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Literature / The Murderbot Diaries

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" I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don't know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure."
All Systems Red
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The Murderbot Diaries is a series of science fiction novellas by Martha Wells. "Murderbot" is the self-chosen name of a particular SecUnit, an intelligent partly-organic robot rented out by the company that owns it for security purposes. Murderbot has secretly hacked its governor module, but none of the members of the planetary survey team it’s working with have any idea.

There are six books out or planned, with the first four being novellas and the fifth being a novel:

  • All Systems Red, May 2017
  • Artificial Condition, May 2018
  • Rogue Protocol, August 2018
  • Exit Strategy, October 2018
  • Network Effect, May 2020
  • Fugitive Telemetry, forthcoming April 2021

A prequel short story titled "Compulsory" was released online in December 2018. A short story titled "Home: Habitat, Range, Niche, Territory" was available with pre-orders of Network Effect and released simultaneously with it. Supplemental material includes "Five Things You Don't Know About the Murderbot Diaries" (February 2020) and "Feelings REDACTED: What Happens When Murderbot and ART Talk to Instagram" (April 2020).

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This series provides examples of:

  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Thoroughly averted. The series opens with Murderbot musing that it could go on a murderous rampage, but it would rather just watch its serials. Instead, AIs seem shaped by how they're treated. ART finds depictions of a human crew dying very distressing. Miki is treated well and sacrifices itself to save its human friends, defying an order to protect itself first. Tlacey's ComfortUnit is the only AI to suggest killing humans, but it mostly just wants to escape its abusive, murderous owner. The trope does exist in In-Universe fiction, though, much to Murderbot's annoyance.
  • Accidental Murder: The "Incident" at Ganaka Pit. The malware that caused Murderbot and all the other SecUnits to go completely haywire was uploaded by a rival mining installation, and was meant to sabotage just the Loader Bots, delaying Gakana Pit's delivery and lowering their performance stats. It also unintentionally infected the SecUnits, and a minor bit of industrial sabotage turned into a massacre by killer androids, with the whole area abandoned, all formal records of it deleted, becoming nothing more than a horror story the miners on RaviHyral tell each other. Oops.
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  • All Just a Dream: Discussed by Murderbot and ART about an episode of Sanctuary Moon, while answering an interview question from an Instagram Live AMA.
    What really happened on episode 231 of Sanctuary Moon?
    MB: It was clearly a dream.
    ART: You’re wrong.
    MB: So when the Mech Pilot was attacked by his evil duplicate who tried to hit him with a giant hammer and then disappeared, you think that was supposed to be real?
    ART: It was an artistic choice.
  • All-Loving Hero: Miki the bot is so congenial that it considers Murderbot a friend after one brief conversation in which Murderbot is hiding from it and actually asks it to withhold information from its owner, another friend.
  • The Alternet: Basically every computer and every person is connected to "the feed," a wireless digital connection system that seems to function as wifi signal, communication channel, search engine database, and streaming media server.
  • Appropriated Appellation: In the second story, Murderbot refers to the research ship's AI as ART: the Asshole Research Transport. Later, a character who the ship has communicated with refers to 'your friend Art'.
  • Arc Words: Murderbot frequently repeats "I don't know what I want." Used to discuss the trouble it has existing in a human society as something that is not, and does not want to be human.
  • Arm Cannon: SecUnits have small Energy Weapons concealed in their forearms, though Murderbot still prefers bigger guns for serious combat situations. The ports are a giveaway to its status when it's in a Human Disguise, but can be hidden by any long-sleeved shirt.
  • Artificial Human: Murderbot has organic parts — enough to bleed when injured, and to pass as an augmented human when wearing the right clothes — but was manufactured, not born. The organic bits are apparently cloned tissue.
  • Batman Gambit: The Perihelion's plan in Network Effect. ART becomes compromised with alien remnant tech, and is forced by a hostage situation to aid the Hive-Minders in their mission to spread the contamination. To this end, it tempts them with a promise of a "powerful weapon", and gives them Murderbot's location, knowing that Murderbot will be able to overcome the intruders and ART will also be able to coerce MB into retrieving its crew once it's aboard. Overlaps slighly with Thanatos Gambit, as the later part of this happens after ART gets itself deleted preventing the Hive-Minders from killing any of Murderbot's survey team, and it had already hidden a backup copy of itself, which was coded such that only Murderbot could open and restore it.
