“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.