“The Murderbot Diaries” by Martha Wells
Tor Books 2017, 2018
Science Fiction has had something of a spate of AI or robot as central character novels in the last few years, not a few of which have racked up some serious rewards. However, I’ve found most of them pretty severely lacking since, in a rush to hammer home some pretty blunt metaphors about the nature of humanity, many of them have slighted their human characters and skipped out making something that looks like a intelligible plot. Yeah, so … I got that out of the way.
Martha Well’s “Murderbot” books are the answer to whether it’s possible to write a main character who is a robot, create surrounding characters who are notably human, and wrap them all up in an interesting and entertaining world — a resounding “yep.”
The diaries are actually a set of four brief novellas or even novelettes (the difference will only matter to you if you’ve ever been paid to produce one or the other) that work together like the best episodic television shows while fitting together neatly into a larger whole. The first volume, All Systems Red, came out at the end of 2017. The other three followed swiftly, with the final book, Exit Strategy, arriving in October 2018. It’s a neat trick, and while this group completes the initial arc of that grand story, there’s a promise of more in the future.
The main character here is a security robot who has hacked its own control chips and become not just self-aware but self actuated. It’s a powerful machine, capable of killing humans by the score. Except it’s far more interested in settling down in a storage crate and watching soap operas. If only people would simply let it alone. The genuinely shy and retiring murderbot meets a variety of human, and non-human characters, and only has to kill a few of them. And they’re all bad. Really. It also becomes part of an extended family, genuinely grows as a character, and ends up saving a lot of people who may be brilliant in their own fields, but are ignorant to the ways of murdering.
Seriously, the genderless bot at the center of this story is a fun, and often funny, character. You definitely want it on your team. Also, I come out of these books wanting to binge-watch the fictional video series Sanctuary Moon. Would someone at Netflix get on that?
This time it’s Wells’ murderbot up for all the awards. It, and she, deserve them.
Magpie Murders, The Word is Murder, and The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz
These are actually two books in a series and a stand alone novel, two of which — Magpie Murders and The Word is Murder — came out in 2017, but I only got around to reading the whole lot this year so … here they are.
Horowitz is a clever writer. If you’ve ever watched the BBC series Foyle’s War, he was behind essentially every episode of that classic who-dun-it mixed with war story. So you won’t be surprised to find that these are very clever books.
In Magpie Murders, Horowitz follows the death of a mystery writer who has just turned in his last manuscript, forcing his intrepid editor into role of detective and setting readers up with a book-within-the-book whose plot and clues mirror those of the “real” mystery. It’s neatly done, with lots of subtle in-jokes, references to classic British cozy tropes, and some painfully accurate digs at the pretentious literary aspirations of authors who confuse monetary success with genuine talent. Let me say this to would-be writers everywhere — when you were tying to sell a book, why didn’t you think of making a crusading editor into the hero? Yeah, you’re kicking yourself now, aren’t you?
The Word is Murder and The Sentence is Death are the first of what will surely be a longer series in which Horowitz batters on the fourth wall by making himself one of the main characters. The fun thing is that Horowitz has cast himself as Watson, with Holmes appearing in the person of Hawthorne, a brilliant but utterly bull-headed police detective turned consultant. Both books are fun, mostly for watching the interplay between Horowitz and his own creation. Unfortunately, they’re both a bit of a let down in terms of simply being good mysteries, as in both cases Hawthorne essentially has the case solved by chapter two and spends a lot of time treading water to let the rest of us mortals catch up. That may be pretty true to the spirit of Hawthorne’s Victorian predecessor, but it’s frustrating for more than just the on-page persona of the author. Sorry, Tony.
The Robots of Gotham by Todd McAulty
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2018
Hey, didn’t we just do robots? Yeah, but this one is different. This is a book that manages to wed an almost insane level of action—the opening chapter of the novel starts with a fight between a giant war robot and a guy in a mech-suit on a street in downtown Chicago—with some more serious thoughts about all those “what does it mean to be human” and “is AI a threat” questions that are the focus of other novels. Seriously, there is a bit of everything going on here. Military conflict on the squad level in tunnels running under city streets. Military conflict on a grand level as AI-based governments plot to tackle the final human-run democracies and each other. There are mysteries large and small, as humans try to keep track of what the forces they’ve set loose are doing to their world. Some of those mysteries are subtle — what’s the origin of the diminutive figure who assists our main character at several critical points? But some of them are much larger, and stranger. Like, why is there a colony of misfit robots living deep beneath Chicago? Oh yeah, and why the hell is a volcano erupting amidst some fantastic construction on the floor of Lake Michigan? People just don’t seem concerned enough about that last one, because if I was in Chicago, that one would concern me. There’s also a good deal of personal drama, from missing kids to displaced people.
By the end of the book, our rather ordinary middle-aged protagonist has saved humanity from a secret plague, fought off any number of hunter-killer robots, repeatedly foiled the security system of an occupying army, outrun a group of much younger and fitter soldiers, tangled with an animated dinosaur, hoisted the bad guy on his own petard, acquired a super suit, romanced two beautiful women, hosted a charity ball, and saved a lost dog. But he’s done most of it through the sheer force of Being a Nice Guy Who Really Cares … so it’s hard to be mad about it.
