Obviously, we’d rather be watching the latest episode of Sanctuary Moon, but our contract says we have to record this podcast for our (ugh) human clients. We talk about the Murderbot Diaries as a sequel and specifically about the novel Network Effect, which picked up a Hugo award in 2021. What makes these books work so well, and why do we love the main character so much? Are the other characters as good? What about the plots? You’ll have to listen and find out!
Generously transcribed by Paloma Palacios. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Chris and with me is…
Oren: [over intercom] Oren!
Chris: Before we get started, just letting you know that we could use more audio editing volunteers, no prior experiences necessary. We will train you how to do it. So if you’d like to help make us sound good, just go to mythcreants.com/volunteer.
Oren: You can hear how much worse we sound before the editing. It’s great. It’s a beautiful thing.
Chris: All right. We assume you’ve all hacked your governor modules, allowing you to binge this podcast when you’re supposed to be watching for anything that might threaten your humans, but that’s okay. Because even if something does get through, you’ll have no problem shooting it with a gun in your arm because of course your Murderbot.
Oren: Murderbot fails the first rule of RPG optimization, which is to never buy weapons that are part of your body, ‘cuz you can get the same weapons for free without spending character points. You just pick some up off of your enemies. It’s fine (laughs)
Wes: But you don’t get to say you have gun arms!
Oren: Look, we’re here to shoot bad guys. Not show off, okay.
Chris, Oren, Wes: (group laughter)
Chris: So a couple years ago, we covered all the Hugo nominees for best novel. And it was a little much for us, ‘cuz shortly after they were announced, tried to, all, read six novels and only Oren because he’d already listened to three of them – and it’s to read all six novels. But we thought we could do the winner this year. And as it turned out, it was the Murderbot novel Network Effect, which was great, ‘cuz we wanted to cover Murderbot anyway.
Oren: This podcast can come out almost in time for them to name the next nominees. We got around to it eventually.
Chris: And it’s also worth mentioning that the first of the Murderbot diary series, because it starts with novelas. The first is called all Systems Red and it also got a Hugo and a Nebula, but people just don’t pay attention to it much when it’s a novela instead of a novel.
Oren: Yeah. There are a lot of Hugos that people never think about. A lot of people have Hugos, but if it’s not Best Novel, nobody notices.
Chris: Maybe in the future, we should think about covering the Hugo winning novela, so get shorter, works a little more attention.
Oren: Hugo winning short stories, Hugo winning flash, Hugo winning first sentence. (group laughter) Easy. Done.
Wes: And eventually we can get Hugo winning book jacket, blurbs, and everything will be perfect.
Chris: The Murderbot diaries currently include five novelas and one novel.
Oren: Did you know that the last novel is technically a prequel?
Chris: I didn’t notice that! It’s prequel to the novel –
Oren: To be clear in publishing order. The last book published was a novela, but it technically takes place before the novel, which I didn’t even notice when I was reading it. I think I just assumed it had come out before the novel, or I just thought it was set after. For some reason it never occurred to me it was a prequel.
Wes: That’s kind of a good thing though. That it’s a self-contained story and it didn’t mess you up too bad.
Oren: I think it’s a good thing that I never considered that it might be a prequel. It was like, yep. Nope. This is just another murderbot book.
Chris: All of them are pretty episodic. They are generally linked by the relationship arcs and the character arcs. There are some external plot stuff that has some follow up, but it’s mostly non-urgent. So you can definitely put things down for a while if you want to. I think it works really well, mostly cuz it’s the characters you’re reading for anyway with this series. So it gives you plenty of incentive to continue the next.
Oren: I just love Murderbot for a number of reasons, but the first one that comes to my mind is that I think it has brought a lot of attention to the novella as a format, which I’m always a fan of making stories the length they need to be, and a lot of stories don’t really have enough content to be a novel. And you can tell that someone shoved in a bunch of extra stuff to make it over the 50,000 word mark so it would be more marketable. I think novellas are also perfectly good and I wish more people bought novellas and Murderbot is helping with that.
Wes: I really like how novella length helps with the narrative premise. The first person retelling in novel form starts to stretch credulity a little bit and Murderbot is basically recording this to send a Mensa and a shorter version seems to make more sense, not gonna waste time and data storing all of that.
Oren: And it also just means that there’s less time for the narrator’s personality to get old. There’s less time for you to get used to it. You’re more aware of it for the entire story. I’m not saying that the novella is a superior format or anything, make your story the length that it should be, but it has advantages that I don’t think should be overlooked.
