Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

Read July 2018
Recommended for fans of Murderbot, AIs
★    ★   ★    ★  

“I was stalling. I would have to interact with humans as an augmented human… I had imagined it as taking place from a distance, or in the spaces of a crowded transit ring. Interacting meant talking, and eye contact. I could already feel my performance capacity dropping.”

It was with anticipation of pleasure that I picked up the second installment in the Murderbot series. After its thrilling adventures on its last expedition as a SecUnit, I was curious to see what ‘Bot would do with freedom. I read quickly, finishing in one sitting. Though the beginning felt a bit awkward, I remained confident that Wells would end up somewhere interesting. It was an enjoyable read, but suffered from a few issues.

Why not five stars, you wonder? I do enjoy the character of Murderbot a great deal, but found myself with some sticky points on my first read-through.

One, I felt Murderbot had become more colloquial in its speech without accompanying change in comfort level with others. Calling A.R.T. an ‘asshole,’ for instance, seemed odd. Funny, no doubt. But would the apathetic Murderbot really have named a mildly intrusive artificial intelligence it just met an ‘asshole?’ It set the wrong tone and in some ways, the character of Murderbot backslid to be a socially inept human, not a killing machine trying to create behavior patterns.

Two, I thought the narrative confusing at first. I’m quite used to Well’s elaborate world-building, but this felt awkward. On re-read, I decided it was smoother than I had thought the first time through. I remain extremely puzzled as to the differences between ‘constructs,’ ‘artificial intelligences,’ and ”bots’ in Murderbot’s world and why humans created ‘constructs’ as they did. At one point ‘Bot notes that “the long sleeves of the T-shirt and jacket, the pants and the boots covering all my inorganic parts,” which seemed especially weird to me. Why leave human hands on a construct? I also remained puzzled by lines such as “I huddled in the chair.” Hello, Killing Machine? Why on earth do you have any hormones responsible for fear? I feel like Wells would have done better to stick with a Star Trek TNG ‘Data’ type model.

Three, the plot was good, but uneven. Murderbot wants to see the scene of its alleged murders. It will need a pretext to get there, so it signs on with a group of naive workers hoping to regain some stolen data. This premise works at first until the workers, a family with young children, behave in incredibly naive and stupid ways, leading Murderbot to behave in naive and stupid ways. The long journey to the scene of the crime ends up being anticlimactic

To be fair, my rating might also be a case of high expectations; certainly it is much better than many 3-star books that I’ve read, enjoyed, and promptly forgot (basically every generic cop-thriller). I love much of what Martha Wells has done, and have a number of her books shelved in hardcover. Since I can still remember many of the details of Artificial Condition without picking up the book, it’s good enough to make an impression. There’s lots of humor and sarcasm, some sweet computer bonding and quite a bit of action. Definitely worth reading.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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5 Responses to Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

  1. alicegristle says:

    Interesting! First time since I’ve heard about Martha Wells, I think. What would be her best work, in your opinion?

    Also, it almost sounds like she fell into the human empathy trap, which makes us able to humanise even inert pieces of metal. But the bit about fear? Having rudimentary knowledge about violence, I’d say that programming fear into a killing robot may have a point, if it’s to have an extensive career. Fear is, after all, a pretty effective alarm mechanism. 🙂

    • thebookgator says:

      Martha Wells is a terrific fantasy writer that has slid under the popular radar, although at least one of her books had a Nebula nom (Death of the Necromancer). One of the most fascinating things about her is that she manages to do very different worlds. I like Death of the Necromancer (kind of Victorian-Sherlockian, and it’s really a one-off book), The City of Bones, The Infinite Wheel (middle-aged woman protag)> I never finished the Raksura series, although I really enjoyed the first book (high fantasy, human-like-but-flying matriarchy). She also has a blog and usually once a week promotes women and/or people of color who write fantasy and sci-fi.

      Regarding fear, you are right, it can certainly be a survival mechanism. I think I was thinking a ‘construct’ was more like a robot (thus, “Murderbot”), along the lines of Data. More like using super-fast computation to figure odds, not a stress response that results in huddling down in a chair. The next paragraph acknowledges that, but only explains it by saying, ‘I’ve only been in my head for 35000 hours and would like to keep it that way.”

      • alicegristle says:

        Alright! Sounds super, thanks! I really have to find more go-to writers like this, all I have so far is Angela Carter. 🙂

        Yeah. I recognise the feeling of incongruity though, a lot of readers probably glitched on that. Would have warranted a more thorough explanation, for sure!

  2. Karl S says:

    I think you are being a bit too harsh in your judgement. I certainly am glad you offer your opinion on the books you read, however, at least for me. much depends on what I had read previously, what I ate for lunch or dinner, and how much sleep I got the night prior. I love to read your reviews as you have enlightened me authors I would ordinarily discover on my normal wandering through my shelves. As a matter of fact I can credit you to turning me on to Ms. Wells and her ‘murderbot’. Perhaps I just enjoyed this book more so than you did.

    • thebookgator says:

      That’s fine. I wouldn’t call it ‘harsh;’ I was stating my sticking points on my two read throughs and why I kept getting stuck on the concept of the ‘Bot. I’m glad you enjoyed Wells and hope you will be tempted to read more of her works.

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