  • Blood Knight: The combat SecUnit in Book 4 refuses an offer of parlay and says quite simply that its desire is to kill Murderbot, a complete stranger. Murderbot is outright confused by the attitude.
  • Break the Cutie: Miki, though the story strongly suggests that it was Broken All Along, and it had hidden that from everyone.
  • Character Name Alias: Murderbot, needing a name, calls itself 'Eden' or 'Rin' after characters from Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon.
  • Condescending Compassion: Murderbot does not appreciate the suggestions of well-intentioned humans that being/becoming human is the only way anyone can be happy.
  • Cranial Processing Unit: Averted; robot processing units are located in their (much better shielded) abdomens, but Murderbot references the trope twice in its narration. Wilken makes the rookie mistake of trying to shoot Miki's head off, which would only have inconvenienced it. Murderbot makes the tactical decision to shoot a combat bot in the head, knowing that its weapon isn't enough to pierce the bot's abdominal shielding but is enough to scramble all its head-mounted sensors for a crucial moment.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Murderbot, and how! ART has some aspects of this as well.
  • Dick Dastardly Stops to Cheat: Tlacey the Corrupt Corporate Executive breaks her contract with Tapan's group, steals their research, and repeatedly tries to have them killed when they try to recover it. As a representative of an interstellar Mega-Corp, it would have been trivial for her to hire them or buy their work fairly. Instead, her efforts get her a Neck Snap from Murderbot.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: We eventually learn ART's real name is The Perihelion. Its crew refers to it as Peri, which Murderbot notes for use in future arguments.
  • Establishing Character Moment: In its introductory scene, Murderbot defends two scientists from a giant creature, pulling one out of the attacker's jaws and applying pressure to her wounds with its own body, then exposes its face so it can talk down the second scientist out of his panic. And then it becomes extremely uncomfortable when the grateful team starts treating it like a person instead of a disposable tool.
  • Exotic Extended Marriage: Every marriage mentioned in the first story involves at least three people; it’s apparently normal for the setting. Some of the major characters of the second story are in a group marriage/commune.
  • Fictional Document: At least part of the first story, possibly all of it, is left as a note for Dr. Mensah after Murderbot leaves after she buys its contract.
    • Network Effect features multiple flashback segments that turn out to be excerpted memory recordings that Murderbot 2.0 is sending to Sec Unit 3 in a bid to convince it to help.
  • First-Person Smartass: Murderbot.
  • Free-Love Future: Everyone whose marriage is mentioned is married to multiple people. This passes completely without comment.
  • Friendship Moment: Towards the end of the first story, Murderbot is critically injured. An automated response tells the survey team they should discard it because it’s too badly damaged. Mensah tells it to "shut the fuck up, we’re not leaving you", even though this means they have to actually move it to the hopper that’s going to get them off-planet.
  • Genius Ditz: Miki definitely isn't running a high-wattage Idea Bulb, but it is exceptionally perceptive. It notices Murderbot watching it via remote surveillance and even picks up on Murderbot's emotional state through a communication channel when Murderbot isn't actively communicating anything, feats that nobody else in the series can manage.
  • Hates Being Touched: Murderbot was never socialized with humans in any physical way and is used to wearing body armour, so it doesn't get the point of being touched and finds it very unpleasant. It's a big deal when Murderbot likes someone enough to offer to be hugged in a stressful moment.
  • Heroic RRoD: Extending its senses into a Company gunship in an attempt to foil an aggressive attack from a GrayCris AI makes Murderbot overload and crash, but not before succeeding. It's left unconscious for quite some time while it fixes its own mind.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Miki faces down a combat bot to protect its loved ones. Also, in the second book, the ComfortUnits in the mining station put themselves between their idiot humans and the corrupted SecUnits, which hits Murderbot pretty hard once it realizes what happened.
