Before all else, thank you, Clio2, for stepping in last week with such a great discussion of YA fantasy/romance, Jennifer L. Armentrout’s Storm and Fury and the Moms for Liberty professional trolls who have since foundered on the rocks of their own failed morality. Check it out if you haven’t seen it — Clio is a superb writer who could opine about grass growing and I’d line up for it, so when she goes after the good stuff it’s a must-read.
It’s been quite a month, and life is still not quite done with me, but for this next little while I’m going to pretend it is: there’s a new Murderbot in town, and that is reason enough for celebration.
System Collapse is the seventh installment in Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries and, while it continues the tradition of being everything that made Murderbot a sensation from the start, it also marks a turning point in the series. You know how you can look at an image and think you see it in all its complexity, and then the perspective shifts and you realize you were seeing only part of the picture and what you thought you knew was, well, wrong?
The things that made Murderbot such a resonant read were, in no particular order: identity and sense of self, representation, snark in the face of danger, friendship and loyalty, and finally, twists on classic Golden-Age science fiction tropes. All of which is true. Through the series (five novellas and two full-length novels) we’ve watched SecUnit move from dealing with its humans through the lens of popular entertainment, mostly through soap operas, to navigating authentic relationships — with Mensah, Amena, Arada, Ratthi and the rest of the gang, and now Iris, Tiago, and Tarik. And ART, who is most definitely not human. We’ve seen SecUnit navigate through everything from evil amoral corporate interests (hello, Alien franchise) — GrayCris looms large, but there are others — to the hive-mind phenomenon of The Twilight Zone. And guess what? It’s not about that.
It’s only now, with System Collapse, that another layer of Well’s project comes into view. We’ve seen hints before, but they’ve been limited, quick mentions uttered in passing.
It’s about the collapse of civilization. It’s about slavery and emancipation, coercion and free will. And singularly, it’s about trauma.
Let’s take these in turn. First up, civilization, or what passes for it, in the Corporation Rim.
In the Murderbot world, the Corporation Rim is so surpassingly large and pervasive, it’s like First vs. Third world in Earthbound terms, with all of the Third World unallied and powerless. The Corporation Rim operates by contracts subject to blackmail and bribery. Law is a joke. And it’s so large that it’s the black hole that the disparate systems of people who value life and freedom revolve around.
The Corporate Rim is rapacious; it eats worlds, and it eats its own people. We’ve seen hints of this before, hints that border on parody: datamining, wholesale bribery, a legal system that works only for the highest bidder, and contract laborers and workers compelled to do horrible things for reasons we haven’t really understood. It’s only in System Collapse that we begin to appreciate how the Corporations enslave everyone human, construct, and bot, and yoke them to the project of accruing power for the Corporation. Barish-Estranza, the corporation that has purchased a salvage claim to an abandoned planet and colony, is willing to do anything to profit from the venture, and that includes rounding up and kidnapping colonists for forced labor. We’ve seen GrayCris in operation, but now we start to realize that GrayCris is the norm for a corporation, not a particularly egregious outlier.
In Network Effect, Barish-Estranza receives supplies and help from SecUnit’s humans and ART, or Perihelion if we’re being formal about it, as part of a rescue mission, only to have B-E’s supervisor, Leonide, try something stupid:
“Before we transmit a certificate of note for your invoice, perhaps you’d like to negotiate.”
Oh, here we go.
Arada frowned, not understanding. “Negotiate what?”
Leonide said, “Your return to your ship.”
Ugh, I hate hostage situations. I vaulted over the couch, grabbed the guard nearest Leonide, yanked him up against my chest and twisted his arm so his weapon was pointed at Leonide. I did it really fast.
(Network Effect, p. 220)
Yes, Leonide really tries to take her benefactor hostage. She makes a return in System Collapse, this time as a victim of her own company (and no, she’s not less evil than any of the others, even if she’s more polished).
(Martyn had said he wasn’t surprised that the Barish-Estranza task force had tried to eat itself. He said there were indications that inra-corporate violence was increasing, that it had always been an unsustainable system.)
(System Collapse, p. 239)
If you’re hearing echoes of corporate malfeasance in this world, you’re not alone. In this world, hostile takeovers happen by pump-and-dump scams and stock manipulation, (or if Elon Musk decides to light 44 billion dollars on fire). Fantasy and science fiction use gunships and wizards; the genres have always been able to comment on current events without the political baggage and accusations of propaganda that attend mainstream fiction (witness the popularity of dystopias today, all indicative of our collective anxiety about unregulated capitalism, fascism, religious intolerance and, not least, the climate crisis).
