Tuesday, June 20, 2023

All Systems Red by Martha Wells: Adventures of a Binge-Watching Robot

An AI SecUnit construct, which provides security to interplanetary explorers, hacks his governor module, effectively becoming free from any human interference in its working. He could do anything, but finally chooses to download hundreds of hours of entertainment media illegally and watch. His clients, a team of explorers, are mounting expeditions on a remote planet when things start to go wrong. Every system is trying to kill them on the strange planet, and their only hope is a serial-watching rogue AI construct, which calls itself Murderbot.

I had been continuously reading books on serious topics for a while and desperately wanted something light for a change. Thus, I ended up picking All Systems Red, a science fiction novella by Martha Wells. This is the first part of an ongoing series of books called The Murderbot Diaries. But even if you read it as a standalone book, it stands tall. I was getting the vibes of the Indian movie series Drishyam while reading the book, because in that movie the protagonist, an illiterate cable TV operator, gets his ideas from watching movies, like our binge-watching Murderbot.

The narrator of All Systems Red is the Murderbot himself, a reluctant protagonist who seems not to care much and is happy when left alone. He doesn't like to show his face to his human teammates and mingle with them. He interferes only with the security details and is careful not to let them find out that he is now an independent entity. But when security glitches start to appear and things go for a toss, he has to reluctantly assist them, thus realising the values of camaraderie and bonding.

The most interesting aspect of the book is its depiction of the relationship between the robot and his human clients. He saves them during an initial attack from an unknown creature, sustaining injuries to himself, because it's his duty to do so, even though in the present state he has a choice. But later, when he gets to know them more closely and gets accepted into their group, the choice to help them survive the impending doom is independent. In this aspect, the book can even be thought of as a coming-of-age story.

All Systems Red is a short, fast-paced page-turner that, at the same time, touches very briefly on several interesting aspects of corporate culture, human greed, teamwork, and assimilation. It points out several pertinent topics with an amazing economy of words, which turns out to be more effective than long essays or philosophical dissertations. I enjoyed the short novel for its interesting portrayal of the AI protagonist, subtle humour, incessant thrills, and its potential to make the reader ponder the positive and negative effects of a technology that can alter the experience of being human.

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