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I finished Network Effect: A Murderbot Novel yesterday morning. It’s the fifth entry in the Murderbot Diaries series by Martha Wells. It’s also the first novel-length book in the series, with one through four being novellas or novelettes (my reviews on the rest of the series can be found here).
It won the 2021 Nebula award and a bunch of other accolades and in this case, they were well deserved (In my experience, that’s not always the case). We continue to see Murderbot evolve becoming, in their/her own way, more “human” though I’m sure she would deny that.
Oh, even though technically Murderbot has no gender, I always hear her voice in my head as female, so I’m going to go with that. Probably has something to do with my knowing the author is also female.
Given the novel-length of the story, we’re able to go back and forth in Murderbot’s experiences. We start out seeing her as a fully autonomous SecUnit providing security for an archeological team, which definitely needs it. The story begins with a bang because we are then thrown into more back story on Murderbot and the supporting characters. This includes her close relationship (I hesitate to say “friendship,” although I think it is) with Dr. Mensah and interestingly enough with her teenage daughter Amena (relationships are confusing because this is some sort of “group marriage” where Mensah is Amena’s “second mother”).
After wormhole transit to the Preservation system, the archeology ship is attacked by what turns out to be SecUnit’s old friend, ART, the (supposed) transport and teaching ship with an autonomous, sapient (Wells continues to use “sentient” for “human-like intelligence” when all it means is “I have a nervous system like a cow or a chicken”) bot pilot.
Through a series of errors, SecUnit and Amena are captured, find two other humans who seem to be controlled by implants, and a bunch of human-mutated “targets.” ART is gone, the intelligence erased, and replaced by a much less sophisticated control system (this causes SecUnit to go into a deep depression, having lost a close “friend”). ART’s drive is augmented by an alien biological component and they are able to wormhole travel to their destination much faster than normal.
The destination is a “lost” colony system, ownership of which is being contested. The inhabitants consist of two waves of colonists, one from pre-Corporation days and more recent victims explorers, all of whom seem to be compromised by an alien contagion.
I won’t go through the entire plot, but SecUnit manages to locate and install a backup of ART after eliminating the other ship intelligence. In the course of events, SecUnit must do what she hates the most, depend on humans to help her. She also agrees to have a copy made of her intelligence to be used as “killware,” except it retains her personality becoming Murderbot 2.0.
Murderbot 2.0 has a different approach to events, so she frees an opponent’s SecUnit (let’s call it SecUnit 3.0) to help solve the mystery of the system, rescue ART’s captured humans (which mean everything to ART), and defeat the targets.
One interesting thing about SecUnit and ART is that they have a sort of “ownership” of their humans and in both cases, they will kill to protect them. It’s something of a reversal since technically both ART and SecUnit are supposed to be property, a point that’s brought up more than once in the book. Although SecUnit doesn’t see herself as “owning” her humans, they do “belong” to her.
Also, SecUnit 3.0 having overcome their governor and becoming independent, is still a lot more like a machine than our SecUnit. In the end, Murderbot decides (after much angst) to help the newly freed SecUnit “learn the ropes.”
The story, as much as it is an adventure and science fiction, is also an exploration of identity and self. Wells has done a wonderful job over five books of slowly, steadily developing Murderbot’s personality when the temptation would be to “jump ahead.” Murderbot still has a ton of “hang-ups” about humans and a variety of other factors, but almost without her noticing, she’s becoming more capable of not only understanding people but understanding herself as a person. This is most deeply explored when our SecUnit compares herself to SecUnit 3.0 and the differences are startling.
There were a few moments that caught my attention. When people were being identified and categorized, a woman was tagged as something like “female, fem.” I suppose that means a more stereotypical woman who exhibits typical feminine traits. It’s an indication there there’s probably a much wider variety of gender experiences in that world.
If you keep track, you’ll find that there are slightly fewer men (good ones anyway) in the group than women (not counting ART, SecUnit, and so on). Of course the “bad guys” are usually identified as “guys” and “bad” which I’ve come to expect. I don’t know if that was intentional on Wells’ part (the male/female ratio probably was) but it follows the idea that men are mostly bad and only a few are good.
I was pleased that the “good guys” (males) were A) actually good and B) competent at what they did. Often, when trying to make a point and presenting females as positive, modern entertainment will do so by depicting males as either bad or, if “good,” incompetent and needing constant saving by females.
SecUnit, technically being gender neutral, had to get used to being rescued by humans, as well as Murderbot 2.0 and SecUnit 3.0. I’m hoping that’s a message that we are all interdependent on each other regardless of our role and status in life. It would be nice if a future depicting a more egalitarian balance didn’t do so by simply reversing stereotypes (no, Wells doesn’t but plenty of her contemporaries do).
In any case, those were all minor distractions and I’m giving them more attention here than I did while reading the book.
A definite five-star Amazon rating and a well deserved award winning novel. I encourage you to read all of the Murderbot Diaries. They’re engaging but most of all, they’re fun. Let’s make science fiction fun again.