Chris: The narrative premise here is that murder bot is retelling the story. And we can tell that there’s a future murder bot narrator, because occasionally the narrator will switch to present tense for things that are ongoing, but it’s not super invasive. As far as a future narrator goes, it doesn’t really hint at things yet to come, but it does add a lot of personality and commentary. And I think that definitely gives the narration more novelty and personality and helps with attachment. Some people do get irritated when a first person retelling inserts so much commentary that it slows things down too much, or just becomes too intrusive into the story, so that can be a liability.
Oren: If you get carried away, it can be an issue, right. I don’t feel like Murderbot ever does that. That was not my impression.
Chris: I think it’s almost a little more on the subtle side, but it does give Martha Wells the freedom to add whatever exposition she needs to. I will also say the audio book is narrated by Kevin R. Free, who I think does a great job bringing Murderbot to life.
Oren:I think he gives it just the right personality, except every time it says his name, I wanna correct it to Kevin is free
Chris: So, the main character, Murderbot, is a construct and as non-binary – and just thought it’s worth having a quick note about pronouns – so, Murderbot does go by ‘It’. That’s Murderbot’s pronoun. And when we first heard this, we were a little bit concerned just because we’ve had commenters on our website, that claim that we shouldn’t use singular, they, because we should just call non-binary people ‘It’, instead, obviously, that would be really disrespectful thing to do for anyone who does not want to use ‘it’, their pronoun, and could be considered dehumanizing, so not a great thing there. But we did talk to a number of non-binary people about the use of ‘it’ as a pronoun. And the general agreement was that, especially in this case, that it’s just fine. There are a few non-binary people who go by ‘it’, even though that’s not the most common pronoun choice. And they deserve to be represented, too. In this context, Murderbot specifically says that it isn’t a person. It does not identify as a person, but it’s construct. So it feels like an especially good fit in this story.
Oren: Although it is a little confusing, cause I don’t think anywhere in the books, does it say that? I think we had to find that out from Wells doing a QA in character as Murderbot to find out what pronouns Murderbot uses. So that was kind of confusing.
Chris: Other characters apply ‘it’ to Murderbot, but that was the thing. Is it wasn’t clear whether that was something that Murderbot really wanted because murder bot is very oppressed in this series. It wasn’t clear if it was just being dehumanized and at some point Murderbot was gonna ask for another pronoun. Hearing from Wells in this instance means that there’s never gonna be a sign that Murderbot is unhappy with it. So for all intents and purposes, I think we can say that that is its pronoun. Again, most non-binary people use a different pronoun and a lot of authors have avoided using singular ‘they’ and ‘Z’, ‘Zem’, and other non-binary pronouns that it would be good for them to use in many contexts.
So don’t use the pronoun, ‘it’ just to avoid singular ‘they’. Please. But in some context it can be the right call and people who go by ‘it’ should be represented too. Just to clarify a little bit there, because it is a little confusing to have a non-binary character who does seem very person like officially going by ‘it’.
Oren: Well, now that we have that covered, which was important to cover because otherwise people might be confused of why we were using ‘it’ as Murderbots pronouns. But now that we’ve got it squared away, can we talk about the intro of All Systems Red? ‘Cause it’s the best. It is the best intro.
Chris: It is the best intro I’ve ever seen, read or heard, which is saying quite a lot.
Oren: It has all of the things. We write articles where we talk about how the way to make a likable character involves making them sympathetic, selfless, and novel, and Murderbot is all of those things! It is so cool to see that so perfectly executed.
Chris: So when it opens, we learn that Murderbot is a security construct. That’s enslaved much like a droid is in Star Wars. It was constructed by a corporation and is enslaved to the corporation that made it, however Murderbot has secretly disabled what’s called its Governor Module, which is a device that’s used to force it to obey commands, but it has to keep pretending that it hasn’t done this, because if the corporation found out they could completely dismantle it or repair the governor module. It’s still very much beholden to this corporation that maintains it and made it and all that stuff. But it’s using the freedom that it got by hacking its governor module to binge TV shows secretly in its head while it’s working.
Oren: It’s just so good.
