SYSTEM COLLAPSE rating: four stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐.
This book is 7th in the Murderbot Diaries series by Martha Wells. If you’ve never read any Murderbot books, this review has spoilers. If you’re up to date, I’ll try not to spoil SYSTEM COLLAPSE (Tor/Macmillan, November 14, 2023). This is the first book in the series I’ve read; I listened to all the others, narrated by the talented Kevin R. Free. The Murderbot Diaries audiobooks were so immersive that I listened to them all in a week. I credit them with getting me through COVID-19.
Disclaimer: Thanks to Edelweiss Plus/Above the Treeline and Tor/Macmillan for sending me a copy of this book for review consideration. All opinions are my own.
Murderbot was built to be a servile killing machine, but it hacked its own governor module and is a free agent cyborg. Murderbot must pretend to still be enslaved at first (because it’s illegal to be a free SecUnit) and, later in the series, must pretend to be human.
I love the conflict between an augmented robot’s organic and machine parts, the tug-of-war between reason and emotion that’s been a trope of science fiction for ages. Think of Data singing his scanning-for-life-forms ditty when he has his emotion chip enabled on “Star Trek: Generations.” Murderbot tends to be a lot more annoyed by human emotions than Data.
I love Murderbot’s often profane humor, dedication to “its humans,” and the AIs encountered on its missions. I relish the part of Murderbot that would rather bum around and watch “media” (entertainment files) if humans from Preservation did not stop blundering into trouble. (Totally relatable, since if I download the Murderbot audiobooks again from hoopla I will be mesmerized and get nothing accomplished.)
When Murderbot does drag itself away from entertainment files and spring into action, it is an incredible fighter even when the chips are down.
In SYSTEM COLLAPSE, there are two (three?) interesting AIs for our favorite SecUnit to interact with. ART, also called ART-Prime, the superintelligent transport with whom Murderbot has a hilarious love-hate botship, ART-Drone (ART Lite, in drone form), and a new one on the survey planet that the Preservation team visits. Murderbot has recently had some kind of strange breakdown–a total disconnect with reality–and it’s a nervous wreck and doesn’t quite trust itself to get the job done. In actual conflict, can Murderbot pull itself together like it used to do or will its organic parts cause a system collapse?
Besides free agency and self-definition, another modern value that Murderbot serves up with extra spice is anti-corporatism. Evil GreyCris has been exploiting resources, people, robots, and augmented robots without a shred of conscience in the series. Now the bad guys are Barish-Estranza.
Humans consistently underestimate the AI that they imagine are their tools. Humans think they are having the important conversations in SYSTEM COLLAPSE, but a whole different level of discourse is going on that they cannot hear, among the robots and cyborgs who are really running the show and steering the plot. Also, if Preservation’s foes drop the guard on their systems for even a split second, Murderbot will hack into them, interface with ART, and … wreck their day.
Nonstop sci-fi enchantment. The ending is wonderful, and makes me eagerly anticipate the 8th book in the series.
Books I’ve enjoyed that explored the boundaries between humans and artificial intelligence, the concept of free will, and what constitutes a consciousness:
KLARA AND THE SUN by Kazuo Ishiguro (Penguin Random House, 2022).
I, ROBOT by Isaac Asimov (1950).
Becky Chambers‘s A PSALM FOR THE WILD-BUILT and A PRAYER FOR THE CROWN-SHY in the Monk and Robot series (Macmillan, 2021 and 2023).
IN THE LIVES OF PUPPETS by TJ Klune (MacMillan, 2023) (my review in blog post dated April 25, 2023)
What I’m reading right now:
THE LAST ONE by Will Dean (Simon & Schuster, August 8, 2023)
#Murderbot #MarthaWells #SystemCollapse #StarTrek #scifi #MachinesLikeMe #IanMcEwan #KlaraAndTheSun #KazuoIshiguro #IRobot #IsaacAsimov #BeckyChambers #APsalmForTheWildBuilt #APrayerForTheCrownShy #MonkAndRobot #InTheLivesOfPuppets #TJKlune