144 pages | Tor.com |Science fiction/SFF/Space Opera/ Novella
The digest: a solid space opera novella, well-deserving of its hype and awards. If you’re looking to get into science fiction then this is an excellent introduction with a fun story and interesting characters.
From the novella’s Goodreads page:
“In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.
But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.
On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.
But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.”
- The story is thoroughly interesting. We follow Murderbot, an android-clone-hybrid thing which is ultimately an object contracted out to a variety of space exploration companies. In theory, such being are controlled by their owners, but our little Murderbot here, well they’re a little bit different. They’d rather sit around all day watching soaps and dramas while avoiding all possible human contact. As you can imagine, Murderbot’s plans are rather rudely interrupted first by a giant alien monster and then later by… well that’d be spoiling the story for you. There’s a good mixture of action and emotion to be found in All Systems Red, and if you enjoy reading novellas (and other short-form fiction) then you’ll be right at home here.
- The characters are about as well-developed as they could be in this form factor. The most fleshed-out is, rather unsurprisingly, Murderbot. But there are a handful of other characters we learn a little about here and there, with all these little details adding up to create a decent team. There are only 144 pages here, and Wells did about a good a job as she could have done.
- Murderbot is funny but also sad and thought-provoking. The main character demonstrates symptoms of depression and anxiety (which is rather unique character development for what is effectively an engineered being), and I appreciate how Wells portrays these episodes. Wanting to be separated from everyone else (but also feeling left out), binging TV shows to escape reality, not being happy with its position but being/feeling entirely helpless. Of course, our protagonist has valid reasons for these emotions (a complete lack of autonomy and free will by design). They also demonstrate strength, resolution, and loyalty far beyond what one may at first expect them to. Good stuff.
- The general worldbuilding is very good. Again, there is only so much one can reasonably expect from a novella, but I truly felt immersed in (an admittedly small) part of the story’s society and politics during my reading experience. There’s a sprinkling of wider world concerns paired with the odd bit of further exploration, and overall I felt like I had a good grasp of Wells’ storyworld.
- As mentioned above, All Systems Red focuses on a wide variety of real-world issues such as anxiety and depression, autonomy vs slavery, and morality. That’s all I will say about this now due to potential spoilers, but if you’re up for reading about how a SecUnit which calls itself ‘Murderbot’ deals with everyday struggles of being conscious yet lacking autonomy, you’ll love this.
- The pacing is mostly good, and Wells’ writing style is clear and concise.
- The pacing overall is very good, but there were a few small sections (a page or two) which were noticeably out of sync with the general speed of the novella. Of course, a story can’t (and shouldn’t) always be moving at full speed, but these sections disrupted the flow too abruptly and felt like they needed a little editing.
Conclusion: 4/5. I really enjoyed reading All Systems Red and will definitely be reading the sequel stories in the future. As entertaining as it was, it isn’t as memorable as it perhaps could have been (hence the score), though I am well aware that some readers love this novella so don’t let my score put you off.