Chris: I have to say having been the security officer before, security work is so boring. Yes, occasionally there’s excitement, but 99% of the time, you’re just standing there or wandering up and down and there is really nothing to do. So the ability to binge TV shows in your head would be great. Basically, Wells tells the audience this information in an interesting way, pretty quickly and then, immediately, the humans Murderbot is guarding get in trouble. And to be clear, these humans are not part of the corporation. The explanation is a little complicated, but basically the corporation is renting out equipment for surveying planets. And part of that equipment is the security construct. For liability reasons they can’t say no to it.
Oren: Which is important to keep these humans likable, because if they were like’ yes, let’s enslave this sapient robot’, we’d be like ‘we don’t like you’, but instead they were like ‘we didn’t wanna do this. They literally wouldn’t let us go to this planet if we didn’t take this and we didn’t have any choice’.
Chris: That just meets our requirements. We have a character that being a construct and also Murderbot’s voice, as we said, is quite engaging. That gives it lots of novelty. Being enslaved is a very sympathetic position to be in and the fact that it’s so devoting to saving humans anyway, even when it’s frustrated with them, makes it really selfless. That just makes Murderbot really stand out as a character. And this main character is probably the biggest reason why this series is as popular as it is.
Oren: I would believe you if someone told me that this book series was written as fix it fic for the droids in Star Wars.
Chris: They even have a device at Star Wars, the Restraining Bull, the governor module feels like a restraining bolt.
Oren: It really does. And they follow the whole idea of instead of creating robots that don’t wanna rebel, we created robots that wanted to rebel, and then we put a thing to stop them. Yeah. That seems logical for sure. Good plan everybody.
Chris: Also finding interesting that Murderbot is kind of a cyborg. So Murderbot has biological parts and mechanical parts.
Oren: And the terminology gets kind of confusing, because Murderbot calls itself a murderbot, which implies it’s a bot, but actually bots is the term for fully artificial metal and wire robots. And then it uses the term Sec-unit for anything that has bio parts. We know there are other kinds of robots that have bio parts that are not designed for security, so I don’t know what to call those.
Chris: Apparently, what Murderbot refers to as a sex-bot is called a comfort unit.
Wes: Comfort unit. Yeah, I was gonna say the unit seems to be the key operative word there.
Chris: Should we talk about Network Effect? I really think with a lot of the Hugos, people will give a Hugo to a novel because they liked the series and this was the latest novel, and it’s now too late to give more awards to other things, so I think people gave the Hugo to Network Effect because they wanted to give a Hugo to the Murderbot Diaries as a whole. If you like the Murderbot diaries, I think you’ll enjoy Network Effect like the rest of them, but it’s not particularly special as a Murderbot story goes.
Oren: Although, I have a hot take and my hot take is that of the six finalists, the ones that I have read anyway, which is only four of them but I’ve heard quite a bit about them, so assuming what I’ve heard is accurate, Network Effect definitely deserves to win in that group of six.
Chris: So the other five were not great?
Oren: They weren’t bad, necessarily, but Network Effect was better. They all had their own problems, and Network Effect does too. Books end up in the Hugo nominees for a lot of reasons and it isn’t always because they’re the best books that were written that year. Also, they have to have been written that year, so there’s a fairly limited pool. It’s not like every Hugo nominee is the best books of all time. When I look at Hugo nominees, I always try to compare them to the other books that were nominated as opposed to my favorite books. So looking at those books that were nominated, I do think Network Effect is probably the best. I haven’t read Piranzi or Hero the Ninth, but I’ve read the other three that are on the list and Network Effect was definitely better than them. So I think it’s a pretty good bet to say it was just the best book that year.
It got nominated, partly just because the Murderbot novellas were so popular. Even to get nominated you have to have a certain amount of success, that’s just how awards work. The thing with the novel is it’s fine, but it’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t build on the previous stories the way that most of the previous novels had. Because the previous novels sort of either had ways of raising the stakes or of changing what the stakes were from the main threat being that Murderbot itself was in danger to the main conflict being over Murderbot’s identity to, later, the threat being with Murderbot and some civilians, and then to Murderbot and Murderbot’s best friend, Mensa, who everyone likes and wants to protect.
But the stakes of Network Effect, in particular in the big climax, are basically just Murderbot. At first it seems like maybe the alien are gonna infect the galaxy if Murderbot doesn’t stop them. But then we find out that another character had that covered…should we talk about ART? Oh man, I don’t like ART, just like everyone else.
Chris: Maybe we should talk about ART. I’m glad you like ART, Wes.
Wes: I do!
Chris: Because we need a representative of the people who like ART on this podcast.
