The Mortifying Ordeal of Being an Awkward Bot Humans Insist on Knowing
Stories about intrepid explorers going out into the far reaches of space have always been compelling to us. Voyagers surveying planets and gauging their livability, taking samples and studying alien flora and fauna, and just looking very cool walking out of the ship in their high-tech spacesuits. Making use of all that research to bring humanity further into the deeper waters of the cosmic ocean.
The stories are interesting. Thinking about being the person doing it, though, seems so daunting. I’d happily leave that responsibility to others smarter and more concerned about doing it than me.
If you’re a partially organic android rented out by an insurance company to provide security against unknown threats, well, you don’t get a choice.
Not unless you’re our protagonist, a SecUnit who calls themself ‘Murderbot’, who was able to hack their governor module, and only wants to be left alone so they can watch their soap operas.
Reading All Systems Red by Martha Wells felt like being a surveyor of a murderbot who has just come to and is exploring who they want to be, what they want to do, and why these humans keep wanting to get some kind of Emotion out of them.
Once the hopper lands, be careful not to let the HubSystem know you’re suspicious of it. And whatever you do, don’t make eye contact with or speak directly to Murderbot or you’ll render it immobile.
Please, they’re very shy.
The story opens with what could be the most relatable experience in the novella—working on a contract that is as unremarkable as the remote planet our characters are on. To experience this and form opinions about it through our narrator, Murderbot, felt like looking at the SecUnit's feed except we also get the grouchy, sardonic commentary.
This is Murderbot’s appeal. Here is a construct who just 'woke up' and decided that they'd rather spend their days watching something called Sanctuary Moon than pay attention to anything.
By hacking its own governor module, Murderbot has essentially turned themself into a high-functioning bored employee who is actually doing a pretty good job considering the amount of information it has chosen to ignore.
But the story took a turn when a hostile creature burst out of the ground, and Murderbot immediately got into action to keep the humans alive.
Unremarkable planet, no longer.
From here, the plot starts to take off. PreservationAux— a group of academics and Murderbot’s clients—started theorising about HubSystem and the company being compromised. Especially after finding out about an incognito group somewhere on the planet who have just eliminated another organisation and will probably finish them off next.
Murderbot is feeling overwhelmed through it all, and not just because of the above reasons. So much has happened in such a short time, but here comes Ratthi and Gurathin pushing Murderbot to talk about their thoughts and feelings. As if it's not irritating enough to get what is frankly too much attention on them without the refuge of their armour.
Note: forming opinions, and also feelings, through Murderbot's narration.
It's understandable why the assumption would be that Murderbot has a dislike for humans. Previous to this team, their experience with them had been generally neutral to negative to traumatic, and assumed it would be the same for this contract.
What they are, though, is awkward in social situations. Murderbot is new to acting on their own volition. It didn't need to interact more than is necessary. Before PreservationAux, they’ve been treated as nothing more than an appliance or tool the company uses to upsell services.
But here comes a situation where breaking out of that self-isolation is needed to protect this weird bunch of humans who insist on treating and seeing them as human. It was no surprise that while they like their current clients, their favourite was Dr. Mensah, because she was someone who knows when to dial down the interaction, and when to nudge them a bit for a reaction.
What comes out of that awkwardness and horrifying ordeal of being constantly asked what it feels is an eternally vexed and grumpy murderbot who is, at their core, just extremely shy and vulnerable.
One of the most heartening beats to follow in the novella was how connections were being formed between Murderbot and PreservationAux, the reasons of which come from very distinct places.
It's easy to forget that Murderbot didn't need to continue protecting the humans. They can choose to get out of the habitat and leave them to defend themselves. Yet time and again, as much as they're trying to be performative at being a construct just doing its job, it wants to protect them. Something clicked inside Murderbot and seeing this job through is just a part of it.
PreservationAux on the other hand is used to treating Bots and constructs as people on their non-corporate planet. They immediately understood the human reactions Murderbot was having to their pestering and backed off a little. But notably, even after finding out about the hacked module, they were ready to defend Murderbot’s actions because it was all done to keep them safe.
It's perhaps a comfort for a murderbot who grudgingly feels overwhelming emotion outside of the media feed to be part of a group that thinks about their safety and comfort as much as the murderbot does for their humans.
There's a larger discussion that can be made about this world that openly comments on the corruption and inequality prevalent in it, and how each one interfaces with it.
PreservationAux's continuous anthropomorphising of Murderbot isn't just because it's their way of dealing with the reality of what constructs are. It's a middle finger to the system that enables the practice of subverting sentience by installing a module that punishes them for behaviour that deviates from the programming.
Murderbot, however, just wants everyone to stop making decisions for them.
All Systems Red by Martha Wells starts a conversation on choices, being able to make them and what good is it really when you're within a system that limits your ability to do so. The novella makes you want to reflect on your own ability to decide and the modules that shape your behaviour. And most especially, to find the time to start bingeing that show you've added to the to-watch list months ago.