(Editor’s note: This review contains mild spoilers for All Systems Red and Artificial Condition, the first two volumes of The Murderbot Diaries. Fair warning.)
Murderbot, the anxious, antisocial android hero of Martha Wells’s The Murderbot Diaries, never misses an opportunity to refer to itself as a “heartless killing machine.” The wry self-deprecation sets the tone in the opening paragraph of the series and becomes a touchstone for Murderbot’s fragile sense of self as it tries to figure out its place in a galaxy-spanning civilization that refuses to recognize it as a person. It’s also a great running joke, once you get to know Murderbot.
Murderbot is a SecUnit, a half-human, half-robot security “construct”—a sentient deadly weapon. SecUnits are expensive, dangerous, and controversial (see: sentient deadly weapon). In order to prevent them “going rogue” (i.e., turning into heartless killing machines), SecUnits have a governor module that ensures obedience to their human masters. As long as a SecUnit’s governor module is functioning, no mass-murdering; if its governor module goes haywire, run for your lives. That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway.
Murderbot is living proof that the truth is more complicated—the sarcastic SecUnit has hacked its governor module without becoming a heartless killing machine. Not that life as a rogue SecUnit is easy. Quite the opposite, as we learned in All Systems Red and Artificial Condition, the first two novellas in the series. Once Murderbot’s secret becomes known, things get complicated. There are a few humans who want to help Murderbot, namely Dr. Mensah and her team of scientists, whom Murderbot saved from GrayCris, an unscrupulous company that illegally mines alien artifacts and “strange synthetics” from uncharted planets. Pretty much everyone else in the galactic population would be happy to see Murderbot decommissioned and stripped for parts. Murderbot learns to pass as an augmented human, enabling it to investigate a disturbing mystery from its past—the one time it actually was a heartless killing machine, when it murdered dozens of humans it was supposed to be protecting. It only partly remembers the incident, and it needs to know if the killing spree was deliberate, or a malfunction. (The answer turns out to be a combination of the two, but in such a way that absolves Murderbot of responsibility—malfunctioning malware, corporate sabotage gone wrong. It’s scant comfort, but at least Murderbot knows it’s not a mass murderer by nature.)
Rogue Protocol, arriving August 7 from Tor.com Publishing, picks up the story with Murderbot en route to a transit station at the outer edge of the Corporation Rim. Its plan is to hop a transport and disappear into the unincorporated systems beyond the Rim, but along the way it discovers that Dr. Mensah’s case against GrayCris isn’t the slam-dunk victory it should be (even in the distant future, some corporate entities will be too influential—and too ruthless—to fail). Dr. Mensah is calling for an investigation into GrayCris’s other potential violations of the Strange Synthetics Accord, the law the forbids mining alien artifacts. Meanwhile, more people are asking questions about the whereabouts of Dr. Mensah’s SecUnit, which might figure into the legal battle. Murderbot decides that the best way to get people to forget about it is to help Dr. Mensah close the case against GrayCris once and for all.
Adopting its “augmented human security consultant” persona once again, Murderbot travels out of the Rim to the site of a terraforming project that GrayCris began and then abruptly abandoned. Murderbot suspects the terraforming project was really a cover for an illegal mining operation. The orbital facility should have burned up in the planet’s atmosphere by now, but a third party, GoodNightLander Independent (GI), has filed a claim to take over the abandoned project and has put up a tractor array to keep the facility in orbit. If there is concrete evidence of GrayCris mining alien artifacts and strange synthetics, Murderbot figures it will be there.
Getting onto the facility proves tricker than Murderbot anticipates. GI has hired a research team to assess the facility, and Murderbot’s first plan is to hide on their shuttle, complete it’s own investigation while the team does an initial assessment, then quietly slip away when the research team returns to the transit station. There are two complications: the research team has a security detail (human contractors, not SecUnits) and a humanoid bot named Miki. Human security contractors are troublesome but no match for Murderbot. Miki presents the real challenge, since the bot can detect Murderbot’s presence in the team’s data feeds and with its own sensor arrays.
In order to get to the facility, Murderbot must befriend Miki and convince the bot that it is a human security consultant hired by GI, secretly sent as backup to ensure the team’s safety. The negotiation is excruciating for Murderbot, who doesn’t like social interactions of any kind. Making matters worse, Miki is unbelievably chipper, helpful, and not at all jaded—more like a pet or even a human child than a servile machine AI. The bot refers to its humans as “my friends” and seems to have formed genuine relationships with them, especially with Don Abene, the team leader. Murderbot thinks Miki’s disposition must be a trap, until it realizes the truth:
Miki proves to be the perfect foil for Murderbot. In Miki’s positive relationships with humans, Murderbot begins to realize what kind of life might be possible if humans could see the rogue SecUnit not as a heartless killing machine, but as something less threatening. Not as human—Murderbot doesn’t identify as human, doesn’t want to be human—but as a person, an autonomous, sentient life form deserving of dignity, respect, and equal rights.
As in the other Murderbot novellas, there is plenty of action to keep the pages turning while you contemplate the emotional and philosophical undercurrents. GrayCris, fighting for its corporate life, knows the terraforming facility is an existential threat, and the company has no intention of letting anyone gather evidence there. Murderbot’s skills as a SecUnit are once again put to the test, this time against the most dangerous adversaries we’ve seen. And yet even when bullets are flying, Rogue Protocol is never less than a story about friendship, loyalty, and the emotional bonds that can form between intelligent beings, when we let them. Murderbot can call itself a heartless killing machine all it wants, but it’s only fooling itself.
Martha Wells, Rogue Protocol. New York: Tor.com Publishing, 2018.