Wes: I feel like ART’s introduction was so strong for me and this is the second Novela when Murderbot is basically hitching a ride to go to a planet to try to do some learning about its history and ART is basically the shuttle and ART’s a research vessel. So ART is kind of tricked out with all kinds of great software. It can process everything – super ship; super, super candied, awesome ship. What really got it for me is how ART is somehow just a child in that book in the way that it keeps sneaking into Murderbots feed, and wanting to consume the media.But only really wants to consume the media with Murderbots. So it can watch Murderbot, watch the media to figure out how to react to it, and that is such a kid thing. It was so endearing that I just couldn’t handle it. My partner, Michelle and I were reading this like, ‘oh my God, this is the most adorable thing’ that basically sentient spaceship could possibly do is try to watch media, fail, and then wanna watch it with its newfound best friend to figure out how to understand the media. That was just such a really clever, powerful way to characterize what this overconfident research transport is and kind of a little bit of an insecurity. That was really a great moment, I think, for characterizing this ship in contrast to Murderbot.
Chris: ART, to be clear stands for Asshole Research Transport. Obviously, Wells is acknowledging that ART is not always the best person. From my perspective, yeah, I guess it does help if you view ART as a child, but ART is really powerful, has more power than Murderbot. In the second book, ART pressure’s Murderbot to make changes to its body, and there’s a reason for that, but that’s still just very uncomfortable.
Oren: I absolutely agree with Wes that that part is great and the characterization of ART as a child character is very neat. The issue that I have with ART is that ART is only a child character in certain scenes, because in other scenes, ART is super knowledgeable and wise and knows everything and is always right. That’s not really compatible with the idea that ART is a child, because we’ve all met children. That’s not what children are like. There’s a bit of ‘have cake, eat too’ with ART. Sometimes it’s like, no, ART’s a child and innocence, so you can’t be mad at it, but also it knows everything. It is always right. I don’t think it can be both of those things.
Wes: No, it can’t and that really affects your own reading of ART, since it’s not consistent, then how you read those is even more subjective than a standard subjective reading experience.
Chris: I think that you can have an endearing asshole. That’s not impossible. I think what really makes it not work in the situation is the fact that Wells clearly just likes ART too much and is really attached to ART, and when that happens, again we deal, in editing and everywhere else, we work with writers that have this issue all the time. It’s just a very unfortunate thing. When writers get very attached to the character and they really like the character, they start biasing the narration in favor of that character, and the character often becomes really irritating. For instance, in the Network Effect, we have an argument between ART and Murderbot. I actually think the basis of this argument is great.
So, ART gets in trouble and needs Murderbots help and uses some trickery to get to the people who hijacked ART to go and capture Murderbot as a way of getting Murderbot in a position where it can rescue ART, but it also puts Murderbot’s humans in danger, which makes Murderbot really upset. It’s a great basis for an argument, but the problem is because Wells just likes ART too much.We see that ART gets just a little slap on the wrist. That’s just clearly not in proportion to what ART did and then Murderbot gets pressured to forgive it, which is just usually inappropriate. You don’t want to pressure people to give somebody else forgiveness, give them time, and sometimes you won’t get forgiveness and that’s how it is, but people shouldn’t be pressured to do that.
Oren: And this sort of ties into a bigger problem that the novela had because at first, when ART, the ship, not the personality, shows up and the people on board capture Murderbot, Murderbot thinks that ART is dead, and of course, as the reader, I know there’s no way ART’s dead. I figured this out, but whatever I’m willing to buy into it for the time. Then there’s an issue, because at that part of the book Murderbot is basically fighting some alien goofballs who don’t really seem to know what they’re doing and are sort of galumphing around the ship, making mistakes and giving Murderbot all the time it needs to figure out how to kill them. It’s like, okay, this is not very threatening. Once we get some bigger threats, ART wakes up and suddenly it’s like, oh, well I guess that problems solved because ART is here and not only is ART super smart and always right, ART has guns For some reason. It’s like ART is basically the USS Enterprise or it’s like, we’re not a military ship, we promise, nor are all of these torpedoes that we strapped onto this thing.
Chris: That’s the other thing is with most annoying characters, a lot of ’em are OP. ART is definitely OP, which I can tell that Wells is definitely in Network Effect. In some others, you can see the struggle to be, ‘how do I give Murderbot problems?’ despite the fact that there’s this research vessel with guns that could just come in and blow things up whenever Murderbot wants.
