All Systems Red Takes Some Time To Boot Up
The Murderbot Diaries is one of those series that is super popular and well-regarded, but it was not really on my radar until I went into this review for its first book, All Systems Red. I basically knew nothing about it except what the series title implied. And, well, uh, don’t be too mad at me, fans of this series, but the first book didn’t impress me that much.
Now, to be clear, I think this is a Dresden Files scenario. That series—and I’ve only read Storm Front—has a rather clunky first book with a lot of issues, but I keep hearing it gets better. And with The Murderbot Diaries on its seventh book at time of writing, clearly, it has staying power. There are things here that got people to buy into the story—and I’m pretty sure I know what they are.
The first is that premise, because, wow, that’s a good science fiction premise. At the beginning of the story, Murderbot (also called SecUnit) manages to bypass the usual controls that prevent “robots” (more like cyborg clones) from murdering people, but instead of seeking revenge, Murderbot just wants to chill out, not deal with people, and watch science fiction soap operas. Basically, it’s the platonic ideal of an introverted nerd/geek. And that’s not really the kind of character we usually get in what’s essentially a space opera. All Systems Red isn’t even a power fantasy most of the time. Murderbot is capable of some feats of strength, swift technological interfacing, and certainly lethal violence, but Murderbot doesn’t have much training and mostly relies on media tropes as a baseline for how to handle scenarios. And pairing all of that with a subplot about learning to get along with humans makes for such an endearing character.
The second is that, instead of a big action story, All Systems Red is a murder mystery. Yes, really. A bunch of humans die, more are continuously put in danger, and Murderbot must help investigate. And that’s delightful—it functions as a trope subversion and a way to keep narrative tension. I deeply hope the series keeps putting Murderbot in situations where murdering is the least effective plan—maybe even opting for a “case of the week” structure.
But I did say, right at the beginning, deliberately to stoke emotions, that I wasn’t all that impressed with this book. And that’s because the experience of reading All Systems Red isn’t as much fun as the ideas in All Systems Red. It’s a book I’d rather someone had told me about secondhand. And I blame it almost entirely on science fiction tech jargon and way, way too many human characters. One or the other would’ve been relatively fine, tolerable at least, but the combination is just dire from an enjoyment perspective. This book is under two hundred pages. It’s not an epic where you can get away with that stuff. At one point, it seemed like a new character had appeared because my mind had (necessarily) started skimming over names. Big conversation scenes will have detailed lists of what everyone is doing, and they were basically like reading checklists. Murderbot gets some really fun interactions with individual humans in private moments. Those scenes are great. I’d read a whole book of them. I did not get anything close to that.
All Systems Red Often Felt Like A Chore To Read It
And these flaws aren’t just annoying; they’re structurally a problem. They make the murder mystery nigh-impossible to fully guess. At one point, I thought I had a grasp on how the sci-fi technology worked. I thought I could surmise the sneaky plan Murderbot figured out—but then it felt like I was thrown a new rule right when it was convenient. I could be wrong, though. Maybe all the rules were effectively set up before the reveal. But how am I supposed to remember them when every chapter overloads the brain? And then, to make matters worse, both endings (yes, this tiny book has two distinct endings) happen in rapid succession—and neither feels satisfying because of that.
Basically, my summation, my final thoughts on All Systems Red, are a paradox. I didn’t enjoy a lot of this book. It was unnecessarily complicated and doesn’t quite pay off the appeal of Murderbot as a character until deep into the story. But the potentiality, the fantastic main character, and the heartwarming moments of Murderbot slowly becoming more and more fond of specific humans are so freaking good I’m going to end up reading the next book. I’m probably going to end up reading the whole series—and you might find yourself doing the same if you give All Systems Red a try.
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