  • Hero of Another Story: Mensah apparently takes legal action to get the company to sell her Murderbot without a memory purge, and the court case ends up famous enough that there’s reporters waiting for it, Pin-Lee, and Ratthi when they leave the company. We see absolutely none of this except the very end, because the story is told from Murderbot’s point of view and Murderbot is unconscious in a cubicle the whole time.
  • Hidden Depths: After Miki shows that it is capable of shading the truth (something that bots shouldn't be capable of), Murderbot explicitly states that it thinks Miki may have them.
  • I Know Mortal Kombat: Murderbot fills the gaps in the Company's lacklustre combat programming with tactics and techniques it remembers from media serials. Justified since Murderbot has the superhuman speed, reflexes, and analytical capability to compensate for the unrealistic portrayals.
  • Insistent Terminology: Sapient Ship ART doesn't have a weapons system, it has a debris deflection system.
    • Murderbot's narration is always careful to distinguish between humans and augmented humans, even though nobody else seems to care. Word of God in an interview states that it's because augmented humans are a much bigger threat to it.
  • "It" Is Dehumanizing: Murderbot is pretty insistent on using the "it" pronoun for itself and other bots, even though it's clear that bots are sentient and capable of feeling emotion. For Murderbot, it's not a pejorative — it's sexless, genderless, and quite content to be non-human.
  • Just a Machine: Even after everything Murderbot’s done for the team, the company tries to argue that it’s just a machine, to be returned, memory-purged, and rented out again. Similarly, there was no consideration given to getting it some sort of psychological help after the incident with the miners; they just fixed the glitches, tried to wipe its memory, and then rented it out again. Murderbot mentions that SecUnits are partly organic to improve their situational awareness and functioning over purer robots, with the anxiety and neuroses as psychological side effects that go unnoticed or are not cared about.
  • Kill All Humans: Tlacey's ComfortUnit suggests this to Murderbot and ART. They find the suggestion completely insane, and Murderbot assumes it was ordered to say that.
  • Knight In Sour Armor: Despite Murderbot's Dark and Troubled Past and all of its cynical declarations that it doesn't care about humans, Murderbot goes to great lengths to protect innocent people from harm, usually at great personal risk to Murderbot itself.
  • Logical Weakness: The climax of the second novella is largely predicated on the fact that Murderbot has no experience arguing its clients out of bad decisions, just at mopping up the consequences of those decisions. (This is what happens when you spend most of your life either under a Restraining Bolt or having to pretend you are.)
  • Loophole Abuse: Murderbot continually exploits loopholes in AI instructions to travel freely through the setting despite legally being property. For example, AI-piloted spaceships are told not to give information to random humans, but not how to respond to a friendly fellow AI who asks to be allowed onboard.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Tlacey tries to kill several people by destroying a shuttle AI just at the critical time to cause a crash.
  • Meaningful Name: Dr. Mensah, who is, of course, very smart.
  • Microts: Justified. "Cycles" are used in place of "days", since timekeeping needs to be standardized across planets with different rotational periods, Space Stations, and ships in interstellar transit. Discussed when some people caught in a 20-year Leonine Contract realize they don't know what standard of "year" the contract uses.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Murderbot. (It’s a self-chosen name. The humans are not reassured when they find out.)
  • News Broadcast: In the second story, Murderbot is trying to hide from broadcasts of it with members of the PreservationAux team. In the third and fourth story it gets updates on the team's activity this way as well.
  • N.G.O. Superpower: Many and varied, such that there are some complicated interplanetary treaties governing the interactions between corporate and non-corporate entities. The Company itself is the type that will send a full gunship to escort a difficult client rather than bother contesting the client's Loophole Abuse.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Dr. Abene treats Miki the bot as a true friend even though Miki is technically her property, instructs it to prioritize its own safety in a dangerous situation, and is absolutely devastated when Miki is killed, all of which give Murderbot a hugely improved opinion of her.
  • No Biological Sex: Murderbot wasn’t made with those parts. It’s also asexual, although it does find soap operas interesting except for the sex scenes.
  • No Name Given: For as much of a major role as the company plays in the story, given that it manufactured and owns Murderbot and most of the other tech and apparently handles permits for planetary exploration, it’s never named other than "the company". Eventually confirmed in Network Effect that this stems from Murderbot's hatred of it, it edits all mentions of The Company's name out of its internal records, even other character's dialogue.