Oren: And part of the issue was that before ART woke up, these aliens, as incompetent as they are, might be able to spread, and if Murderbot can’t stop them, they might spread to the galaxy and take over everything, but once ART wakes up, it’s guaranteed that’s not gonna happen, so the stakes shift to trying to rescue ART’s crew who are characters that we’ve never met. And we only care about them to the extent that we care about ART. It’s like, uh, alright, I mean, I guess we should rescue those people at some point. It doesn’t really feel like the aliens are that dangerous.
Chris: At this point it’s almost hard to get the stakes too high, because that’s when ART can more obviously come into play. As soon as our stakes go up, so does our power level and Murderbot isn’t left to solve things on its own.
Oren: Then the book ended with the idea that Murderbot is gonna go off and have more adventures with ART and its crew, and they’re like ‘no, stay with Mensa. Mensa’s my favorite’, I mean, other than Murderbot I love Mensa a lot. I love their entire relationship and how it’s kind of defying of categorization, and I want more Mensa. I don’t want the next book to be about Murderbot hanging out with art and ART and ART’s crew. That’s one of the minor issues that I have with this book is that most of the human characters can’t find their ass with both hands. So it’s like, why would I wanna hang out with more humans? They’re the worst. Dr. Mensa is the only exception.
Wes: I do like reading the books and the human parts where they’re trying to interact with the systems of the internet or whatever they want to call it. Murderbot’s commentary on that is just how bad they are at hacking and doing anything with tech, which I think is good because it might as well just all be magic the way some of this stuff is described. The hacking and all the computer access stuff is kind of hard to follow, and it always seems like Murderbot is doing that and three other things at the same time, which, if it were a human person narrating this story and doing that, I would get a little thrown, like, okay, that’s a lot of exposition happening. There’s no way time could keep track with that, but I think juxtaposing that with the humans not being great at this stuff is like, okay, we’re not dealing with a human, we’re dealing with a processing unit that can handle this kind of stuff. That helped me really keep the flow going even when there was exposition and a little bit of extra going on in the narration.
Oren: I do love how much Wells does with the fact that Murderbot’s not human and how its mind works differently. I do find the magic hacking to be kind of annoying because it’s like, anytime Murderbot can hack something, I just need to wait for the hacking progress bar to fill up. I know it’ll be able to get through cuz it can hack anything somehow.
Chris: And in the latest novel in Fugitive Telemetry, Wells takes the hacking away because it’s too powerful, so the planet security is uncomfortable with the fact that Murderbot is just hacking into everything ‘cuz that’s, obviously, a privacy violation. So now Murderbot, is just not allowed to.
Oren: That’s the other thing about this series that I find really cool. And another reason why I don’t want Murderbot to go off with ART is that I find preservation, the weird little socialist collective on the edge of corporate space, to be very compelling. I wanna know more about them and their struggles to remain independent. Tell me about that, please.
Chris: Definitely more plots that involve stakes of preservation. And we don’t know much about this world, but we know it is very corporate controlled and everything is done via contract and corporate authorities, so having this little socialist collective really stands out and feels like an underdog.
Oren: I also wanna know who is enforcing these contracts that the corporations have, cause they mentioned the corporate rim. So I was like, does that mean that there’s a state core that the corporate rim circles around, I have questions. Who is the Levi Leviathan of State that enforces these business contracts?
Chris: Maybe it’s a trade association?
Oren: I mean, maybe that’s not impossible until someone brings a contract against someone in the trade Association. I have my doubts of for profit corporations, being able to set up a working court system,
Chris: Probably in corporate best interest to have something that can enforce their contracts so that they can make contracts.
Oren: Yeah, I guess.
Chris: I guess that’s why we don’t look at it too closely.
Oren: Well, in the name of not looking too close, I’m not gonna look too close to the fact that we’re several minutes overtime at this point, cuz Murderbot gets us excited. I think our general verdict on Network Effect is that it was pretty good, not great, but if you like Murderbot, then you’ll probably like it. So if you have read the novelas and enjoyed them, go ahead and get the novel. You’ll like that too.
Chris: If you would pay at least a dollar to listen to the Mythcreant podcast, please consider becoming our patron. You can go to patreon.com/mythcreants or mythcreants.com/support.
Oren: I would say that Murderbot would support us, but that’s a lie. It would hack us and get all of our podcasts that way. Before we go. I wanna thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek, next we have Ayman Jaber, He’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel, and finally we have Danita Rambo, she lives @therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week. [outro song]
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?