Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells
Martha Wells continues her popular and highly-acclaimed MURDERBOT DIARIES series with another novella, Fugitive Telemetry (2021), which actually takes place before the only novel in the series so far, Network Effect. (So you could read this one before that novel, but you do need to read books 1-4 first.) At this point in time Murderbot, the introverted and snarky cyborg who is the narrator and the heart of this series, is a fairly new resident on Preservation, a planet outside of the callously capitalistic Corporate Rim. Murderbot is a companion to and protector of Dr. Mensah, one of the few humans Murderbot has gradually learned to trust. Although Preservation society isn’t entirely accepting of security bots (especially rogue ones like Murderbot that aren’t subject to human controls), it’s generally a very peaceful and progressive place.
So it’s a shock to everyone when the body of an unknown person is found in an isolated passageway of Preservation Station, the space station above the planet, clearly murdered. Station Security is charged with the investigation, with Senior Officer Indah in charge, but Mensah prevails on them to let Murderbot help, since it knows a lot more about murder than the local security force, and they want to make sure that GrayCris isn’t involved. Indah is annoyed (“but then she always looked like that when I was around”) and distrustful of working with a SecUnit. But when things get complicated, Murderbot is undeniably useful to have around.
Fugitive Telemetry is an engaging and enjoyable entry in the MURDERBOT DIARIES series, with a plot that stirs a murder mystery in with the regular science fiction adventure plot. As always, Murderbot’s snarky narration (liberally scattered with parenthetical remarks, which I love because I’m — obviously — partial to them myself) is one of the highlights. Sometimes there are even parentheses inside of parentheses:
(When we had first discussed the idea of me getting jobs as a way to encourage the Preservation Council to grant me permanent refugee status, I didn’t know very much about the kind of contract in which I was actually an active participant. (My previous contracts were rental contracts with the company, where I was just a piece of equipment.) Pin-Lee had promised, “Don’t worry, I’ll preserve your right to wander off like an asshole anytime you like.”)
(I said, “It takes one to know one.”)
I won’t say more about the mystery that drives the story, to avoid spoilers, but it’s a solid one, with a resolution that was both logical and a complete surprise, at least to me.
Fugitive Telemetry doesn’t really move the overall story arc forward in the way that most of the other books have, partly because it’s a prequel to the preceding novel and partly because Murderbot’s interactions with the initially hostile Indah have a been-there-done-that kind of feel. These are relatively minor complaints, though. Murderbot, though still a media-watching introvert, has come a long way from the SecUnit that had near-crippling social anxiety in All Systems Red. It interacts much better with humans now and even finds itself (somewhat begrudgingly) appreciative of its relationships with them, though its eye-rolling at humans’ logical inadequacies will probably never disappear … and that’s a good thing. We all could use a Murderbot in our lives to remind us of our shortcomings and protect us against corporate (and other) threats. Any new MURDERBOT DIARIES book shoots immediately to the top of my reading list — and it should yours as well!
Fugitive Telemetry is, undeniably, a quieter (by comparison) novella within the MURDERBOT DIARIES series than its predecessors — the action all takes place on Preservation Station, there’s far more emphasis on sleuthing than explosions, and Murderbot has a lot of opportunities to reflect on what it’s been up to since setting up shop as Dr. Mensah’s extremely-capable bodyguard. It goes to live theater performances with Ratthi, cheerfully exchanges profanities with Pin-Lee, and is assisting Dr. Bharadwaj with a documentary (described in terms that make their sessions sound quite a lot like some much-needed therapy). It’s almost as though Martha Wells is examining the often-complex question of what a society is to do with combat veterans who come home from deployment and need to be re-integrated into some useful function within civilian life while confronting the long-term effects of PTSD.
Station security doesn’t trust Murderbot, for obvious and understandable reasons, which makes the sudden need for a murder investigation all the more thorny. Murderbot is allowed to assist, but in a far more limited capacity than it would prefer, as it’s been forbidden from accessing/hacking essential station AIs and systems. Frankly, those limitations work to the story’s benefit, as Murderbot’s frustration over the slow pace of detective work provides multiple opportunities for snarky commentary on humans, the various types of bots at Preservation Station (JollyBaby? Really??), and its own self. (Moreover, Murderbot at full capacity would solve the crime in less than five minutes, which wouldn’t be nearly as fun to read.) I enjoyed how the actual mystery unfolded, and like Tadiana, was completely surprised by the resolution, though a quick skim back through the novella revealed all sorts of clues pointing toward the killer’s true identity. Well done, indeed.