From the beginning, the Murderbot Diaries have always been about free will and the ability to act on it. Even while pretending not to have borked its governor module, even while technically being cargo and classified as a possession, SecUnit has been carefully acting according to its conscience, and through the novels, we’ve seen it grow in confidence and in its willingness to risk emotionally and physically for the sake of the people it cares about. Lurching from one crisis to the next, SecUnit has been growing. At first it uses the entertainment feed as a guide and substitute for interpersonal relationships; by System Collapse it uses it as a diversion and recreation.
It’s not until the short story “Home: Habitat, Range, Niche, Territory,” set between Exit Strategy and Fugitive Telemetry, that Wells gives us a more objective view of what it means to be an object in this world:
The Corporation Rim has always been a slave state, though it calls its institutionalized slavery “contract labor.” The production of human/bot constructs is just a more horrific twist, a mental slavery as well as a physical one. At least victims of contract labor are free to think their own thoughts. But we tell ourselves that constructs aren’t aware of their predicament. What SecUnit makes us realize is that this is not true; they are all aware of what they are and what’s been done to them. But the only choice they are ever offered is obedience or pain and death.
But freedom has its dangers and pitfalls, too, and SecUnit has become painfully aware that hacking a governor module is a double-edged blade. It can’t force potential free will onto other constructs; the most it can do is offer the chance and let them make the choice for themselves, and the offer can be made only under specific circumstances (read the book and you’ll understand). With freedom comes responsibility, and SecUnit can’t offer it to anyone who might be exposed to discovery from their corporate owners or they’ll be killed. There’s also the fact that many of the SecUnits who are tasked to kill our SecUnit are acting under duress and are so traumatized by their own experiences that they’re not rational actors. And yet, our SecUnit can’t walk away from them. As Dostoevsky said, freedom is a burden, and a responsibility.
And speaking of trauma . . . yes, now this layer of narrative snaps into focus, as SecUnit begins to process the trauma it has experienced. And with trauma, comes fear — paralyzing, irrational fear. Ghost memories severe enough to cause system shutdown, or collapse.
And I realized I really didn’t want to go down there [into a dark cellar]. Even though what we could see of it was clearly unused, and the hatch probably hadn’t been open since the terraforming installation had been completed however many years ago. But I wanted to let the drones do it.
I had to go down there. It was stupid not to go down there. This was just a construction access point on a planet that would have a general risk assessment in the low 30s if not for the alien contamination. That’s not helping. All right, come on. If I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t do my job. I said, “Wait here until I check it out.”
(System Collapse, p. 70)
Finally, after seven books of non-stop snark and action, the bill is coming due, and Wells handles the layered emotional complexity subtly and with restraint. Yes, SecUnit had an emotional breakdown in Network Effect when it thought ART had been killed, but that’s crisis; this is aftermath, and it points toward another theme, another wrinkle in the saga of personhood. Murderbot has often been called depressed AI and likened to Marvin from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s a tortured comparison at best, and seriously underestimates SecUnit’s emotional growth and dignity. I look forward to seeing how this piece of psychology plays out in subsequent books.
I have one final observation about SecUnit’s development in System Collapse, beyond its deepening friendships with ART and ART’s crew, it’s rock-solid relationships with the Preservation Aux crew, and that is the use of media. At first, SecUnit learns about human relationships through the entertainment channel. After its adventures as a free actor at Milu and TranRollinHyfa, it’s watching documentaries and plays at a Preservation festival. In System Collapse, it and its humans have undertaken to save the colonists on the hive-mind planet from being forcibly enslaved by the corporation Barish-Estranza; SecUnit realizes the it can’t outshoot B-E and the colonists don’t trust its group, so it has to do something different:
That’s why Bharadwaj thought it was so important for me to be in the documentary. She said I had to tell my story. Which I knew, already, sort of. It’s not just the data that has to be correct, but the way that you present it has to feel right, be right. I’d learned that the hard way, trying to convince humans to not do stupid things and get themselves killed.
It was obvious that media could change emotions, change opinions. Visual, audio, or text media could actually rewrite organic neural processes. Bharadwaj had said that was what I’d done with Sanctuary Moon: I’d used ti to reconfigure the organic part of my brain. That it could and did have similar effects on humans.
I had to make media to tell a story to these humans. Not my story, and not just me talking. I had to tell their story, the story of what would happen to them if they said yes to Barish-Estranza. It would technically be fiction, but the kind of fiction that was true in all the ways that mattered.
(System Collapse, p. 161)
SecUnit is growing into its own potential, and the blossoming of a personality, whether it be organic or not, is quite a thing to behold. System Collapse is a marker along the continuum, but not a violation of what has come before. It’s not trauma-porn. And the story is still a twist on a Golden Age trope, one you might have watched on a long-ago sunlit Saturday afternoon when you had nothing else to do.
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