Tuesday, March 31, 2020

THE MURDERBOT DIARIES, four gifts from Author Martha Wells for your isolation reading

from marthawells.com


I think you'd have to be a troglodyte (therefore unlikely to have developed a blog-reading habit) to have escaped the Murderbot frenzy of the past three years. I've been remiss in buying them, since I am what is clinically described as "destitute," but I've borrowed library copies and chuckled (and sniffed!) along for the past three years. However, the release of Network Effect in May 2020 (place your pre-orders now! Authors need our support during the pandemic) led me to want to re-read the entire series. I'd planned to do this one book a month...All Systems Red in January, Artificial Condition in February, Rogue Protocol in March, Exit Strategy in April...but damme if it wasn't just too too tempting to get them all and gobble them down NOW when All Systems Red went on sale.

These novellas are absolutely perfect plague-reads. Long enough and involving enough to wile an afternoon away; enough of them to form a real attachment to the world Author Wells has built; a longer book in the near term; and still can fit the reads into a schedule without busting it! All four Murderbot Novellas are available at all imaginable retailers. You should visit the Author's Murderbot site for links to your preferred bookery. I really hope that you will, and not only because I love every single one of y'all who reads my reviews but because Author Wells could use our support in this Time of Plague.

Note! These reviews are not intended to give you spoilers but, if you have not read past a particular book in the series, please don't read reviews for the later books. I have left out the usual "The Publisher Says" portion of my review format because there are four books in this review. Follow any link to Author Wells's Murderbot Page if you aren't familiar with the set-up of the series.

My Reviews:
of All Systems Red...4* of five, what a great way to start a series
There is no pleasure like revisiting a read and discovering you like it *more* the second time around. I knew Murderbot was a terrific PoV character. I remembered the exhilaration of the ending. I am still delighted by Dr. Mensah, and I want to live on Preservation like, tomorrow, thank you please.

I'm so glad I did this reread. The pleasures of this slender expedition into a future both darker and brighter than the present I am so very disgruntled with are out of proportion to the time Author Wells spends setting them up. My trip to this future can now be continued; I expect, though, that I'd best hold back my usual urge to binge every available scrap before the novel comes out in May 2020. I want to savor these pleasures. Hell of an achievement, ma'am, to make a sentient but still pleasant cyborg with a murderous past into such a sweetiedarling woolly lambkin honey pie.

of Artificial Condition...4* of five, so much fun to read back-to-back!
Murderbot's shocking actions at the end of All Systems Red come into sharp focus in this excellent romp. I love Murderbot. Its journey to becoming fully sapient, instead of merely sentient, is full of the most delightful lines and aperçus:
I guess you can’t tell a story from the point of view of something that you don’t think has a point of view.
“Sometimes people do things to you that you can’t do anything about. You just have to survive it and go on.”
I can't help but feel that sapience is its gift already, it just doesn't know it. It takes more than sentience to desire truth over comfort:
“I need to know if the incident occurred due to a catastrophic failure of my governor module. That’s what I think happened. But I need to know for sure.”
I hesitated, but what the hell, {ART} already knew everything else. “I need to know if I hacked my governor module in order to cause the incident.”
And now I knew why I hadn’t wanted to do this. It would make it harder for me to pretend not to be a person.
Author Wells, I salute you. This tale, this entire series, is some very, very high quality misdirection! You're teaching us, you clever clogs, while making us laugh and diverting our executive functions with innocuous-looking packaging.

The last words, in service of my point, belong to ART the, um, well let's say Murderbot's use of the acronym is both apt and necessary (and in the end is used by ART as its own name, in a very under-the-radar throwaway at the end of this volume):
Young humans can be impulsive. The trick is keeping them around long enough to become old humans. This is what my crew tells me and my own observations seem to confirm it.

Mommydaddy Murderbot concurs.

of Rogue Protocol...4.75* of five, damn near perfect
Oh, Murderbot!

Oh my poor, sweet Murderbot. Your pain is real to me because Author Wells is skilled in the art of inflicting pain on innocent readers. Best of the three stories by a good margin.

