opposed to the reality, which was that I was one whole confused entity, with no idea what I wanted to do. What I should do. What I needed to do."
Also of note is that although it is a 'droid, it is also an obsessive consumer when it comes to one thing: soap operas. We learn it also finds "real" humans boring and often tedious. So then, to be autonomous is to also be a consumer; you can't have it both ways in this future. A small, elegant thing about this fiction. Either Murderbot is compliant with the system or it depends on it. All Murderbot wants to do is consume this entertainment. While old cyberpunk is technophobic, generally; and new cyberpunk is often verging on solarpunk in its hopefulness. I love that Martha Well's take on technology could be seen as a subversion of cyberpunk and a much more nuanced take on how the genre can explore technology today.
"I hate having emotions about reality; I’d much rather have them about Sanctuary Moon."
Also, this is the first cyberpunk novel I've read with no pronouns given to something autonomous and a protagonist, and it works exceedingly well. While the crew attempts to anthropomorphize Murderbot... it does not think of itself as human; often displaying the amount of social skills one might expect from something that just wants to put the world on mute and turn up the volume on entertainment. But while attempting to be almost performative in not being human, it manages to be more human than it realizes, embodying some of the social changes we have seen with the meteoric rise in people using social media and technology in every facet of their daily lives.
"This was what everything had always told me I was supposed to want. Supposed to want."
In short order the author has managed to supplant a predominate trope with a more nuanced take; use no pronouns for the protagonist in a very natural way that doesn't break up the flow of the text at all (a feat itself); display a much better take on technology in line with the themes at work; and still maintain the point of the illusion of choice trope. We are all bots and we are all humans because of the way we interface with capitalism in this day and age. We all have a choice... but what good is it? This is what is being examined in the book. Because of these subversive elements, I am inclined to label it as post-cyberpunk, struggling against the normal conventions of the sub-genre.
Also, its name is Murderbot for a reason. There's a lot going on with this character for such a short novella and you should read it. One of the best endings to a book I've ever read. 5/5
You can buy All Systems Red, the first in a series of novellas featuring Murderbot as the protagonist, here.
"What was I supposed to do, kill all humans because the ones in charge of constructs in the company were callous? Granted, I liked the imaginary people on the entertainment feed way more than I liked real ones, but you can’t have one without the other."