Review: All Systems Red (By Martha Wells)

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Source: Goodreads

Length: 144 pages

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

SecUnits are androids that accompany exploratory teams traveling to different planets in a distant future. Half human, half machine, their job is to keep the humans in their charge safe. Their rules are governed and issued by the company that approves and supplies all interspace missions. But safety isn’t a big concern when profits are at stake. Which is why the SecUnit accompanying Dr. Mensah and her team doesn’t bother too much when they face numerous technical glitches. Until they lose contact with another exploratory team that was on the other side of the desolate planet.

In the search for answers, Dr. Mensah and her team discover something unexpected. Their SecUnit has hacked into its own governor module. It isn’t, and never has been, answerable to anyone. And it calls itself ‘Murderbot’. Murderbot has a history, one that gives the humans enough reason to question his role in the dangers surrounding them. But they have more reason to trust it. And no choice but to do so when they realize that their lives depend on uncovering the truth about what happened to their neighboring mission team. But is trusting an advanced AI who is openly apprehensive of humans and generally indifferent the right choice? What is it that Murderbot really wants? And who will have to pay the price when the android is forced to choose between the freedom it’s come to like, and a lifetime of servitude that awaits it if its actions were to go public?

The Bottom Line:

A fast-paced, action-packed read that takes the unique perspective of the android, Murderbot, itself, and hits the reader with a host of emotions, expected and unexpected.

My take:

All Systems Red begins without much foreplay. It just leaps right into the story, and into the head of its main character – Murderbot. As such, it takes some time to get used to the slang and style, making the first couple of pages really interesting, but also requiring slow reading. But once you get the hang of it, there’s no pausing.

At 144 pages, it’s a short book, and every page is filled with information. And somehow, Wells manages to depict detailed characterization and character development in this short length. The characters can get a bit confusing (I honestly took some time to figure out who was male and female!), but that doesn’t really affect the reading experience. The characters themselves are so defined that that is the only thing you really care about.

Although interesting, the story is not unheard of or not previously-never-done. But what really stands out is the POV. The entire story is told from the perspective of Murderbot itself. The android has no misconceptions about what it likes or dislikes, and its own strengths and weaknesses, but it continues trying to figure out what all that stuff really means for it as an entity. This is a character that is trying to understand itself, and yet the effort of this activity takes a toll on it. In all of this, it still continues to care about the people in its protection, showcasing that it is inherently good.

For the most part, Murderbot is like a child. It sees the good and the bad, focuses on the good, and tries to do what it perceives to be right. But, it also has a strong survival instinct, driven by its past. These two halves of itself often put Murderbot in a conundrum. All Systems Red follows the development of Murderbot as it traverses the confusing waters of what it means to be itself, while fighting off an external threat that is way out of its comfort zone and job description.

The story follows the basic arc of an abandoned planet, a team of researchers caught in a threat they don’t understand, an unidentified enemy whose motivation is just as unknown, and a desperate attempt for survival. Yet, its fresh take makes the book very interesting. Plus, it keeps moving without reprieve, has something happening almost all the time, and keeps you turning the pages wondering, “What happens next?”

I thought the end of the book was actually pretty brilliant. Although many people have found it to be anti-characteristic, I found it to be quite the opposite. What I felt when reading the end was pretty simple – there could have been no better, natural conclusion. I think that Wells was very clear about the personalities of her characters, no matter however much conflict they are in, with each other and themselves. They are basically human. And the end made me feel like she definitely seems to have a strong understanding of what that means.

All in all, All Systems Red is a fast, interesting read that introduces a character who I definitely want to follow. There are three more books in the series – two have been released and the fourth (and apparently final) chapter releases this October. I’m definitely putting this series on my list, and will explore more of Wells’ work too.

All Systems Red is highly recommended to those who enjoy:

  • sci-fi of all types
  • action thrillers
  • movies like Alien and Life

Share your thoughts in the comments below!

– Rishika