Happily, Murderbot’s adventures won’t end with Fugitive Telemetry: Tor.com announced this week that three more MURDERBOT DIARIES novellas have been purchased, and I’m really excited to see the direction Wells takes this character and its story. This one is a little more thoughtful, a little more philosophical, but no less insightful or snort-inducing than Murderbot’s other adventures. I can’t wait to see how weird the next adventure is!
For a being with no feelings, Murderbot sure continues to have emotional breakthroughs.
I think I really enjoy THE MUDERBOT DIARIES because of how much the heart of the series is the relationships between Murderbot and everyone around it. Murderbot gets to grow at its own pace without compromising who it is, which is fulfilling to read, and on top of that it’s truly delightful.
Like both Tadiana and Jana said, Fugitive Telemetry (2021) is more thoughtful and less plot-driving than other installments in the series, and I similarly liked. It had a good mystery and some top-notch juicy character development going on — what’s not to love? I’m looking forward to more Murderbot coming in the future.
~ Skye Walker
Some years back my son and I listened to the first MUDERBOT DIARIES book while on a cross-country roadtrip. I liked it quite a bit but just lost track of the rest as they came out. But with a little lull between final papers and final grades, I decided to jump back to that first book and see where the rest took me. Well, three days later I’m done with the series to this point, so that should give some idea. The awards and high praise are well deserved, and Fugitive Telemetry nestles quite smoothly into the joy that is the entire series.
The book opens with a classic murder-mystery line — “the dead human was lying on the deck, on their side, half curled around” — though the little addition of “human” tells us we’re not in a classic whodunit world, even if the story falls happily into that genre. Turns out Preservation Station (I’m assuming at this point you’ve read prior Murderbots so won’t be explain what should be familiar) has experienced a highly rare murder. Luckily, Murderbot is on the job, having “seen a lot of dead humans (I mean, a lot),” even if the local security forces led by Senior Officer Indah aren’t so thrilled to be working with the SecUnit.
The ensuing story is a blend of a locked-room mystery and police procedural, along with a continuing coming-of-age tale as Murderbot slowly (often grudgingly) learns to navigate relationships with humans and other bots as well as learning more about its own self and the dreaded “feelings” as it tries to become the best version of whatever it is in the midst of becoming. This is made more complicated because for the first time, Murderbot is working the entire time within an actual team and a bureaucratic structure, as opposed to starting off with a group and then winging things on its own to save said group when the humans do “stupid things” as they always do. The restrictions also allow the mystery to have both an elongated time frame before it is resolved and some heightened suspense, since Murderbot has to slow itself down to human time and has also promised not to use a lot of its normal tricks, such as hacking into every system it runs across (Preservation Security is absolutely not comfortable with that).
The murder mystery itself is interesting and, as noted, suspenseful, even if I’d argue as a minor quibble that the murderer is a little too clearly foreshadowed. The story also meshes nicely into the ongoing themes of corporate dystopia and individual freedom that run throughout the series. But as always, the star of the story is Murderbot and particularly its wry, unique voice, that offers up gems like. “That plan was easier plus 100 percent less murdery” and:
“I would have disposed of the body so it was never found.”
Indah frowned . . . Eyeing me, Indah said, “How would you dispose of a body so it wouldn’t be found?”
I’m not the public library feed, Senior Officer, go do your own research. I said, “If I told you, then you might find all the bodies I’ve already disposed of.”
I lost track of the times I interrupted my wife’s TV viewing with laughing out loud. Though of course, Murderbot is much more than comic relief. There’s true pain and angst and loneliness and vulnerability that shines through in sometimes aching fashion, as when it responds to a personal attack by thinking, “Oh wow. But it wasn’t like it hurt my feelings or anything. Not at all. I was used to this. Completely used to it.”
Fugitive Telemetry is a fun, fast-read with some brief but sharp social commentary and, as always, a pitch-perfect narrative voice. Highly recommended, as is the entire series.