  • Non-Human Non-Binary: Murderbot does not identify as a human or with a human gender.
  • Non-Indicative Name: Murderbot may be a walking weapon, but it doesn't do much murdering - the name says more about its sardonic nature. Similarly, the ship Murderbot dubs Asshole Research Transport is actually quite helpful - they just got off on the wrong foot.
  • No Social Skills: Murderbot is used to being treated like equipment, not a human. As such, it has a hard time being included in conversation. It also appears to suffer from social anxiety—often the mere thought of being in a crowd or having to interact with people stresses it out. Zig-zagged in that it turns out to be pretty good at handling humans when it needs to as part of a job.
  • Nothing Personal: Said as part of a foiled Bodyguard Betrayal. Murderbot muses that by saying it instead of just killing the target without warning, the bodyguard was making sure the target knew they'd been betrayed, which makes it personal.
  • The Not-Love Interest: Dr. Mensah for Murderbot. While Murderbot is asexual, its emotional connection to Mensah drives Murderbot's actions for most of the novella series.
  • Odd Friendship: In the third book, Murderbot, a cynical cyborg with next to no human interaction; and Miki, an idealistic, human-loving bot. Murderbot encourages Miki's critical thinking skills, while Miki gets Murderbot to think more about how it would like to be treated by humans.
  • One-Way Visor: Murderbot prefers to keep its helmet visor on the opaque setting, although it does switch to transparent upon Dr. Mensah’s request.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: Justified when Murderbot goes undercover and modifies itself with an Auto-Doc. The "disguise" makes it two centimetres shorter, lengthens its head hair and thickens its eyebrows, and adds a small amount of body hair to its human skin, plus adds self-written code to imitate human gait and tics — not enough to fool anyone familiar with SecUnits, but enough to fool the ubiquitous automated surveillance feeds.
  • Pinocchio Syndrome: Discussed between Dr. Mensah and Murderbot, who likes some things about humanity (especially soap operas) but finds other parts incomprehensible or outright distasteful and is quite secure in its own identity as a partially organic supercomputer.
    Dr. Mensah: We tend to think that because a bot or construct looks human, its ultimate goal would be to become human.
    Murderbot: ...That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard.
  • Pretend to Be Brainwashed: Letting Tlacey's people put an override module in Murderbot's data port so it can come onboard. Murderbot had ART disable the port, so the override module does nothing.
  • Protectorate: Murderbot takes threats against its human clients very seriously and very personally.
    "Maybe these clients had been terrible and abusive, maybe they had deserved it. I didn’t care. Nobody was touching my humans."
  • Restraining Bolt: The governor module that all Sec Units and Comfort Units have. We never actually see Murderbot affected by its own module, but apparently malware overriding the original one was responsible for the "mining accident" in which Murderbot killed fifty-seven people.
  • Ridiculously Human Robots: Zig-zagged. High-intelligence AIs are shaped by their personal experiences, which tend to involve being immersed in very specific fields of work and neural links to various data feeds, but can respond quite organically to those experiences. Murderbot itself is hilariously socially awkward, obsessed with soap operas, and prone to deadpan snark in its internal monologue. As for others...
    Are all constructs so illogical? said the Asshole Research Transport with the immense processing capability whose metaphorical hand I had had to hold because it had become emotionally compromised by a fictional media serial.
  • Sapient Ship: Most of them, to some degree. Most spaceship AIs are just smart enough to manage their own systems and pilot themselves, but the Asshole Research Transport is vastly intelligent. Murderbot is a bit nervous about a shuttle that "only" has an autopilot, because its lack of an AI would make it all but useless in an emergency situation.
  • Saw It in a Movie Once: Some of ART's tactics in the second story come from Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon.
  • Schmuck Bait: Going to talk to Tlacey in person, in the second story. Both times.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: The company was apparently bribed to hide the presence of GrayCris’s survey team.
  • Sexbot: The official name is ComfortUnit. They're stronger than humans in general, but can't stand up to a SecUnit.
