… whose proper name is Network Effect, but everyone just calls all these stories Murderbot, don’t they?
In case you’re late to this party: in 2017, a novella called All Systems Red came out and a lot of people went a bit nuts about a Security Unit robot who had hacked its governor module and was therefore under no one’s control, who kept doing its job because it didn’t know what alternatives there were – it just knew that sitting in one spot and watching media all day was going to land it in trouble. And thus, Murderbot. All Systems Red introduced Murderbot and its problems with humans (including that they keep trying to get themselves killed; Murderbot’s job is preventing that); its love of an epic drama called Sanctuary Moon; and a particular job that goes sideways because the galaxy it inhabitants is largely run by corporations, and the corps like to try and get away with everything. Security Units are used by other companies to try and prevent the other other companies from destroying or killing their stuff.
Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy all followed, wth Murderbot trying to learn more of its own history, the possibilities for its future, and where it can access more media please and thank you except probably without the pleasantries.
If you haven’t read the four novellas yet, you want to stop reading here – partly because of spoilers and partly because seriously your life will be better for having read Murderbot why are you even still here? Ann Leckie says she loves Murderbot; NPR claimed “We are all a little bit Murderbot” and I have to say, right now: so true.
So that brings us to the novel, Network Effect. This picks up fairly soon after Exit Protocol; Murderbot is on Preservation, working for/with Dr Mensah and her family, and trying to figure out what it’s doing and what should come next. Well, it’s not actually on Preservation at the start of the novel; it’s with a survey team and we all know how well that tends to go. And that’s pretty much how it goes… and then things manage to get worse, right about when it shouldn’t. What a surprise. No wonder Murderbot despairs of humans.
Basically if you like the Murderbot novellas I don’t see any reason for you not to love the novel. It’s just… more. More snark from Murderbot, more hating on having emotions, more existential confusion about what it should be doing. Many, many more explosions and much drastic action and epic failures of plans (sometimes because of unforeseen events; sometimes because humans), opportunities for hating on the corporations, and conflicted feelings about the humans in its
I can only hope that Wells is interested in continuing to explore Murderbot’s developing sense of self, and their conflicted relationship with their risk assessment module. Murderbot isn’t human, has no desire to be human, and hates passing itself off as human even when that’s a security necessity. And there is no better way to explore the concept of humanity than through its interactions, its changes in response to stimuli, and its refusal to accept what’s right in front of its visual inputs.
Catfishing on CatNet
In 2016, Yoon Ha Lee introduced servitors who might have a mind of their own in Ninefox Gambit and then proceeded to develop them as a subplot, eventually introducing one who liked to re-cut its favourite media with better music. In 2017, Vina Jie-Min Prasad gave us Computron and its obsession with Hyperdimension Warp Record, and Martha Wells gave us Murderbot and its love of media.
In 2015, Naomi Kritzer had already given us the AI in “Cat Pictures, Please” who definitely doesn’t want to be evil and knows everything about you because you put your life on the internet and while it mostly likes looking at your cat pictures it also knows about your obsession with hentai, that you should buy this house over here, and that you really need a new job.
IN 2019, Kritzer produced Catfishing on CatNet which I finally got around to reading because it’s nominated for not-a-Hugo, the Lodestar Award for Best YA novel. And I am super pleased that I did finally get a chance to read it, because it was hugely enjoyable.
The novel follows the short story in that there is an AI, who is an occasional narrator; they do love cat pictures. Here, they’ve set up a social networking site that’s meant to be mostly about cat pictures but as always happens has become something more – not least thanks to the social engineering of the AI, who puts people in groups it thinks they will enjoy.
The focus, though, is on Steph. Steph is a teen who has moved around a lot because her mother is paranoid – and not without reason: Steph’s father was abusive, and her mother is determined not to be found by him. Steph has come up with coping mechanisms to deal with changing high schools a couple times a semester, sometimes; mostly it revolves around trying not to make friends. But at the new school, she starts making friends; and, of course, things do not go smoothly. For Steph, or for the cat-picture-loving AI.
There’s a lot to love about this novel. It’s fast-paced, which is unsurprising in a YA novel. It spends what feels like a nice amount of time setting up the school circumstances, as is appropriate for a YA story where that’s really the big deal for the main character; when things go wrong, they really go wrong and events move right along. There’s some excellent diversity – I can’t believe I still feel like this is something I need to say, and maybe it’s reflective of me being old and the target audience for this novel would just roll their eyes at me; whatever: there’s racial and gender and sexual diversity, and it’s an entirely natural part of the social landscape, as it should be. So is the commentary on the fact that there are racists and sexists and homophobes out there, but the kids kinda just… deal with it.
The AI is not the central character but its actions are central – without its interference/ help, events would unfold very differently. In the short story, the AI discusses how it has examined different moral and ethical codes, and frankly found them unhelpful in its own pursuit of correct action. That’s not explicitly in the novel, although there is some discussion of ethics; but the AI definitely does consider the rightness of its actions with regard to its human friends, and this conundrum – how best to act – informs a lot of what happens. And I love it, because of course these are the sorts of discussions we should be having.
The sequel to Catfishing is meant to be out soon. I’m very excited.