Murderbot continues its quest to fully understand the horrible life it's led as a slave, one sentient enough to be autonomous but still able to be customized to perform different complex security functions (which implies being programmable, therefore malleable, therefore manipulable in the vilest of ways) but not allowed to develop its sapience. Author Wells does her usual bang-up job of making Murderbot an excellent companion on a picaresque quest to install sapience into its systems:
I didn’t have the combat stealth module anyway (I had never been upgraded with it, probably due to...the whole “killing all the clients” thing, go figure)...
Who knew being a heartless killing machine would present so many moral dilemmas. (Yes, that was sarcasm.)
The core cutter had powered up and accessed my feed to deliver a canned warning and a handy set of directions. Why yes, I did want to disengage the safety protocols, thanks for asking.
The issue at hand this time, the reason Murderbot sweet-talked a fairly basic pilot bot into allowing it aboard a human-infested transport to a far outpost on the Corporation Rim...pause to appreciate that as Murderbot's quest for information (what humans call answers) to process what and why it became Murderbot in the first place that it travels in space beyond the reach of the corporation-first norms into low-security humans-first territory...is to collect more data on GrayCris. These corporate malefactors ("We were talking about GrayCris here, whose company motto seemed to be “profit by killing everybody and taking their stuff,” thinks Murderbot) are in the middle of a lawsuit war with Dr. Mensah and the entire Preservation team that bought Murderbot in All Systems Red.

The discoveries Murderbot makes are, well, unsurprising in that malefeasance and lawbreaking are involved. They are appalling in that corporate skulduggery explicitly involves murdering people to save the corporation money. Author Wells doesn't look on a safe, secure, "prosperous" world with no privacy and less respect for human dignity with the eye of faith. She sees what she sees and reports back to us. I mean, it's all a story, right, but it's not based on nothing. Is it.

So Murderbot visits beyond the Corporation Rim to discover what it suspects is bombshell information. Murderbot wants to help the human that bought it not in order to use it but in order to stop it being used. Murderbot applied its sentience to leave, it's not proper to say "escape," Dr. Mensah to begin its quest for sapience without knowing in advance that...
...apparently once you start, you can’t just stop. I wasn’t going to just send the geo pod data to Dr. Mensah. I was taking it to her personally. I was going back. Then I laid down on the floor and started Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon from episode one.
Murderbot's heading home. Family needs it. And Family comes first.

of Exit Strategy...5* of five, there's a beautiful glow about this read, like polished sterling
This is the point in the series when Murderbot comes in from the cold. Nothing about this read is emotionally easy because Murderbot is so confused. Until the organic memories can be fully integrated into its systems, emotions will keep flooring it. Author Wells gets all five stars for this entry in the series because that integration is not an easy thing for Murderbot, or in fact for the organic being reading its diary.
(Possibly I was overthinking this. I do that; it’s the anxiety that comes with being a part-organic murderbot. The upside was paranoid attention to detail. The downside was also paranoid attention to detail.)
I was having an emotion, and I hate that. I’d rather have nice safe emotions about shows on the entertainment media; having them about things real-life humans said and did just led to stupid decisions like {the one Murderbot is telling us about}.
Huh, why did I like Sanctuary Moon so much? I had to pull the memory from my archive, and what I saw there startled me. “It’s the first one I saw. When I hacked my governor module and picked up the entertainment feed. It made me feel like a person.” Yeah, that last part shouldn’t have come out, but with all the security-feed monitoring I was doing, I was losing control of my output. I closed my archive. I really needed to get around to setting that one-second delay on my mouth.
Wonderful. Truly, and simply, wonderful prose, wonderful plotting, wonderful world-building, and a wonderful, satisfying character arc.

Monday, March 30, 2020

A JUSTIFIED STATE, first of three medium-future Scotland's awful torments, and SUPER good COVID-19 reading

(The State Trilogy #1)
$1.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five, a half-star off for the heinous w-bomb dropped at 52%

The Publisher Says: In the future, The State is ruled by the socially reformist Central Party Alliance. Poverty and homelessness have been eradicated, but overpopulation, an energy crisis and an ongoing overseas war are threatening the stability of the country. When a local politician is assassinated, Detective Danny Samson finds himself thrust into the middle of the investigation. Still grieving for his dead wife and children, Danny tracks down the assassin, an ex-military sniper called Gabriella, only to discover she may not be the real villain.

The secret behind the murder of one politician may bring down the entire ruling Party, and Danny soon learns those in power will go to any lengths to protect The State. Joining forces with Gabriella and the mysterious government agent Phillips, Danny must unearth the truth and bring the guilty to justice, before they catch up with him first.

My Review: No one is talking about this book and I can not figure out why. I think it's superb. A Justified State is really dark, involving, and quite exciting. Think Enemy of the State only written by Philip K. Dick in an unusually grim mood. It's near-future, like the In Death series, and can't fairly be classed with them because the stakes are SO. VERY. HIGH.