  • Shrinking Violet: Yes, Murderbot has guns built into its arms. No, it does not want to make eye contact with you during a conversation. At one point, it is so overwhelmed by all the attention being focused on it that it goes and stands in the corner facing the walls.
  • Sinister Surveillance: Downplayed. On the one hand, audiovisual surveillance is pretty much inescapable in its N.G.O. Superpower-dominated setting, and it's an open secret that every word spoken in a Company-leased habitat is being recorded and logged. On the other, the Company is more or less exclusively motivated by its own bottom line, so it just data-mines those logs for anything profitable — they might be intimately intrusive, but they're at least impersonal about it.
  • Sitcom Arch-Nemesis: Murderbot enjoys antagonizing Gurathin with petty digs, even after it’s clear that they’re both on the same side.
  • Soap Within a Show: Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon, which Murderbot likes to watch in its downtime. The only discussion we see of the actual plot is that the colony’s solicitor apparently didn’t kill the terraforming supervisor who was the secondary donor for her implanted baby, and the solicitor's bodyguard best friend was seemingly crushed to death while she tried to save a trapped transport mech. No official word yet on whether the baby donor and the bodyguard bestie are the same person.
  • Speculative Fiction LGBT: It's presented as a background detail of the setting that Polyamorous marriages/group communes are common and non-binary gender identities are accepted without question. Murderbot is Intrigued by Humanity but considers this completely unremarkable.
  • Super Intelligence:
    • Downplayed with Murderbot, who doesn't come across an exceptional genius but does have the cognitive ability to manage six or seven separate trains of thought at once. Murderbot does occasionally grump about how limited humans are for only being able to think about one thing at a time.
    • The Asshole Research Transport is a very advanced AI who's used to handling vast volumes of scientific data at once. This works to Murderbot's advantage when the ART gets bored enough to make friends with it and spend a bit of that computational capacity on helping it out.
  • The Virus: The alien remnant contamination in Network Effect, as it jumps from organic body to machine code, back and forth, leapfrogging until it contaminates the entire colony, and slowly builds a hive mind.
  • To the Pain: Downplayed when Murderbot breaks up an altercation on a transport ship:
    "If you bother her again I will break every individual bone in your hand and arm. It will take about an hour."
  • Too Dumb to Live:
    • Tapan, and (to a lesser extent) Maro and Rami in the second story. Murderbot repeatedly needs to prevent their cavalier attitude towards meeting an obviously hostile Corrupt Corporate Executive from getting them killed.
    • The humans in the mining station. An unofficial patch came in for the ComfortUnits, which needed manual approval; the humans ordered them to apply the patches without checking more closely. The patches then deployed a virus which jumped from the ComfortUnits, overrode the security computers, and forced the SecUnits to murder all the miners.
  • True Companions: The survey team, eventually including Murderbot. The team are already on good terms at the start of the story, but surviving several near-death experiences, assassination attempts, and corporate warfare against GrayCris, they form an even stronger bond.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Murderbot is good about relaying facts but is not always paying attention, as demonstrated in its first rescue, where it was not aware of its own actions. It also was not paying attention during briefings, so it has large gaps in its knowledge of the setting and backstory. Murderbot freely admits this and explains: it just did not care. Murderbot does not understand its own emotional states or motives, occasionally admitting this and often feeling frustrated by the difference between its explicitly stated goals and how it actually acts.
  • We Will Use WikiWords in the Future: Thanks in part to corporate lingo from the setting's many NGO Superpowers, names like these are common for products (SecUnit Cyborgs like Murderbot; computer SecSystems and MedSystems), companies (GrayCris), locations (Port FreeCommerce, the TranRollinHyfa Space Station), and so on.
  • What Is This Feeling?: Murderbot was artificially created from cloned tissue and mechanical augmentations, spent much of its existence under a Restraining Bolt being treated like a product, and has only recently gained the freedom to think about what it is as an individual. Consequently, it sometimes gets feelings that it literally has no context to understand, especially when complicated interpersonal situations are involved.
  • You Get What You Pay For: The company buys everything as cheaply as they possibly can. This is why Murderbot considers it a reasonably credible theory that a glitch in Murderbot’s governor module led it to kill fifty-seven people.

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