Received as part of the Hugo packet for 2020; Middlegame is up for Best Novel.
When a book is written with just enough information that I get a sense of where the plot’s going, and/or when the book is written beautifully, and I trust the author: then I really love a non-linear tale. This is not as non-linear as something like Kameron Hurley’s Light Brigade but it’s not exactly straightforward. I had absolutely no idea what it was about before charging on in, and that was quite a fun way to do it actually.
Alchemy in the 20th century; attempts to make universal forces incarnate in human children; somewhat gruesome violence, because the people doing the former two things are immoral and ruthless. Our central evil alchemist wants particularly to incarnate the ‘Doctrine of Ethos’, in two people – twins: one will be language, and the other will be maths. Which… there’s a lot in that. And the idea is that essentially those people will BE those things… eventually. When they are fully embodied.
Some of the novel is about the alchemists and their dastardly actions and what they want to achieve. Much of the novel, though, is about Roger and Dodger (yes there’s a reason for the names), and them growing up and how they interact with each other – or not. McGuire has said that it’s like a superhero origin story, which I can see; it’s a bildungsroman. How do you cope when you’re solving impossible maths problems at 9? When there’s a voice in your head that you’re pretty sure shouldn’t be there? And that’s on top of everything else about being a kid and being adopted and being a smart kid. Don’t even get me started about being a smart girl-kid whose smarts are in maths.
McGuire has said it took her a decade to get to the point where she felt capable of doing this story justice, and I can appreciate that. I’ve only read her InCryptid and Wayward Children series, which I adore – but they’re not as narratively complex as this, and I don’t get the sense that Toby Daye or the various Mira books are, either. To be able to hold all of what’s happening here in your head and make it actually make sense on paper would have to require a lot of work. And I think the prose is more wonderful, too. This is not to say that the other books are poorly written – not at all. This is more like Wayward Children than InCrytpid because that’s what the story calls for. There’s a… mythic? not-21st-century, perhaps more formal or timeless, feel to this story than the F1-paced InCrytpids.
The thing I really don’t get is why the Hand of Glory was chosen for the cover. Yes they make several appearances, but I wouldn’t have said that they are symbolic of the plot or even that they’re especially central to the narrative. It is, in fact, one reason why I hadn’t read the book before now; the cover really didn’t appeal – and when there are so many other books in the world, covers do actually make a difference sometimes.
I really enjoyed this. However, it’s up against Gideon the Ninth and A Memory Called Empire, and Light Brigade, and that’s just horrific competition.
Living on Stolen Land
This book was sent to me to review by Magabala Books. It comes out in July – so very timely – and will be $22.99.
I am an Anglo Australian. My most recent migrant ancestor is maybe 4 or 5 generations back. I am a history teacher. And I live on stolen land. I benefit every day from the fact that indirectly each of my ancestors (and directly, in a couple of cases) contributed to the displacement of Indigenous Australians.
Ambelin Kwaymullina has produced what the media release calls a “prose-style manifesto”, and what I would describe as a free-verse lesson about the past and the present and the future. She’s also responsible for that gorgeous cover and the internal images that help make this a lovely object as well as a powerful text.
Kwaymullina covers so much stuff that I want everyone to experience that I’m tempted to re-hash everything she says… which would be, as she herself points out, a white woman re-interpreting an Indigenous woman and that’s exactly the sort of thing that really needs not to exist. (I’m also currently reading Aileen Moreton Robinson’s Talkin’ Up to the White Woman, so… yeh.) So let me say that she makes it very clear – in case there was any doubt in the reader’s mind – about the original ownership of this land we call Australia; about the ongoing problems of the way we settlers talk about the land and its original inhabitants; and also points ways forwards as to how all of the people now living here might actually make it work. For everyone. As the blurb says, this is a “beautifully articulated declaration… a must-read for anyone interested in decolonising Australia.”
There are two bits that particularly got to me. Firstly, as a history teacher, Kwaymullina’s discussion of time is breath-taking (pp12-14): her description of linear time, where “Things that happened / a hundred years ago / are further away / than things that happened yesterday” – and is “weaponised against Indigenous peoples” and gives “the illusion of progress / regardless of whether / anything has changed”. And it’s that last bit that took my breath away. Then she speaks of Indigenous systems where “time is not linear” – cycles, instead, and “as susceptible / to action and interaction / as any other life”. And then she points out that cyclical time is a gift and a responsibility because “The change has not been lost / for justice / for change” and I nearly cried. I have never thought of time like that and never realised that it was even possible that life could work like that.
Secondly, Kwaymullina has a very pointed section about “Behaviours” from Settlers, and the four different ways we might act. Those who speak well and do nothing, the Saviours, the ‘discoverers’ (appropriating Indigenous stuff for their own life… and the change-makers. And this section made me really think about the ways that I act, and have acted, and intend to act.
Look. This book is 64 pages of free verse that will gently and pointedly make you think about yourself and and your ways of thinking and your understanding of history and the possibilities of the future. I will read this book again and again, I will read it to my students, I will share it with other people, I will tell other people to read it. Every household should have a copy of this and I don’t use the word ‘should’ lightly.