The world is, as I suspect you know by now, going directly to hell in a very cramped handbasket. There are 7.5 billion of us, and the planet's ability to support us all is creaking. That's not because of scarcity of resources, mind you, it's because we distribute resources in truly pathological ways. The COVID-19 pandemic during which I am writing this review, and whose assault on my nerves I read this book to mitigate, has thrown this 2018 title's central thesis into bright relief. Things, in Detective Danny Samson's unnamed-but-evidently medium-future Glasgow, are both better...the environment is recovering, the sea-level rises we're going to get (don't bother equivocating, they're coming so make your plans accordingly) are well-mitigated...and worse...we're all forced to live in Social Housing cubes, prefab characterless nightmares of conformity, and while no one is hungry only the very top echelons regularly eat natural foods. (None of this, BTW, is remotely far-fetched as we're in this situation today; you're just not used to looking at it from that angle.)

The electric grid that sustains dense city immense population is struggling. The lifespan of an average citizen is about 110 years; Danny's not quite middle-aged at 47. But it's not the years, it's the mileage, as Danny's life ceased to have any meaning after his twin children died shortly after birth, followed by his wife's depression and suicide. No one is going to be chipper under these circumstances. Danny, as a State Police Officer, is forced (note verb) to take compassionate leave to process his losses. When the story opens, a murder is in process; the lucky State Police Detective to draw the short straw of investigating the first violent homicide the City has seen in who-knows-when is Danny. That the murdered man is a Consul, a high but local State official, suggests to all and not least to Danny, that the desired result of the investigation isn't The Truth Coming Out, but the forms being filled out and filed. He's dead, it's awful, what's next.

I'll tell you what's next: Danny the Depressed needs answers because he's lost love, he's lost purpose, and he's rapidly losing the little faith in Humanity he's clung to. Solving a man's murder, even a man as far "above" Danny as the dead Consul was, will enable Danny to restore ma'at, will bring a deal of justice to a world where even-handed has been defined as fair. The reason the opening murder is committed will, I promise you, set your preconceived notions on their ear. It's a deep and twisty thing, power, and grabbing it makes enemies.

Sometimes very, very angry ones. Righteously angry.
Where there were those in power, those with more wealth, they would always seek to rise above those below them, to maintain their position and protect their interests.
I do not care what kind of social system, with what kind of social controls on thought and behavior, people invent, there will be someone who will find a way to subvert the purpose of the situation for their own gain. Every system starts with a purpose, often a laudable one; we, the hoi polloi, are assured that ALL must obey the strictures put in place to benefit the many at the expense of the few.
Openness and transparency, those were the cornerstones of the Central Alliance Party that had swept to power after years of corrupt and ineffectual governance. If {the Party} had the ability to fake {location} data, then {police} reports were at best meaningless and at worst providing alibis that allowed State leaders to go wherever they wanted and do whatever they desired.
It will surprise you to learn that this is, in fact, the least of the worms crawling out of the can that Danny and his weirdly assorted not-enemies (it's too much to call them "allies") have collectively opened. This is an iceberg whose long gestation has caused much, much displacement in the ocean of Danny's life.

I can't go more into that because the Spoiler Stasi will shriek at and dive-bomb me. (An unpleasant experience, I've found, and to be avoided even if their sensitivity seems to me outsized and outlandishly emotional.) But this is a book I want you to read, so I won't spoiler the real, and utterly appalling, motive for the murder of the Consul. The deaths that follow are, in fact, all tied to the central horror, the unbelievable (and I mean this literally, you will not want to believe the central crime could ever happen) cruelty and vileness, which the Consul set in motion.

Seriously, y'all, this book's been out there 18 months and it's not a bestseller yet?! Hop on it! Three bucks for five hours'-worth of twisty, dark, well-plotted, tautly paced, and almost entirely well-thought-out worldbuilding telling a deeply heartfelt moral story.

I do have a few minor cavils. There are, in this Brave New World, some absences that are carefully explained. No bars, casinos, or parties; only State-approved music; one mass celebration allowed, the New Year. No old-fashioned dwellings with things like fireplaces. Not in generations. And yet Danny knows how to tend a fire? And Danny knows the barman behind the bar in an illicit casino (a word he shouldn't know, a concept he shouldn't have) how exactly?

But these are cavils. I can probably MacGyver up a patch, to do with the fact that Danny's father was older when he was born and his great-grandfather was a known troublemaker, something like that. But honestly when I am so enrapt and fully invested in the story, I don't much like having to retcon myself. Call me crazy but that's the author's job to my mind.