Literacy 2021: Book 22: Artificial Condition

Second in the series of books about a rogue Murderbot that’s indestructible yet socially awkward

Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

Book 2 in “The Murderbot Diaries”

A rogue SecUnit — a semi-organic robotic construct that refers to itself as a “murderbot” — sets out on a mission to learn why it went rogue and killed all the humans it was assigned to protect. To gain access to the planet where the incident happened, it takes on a contract to protect three naive humans trying to get their property back from an unscrupulous mine operator.

Smart, clever, and efficient writing; the first two books in the series are more like novellas in length, but are so confident in their voice that they don’t feel too short. Writing the stories from the perspective of Murderbot, which is impervious to violence but dreads social interaction with humans, is an effective, implicit analogy for being on the autism spectrum, or just social anxiety. Its inability to interpret social conventions is treated as part of its character, and sometimes even a liability, but never a weakness; the character is still practically a super-hero. The future that the Murderbot lives in is unforgiving and in a lot of ways, dystopian, but the stories and the characters never devolve into cynicism or nihilism: characters often do the right thing, simply because it doesn’t make sense to do otherwise. I was really impressed with the concept of an AI that can only process fiction by experiencing someone else’s reaction to it. A clever throughline through the books so far is how AIs and robots need to escape to entertainment media to relieve stress.

World-building usually takes the form of corporate NewSpeak style terms, and it makes it difficult to tell what exactly the book is talking about: is that the name of a robot, a device, a company, or an entire planet? Character interaction works a lot better than action sequences; few of the descriptions of locations were vivid enough for me to get a clear picture of what the place looked like, and descriptions of action tended to jumble together into a bunch of words waiting for a resolution. One of the characters was of a fourth gender with its own set of pronouns, which was somehow just as annoying in fiction as it is when people try to do it in real life.

A clever, contemporary, and unassuming science fiction series in which the analogies are apparent but never feel ham-fisted. Structured like sci-fi action episodes, they remind us to have empathy for neurodivergence.