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Tuesday, June 27, 2023

That gloriously woke Murderbot

I've enjoyed some science fiction over the years, usually when it is funny, like The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but I wouldn't call myself a real sci-fi fan.

But I love Martha Wells' series Murderbot Diaries

A huge reason is because it's funny, often subtley funny. For instance, Murderbot will casually remark, "six seconds dragged by." A little reminder that the character, as a cyborg, experiences time differently from humans.

I don't actually read the books, I listen to them on audio and the Audible voice-actor, Kevin R. Free, is superb in the role. He also does the voices of often dozens of other characters in a single book.

Murderbot is basically a super hero, but its superpowers are all strictly based on technology. The Murderbot Diaries are one of the best examples of the third of Arthur C. Clark's three laws:

 "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

If the text wasn't describing the technological infrastructure supporting Murderbot's actions, it would look like magic: drones obey its unspoken (but transmitted) commands; it habitually opens locked doors on ships, buildings, etc. (by hacking their security codes), while erasing all evidence it was even there; survives injuries that would kill a human (and which are repaired by robot-operated medical systems); needs very little air and no food; as well as its super speed and strength.

Wells typically describes these infrastructures in detail, which perhaps doesn't bother me as much as others because I am a technical writer and used to that kind of thing. Although I confess even I think, every now and then "was it really necessary to give so much technical detail there?" but still, I appreciate the tech detail because it really adds to the "world building" sense of realism of the series.

Murderbot's character is fascinating because of the tension created through the juxtaposition of its disdain for human frailty and messiness - it often observes that human habitats have "that dirty sock smell" while at the same time it feels compelled to protect humans at any cost, and often does so with lots of guns and violence.

But in spite of the gun-happy aspect of the Murderbot series, it is gloriously woke. In the societies described in the stories, jobs are not assigned based on gender, of which there are more than just male and female; most marriages are multi-partnered and multi-gendered; many, possibly most of the humans are described as having dark skin but there is no ethnicity-based caste system; and corporations are evil. Although even societies in the Corporation Rim seem to observe gender and ethnic equality and practice polyamory.

The sci-fi site TOR COM published this piece by a trans woman which makes interesting points about Murderbot:

For me as a trans woman, All Systems Red’s concoction of heartbreak and ever-present anxiety felt achingly familiar to me (even as Murderbot’s narration and dry delivery cracked me up more often than not), as I looked back at various pressure points in my own transition. The novella has a lot to say about building a personal identity on the fly.

In a different article, the same author writes:

ART—a Murderbot-derived acronym for “Asshole Research Transport”—is sarcastic; or at least Murderbot reads every attempt at communication as sarcastic. With the amount of processing power ART has, and with the fact that Murderbot is hanging out in its belly for the duration of a long journey, Murderbot is forced to engage with it. In a cascade of “oh shit” moments, Murderbot slowly realizes that ART wanted company on the long voyage…which is the last thing Murderbot wants.

As in All Systems Red, creating relationships in the midst of boredom, usually through the copious use of Space Netflix, plays a huge part in the narrative. It’s their shared enjoyment of Murderbot’s favorite serials that draws ART out of its shell (Murderbot notes that some metaphorical hand-holding is required when ART became “emotionally compromised by a fictional media serial.”). And it’s the way an unlikely friendship develops.

ART has no qualms about asking Murderbot tough questions. It’s difficult when you’ve worked hard to establish an identity, however fragile it may be, and other queer people start poking holes in it. Even out of concern.

“You will be identified as a SecUnit.”

That stung a little. “I can pass as an augmented human.” Augmented humans are still considered humans. I don’t know if there are any augmented humans with enough implants to resemble a SecUnit. It seems unlikely a human would want that many implants, or would survive whatever catastrophic injury might make them necessary. But humans are weird. Whatever, I didn’t intend to let anyone see more than I absolutely had to.

“You look like a SecUnit. You move like a SecUnit.”

To me this stung as much as anything I’ve read in awhile, because this is a conversation about passing. And you don’t really want to hear about passing from someone else who is in a not-quite-similar situation as yourself.

Another piece in TOR compares Murderbot to someone on the autism spectrum:

In The Murderbot Diaries, we follow the titular Murderbot: a security unit (SecUnit) living in a sci-fi dystopia known as the Corporation Rim, where capitalism runs even more disastrously rampant than it does in our world. Our friend Murderbot is a construct—a living, sentient being created in a lab with a mix of mechanical and organic parts. In the Corporation Rim, SecUnits are considered property and have no rights; essentially, they’re lab-built slaves. It’s a dark setting with a dark plot that’s saved from being overwhelmingly miserable by Murderbot’s humorous and often bitingly sarcastic commentary, which forms the books’ first-person narration.

From the earliest pages of the first book, I was thinking, “Wow, Murderbot is very autistic.” It (Murderbot chooses to use it/its pronouns) displays traits that are prevalent in real-life autistic people: it has a special interest in the in-universe equivalent of soap operas; it hates being touched by anyone, even people it likes; it feels uncomfortable in social situations because it doesn’t know how to interact with people; it hates eye contact to such an extent that it will hack into the nearest security camera to view somebody’s face instead of looking at them directly (which, side note, is something that I would do in a heartbeat if I had the capability).

On a blog review of one of the novellas, "Fugitive Telemetry" the reviewer says:

Interestingly, none of these adventure readers complained about the somewhat “woke” politics that Wells has been offering, which suggests nobody cares as long as the readers’ other requirements are met.
My guess: they accept the woke politics because of all the guns. 

Anyway, I highly recommend Murderbot. The next book "System Collapse" is coming out in November.

UPDATE: According to Martha Wells herself, you can pre-order the Libro.fm audio version (with Kevin R. Free yay!) now!

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