There’s technical cleverness and gee-whizardry of all sorts, mixed with an insane number of plots, subplots, characters and backstory. It would all be a bit overwhelming if it wasn’t just wrapped in a great deal of fun and a storytelling style that seems to simultaneously be looking forward while mixing some solid old-fashion sense-o-wonder science fictioning.
This doorstop is just the start of an even bigger grand narrative. I’ll be drumming my fingers as I wait for volume two. And wondering where I can get one of those super suits. Oh, and bet your bottom dollar someone is tallying up the costs of putting this one on film or video Real Soon Now.
Scythe and Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman
Simon and Schuster 2017, 2018
As with several books I’ve mentioned today, the first volume of this series popped in 2017, but I’m writing about it now since I just finished with the latest installment. Shusterman’s “Arc of a Scythe” series is theoretically YA, but more than most series that’s simply because the main characters are under twenty at the series’ opening. The themes being dealt with here could not be more adult.
While the world seems to have been drowned in enough YA dystopias that it seems entirely possible to write a YA dystopia about a world drowning in YA dystopias, it’s hard to fit Shusterman’s series into that flood. It’s not really a dystopia. Or at least, it isn’t on the surface. After all, this is an almost-post-scarcity society, where a benevolent AI runs all government, no one is hungry or in need, and healthcare has advanced to the point that people are essentially immortal — safe even from the majority of accidents. There’s no government mind control. No effort to iron out non-conformity or stifle creativity. None of the tropes of the usual gray-suit dystopia.
But there’s a bit of a fly in this Star Trek-ish pudding. First off, attempts to colonize other planets or take advantage of space resources have failed, rather mysteriously, meaning that resources are not quite unlimited. Meaning that population must still be controlled somehow. Meaning that people either have to stop reproducing … or be killed. The answer in these books is a professional class of “Scythes,” literal robe-wearing grim reapers who apprentice and train to end the lives of others around them, at a rate of committing about one officially sanctioned murder a day.
The two main characters of the book begin as apprentice scythes mostly because they show curiosity and compassion. But those same qualities begin to create issues when it becomes clear that, behind the cover of the carefully protected line between scythe and state, there are problems. The scythes are neither as all-knowing, or as thoughtful in their choices as society seems to believe. The singular governing AI—the Thunderhead—is a rather mournful stack of software that increasingly feels distanced from, and superior to, its creators. Both factors are driving this “looks like a utopia” toward a rapid, ugly dissolution.
What’s most amazing in these books is just how many different ways Shusterman plays with the concepts of the society he’s created. Has he thought this thing through? Oh yes he has, and he’s going to show you, touching one beat after another to make it clear that he has his bases covered. It’s fascinating stuff, and the execution (pun intended) is crisp and always moving. But, as you might expect, the term “fun” doesn’t exactly cover the story here. Nail-biting tension mixed with deep foreboding is closer to the tone.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles
I’ll be honest with you, this wasn’t the first year I read this book. It may not even be the first time I’ve written about it. 2018 was just the year that I read this again. And again.
Jiles’ novel centers on the elderly Captain Jefferson Kidd who travels around Texas in the post Civil War period, making a living by giving dramatic readings of newspapers for audiences who are mostly illiterate or off the path of regular news delivery. The Captain’s solitary travels are interrupted in Wichita Falls, when he’s handed a $50 gold piece and a girl who was taken back after years of living with a band of Kiowa. Kidd reluctantly accepts the job of transporting her across the state to her last remaining relatives in San Antonio.
But the ten-year-old girl in his charge is a long way from the Johanna who was taken from her family farm. Keeping her in check is a challenge for the aging Kidd. That challenge becomes even greater when the old man, the gold, and the girl all become tempting targets for bandits who have darker designs on Johanna than any Kiowa.
The short novel has drawn a lot of comparisons to True Grit, but the better comparison is likely Larry McMurtry’s Streets of Laredo — though Captain Kidd is definitely not Captain Call, in ways both good and bad. But both he and Johanna are quite the characters, and their relatively brief adventure is a genuine gift to an area of literature that gets far too few stories of this quality.
You’re Going to Mars! By: Rob Dircks as read by Khristine Hvam
Audible Studios 2018
I did not read this book. I’m not even sure it is possible to read this book, and if it is, I’m not sure how it would play on the page. Frankly, the mixture of The Martian level technical detail with an overlay of game show and a dash of The Sopranos would likely look silly if written down. In fact, it is silly. Intensely silly.
But I didn’t read it. I listened to it read — more like, performed — by Khristine Hvam. And Hvam tackles this book with such a sweetly upbeat, can-do, all-aboard, unfiltered pluckiness that it’s hard to listen without a smile. She powers through technical details on a convincing burst of enthusiasm from the main character, smiles her way around the romance sub-plot, and just generally deploys enough gung-ho, full speed ahead charm to drive that spaceship all the way to Mars and back.
Aww, Paper Forest, you are one smart, motivated, and motivating cookie. Come back again, and I’ll gladly follow you on another flight (so long as Hvam is part of the deal).
Honestly, I’d be afraid to read this book. And why should I, when I can always listen again. And smile.