Network Effect by Martha Wells
Martha Wells’ Murderbot has been gathering enthusiastic fans (which would be certain to have Murderbot hiding behind its opaque armored faceplate), along with multiple Nebula, Hugo and other awards and nominations, as each of the first four novellas in the MURDERBOT DIARIES series has been published over the last three years. In Network Effect (2020), the first full-length novel in this series, Wells is able to explore a more complex plot and to more fully develop Murderbot’s character and its relationships with others.
Murderbot is now with Dr. Mensah and the other Preservation Station characters who Murderbot was protecting in the first book, All Systems Red, and the fourth, Exit Strategy. Preservation is an unusually liberal society in this universe, where single-minded, coldhearted corporate profit-making is the norm, and Mensah and her family and friends treat Murderbot, who they call “SecUnit,” as a person rather than as a possession. Mensah’s brother-in-law Thiago, however, is suspicious of Murderbot’s influence over Mensah, and Mensah’s adolescent daughter Amana considers Murderbot an annoyance, especially after it scared off someone she thought was a romantic interest (“Yes, it was hilarious”).
As Network Effect begins, Murderbot is accompanying Thiago, Amana and several others on a survey expedition of another planet. After surviving an encounter with pirates — where Murderbot gets a chance to flex its muscles and show its expertise as a security consultant — the group lifts off the planet to rejoin their base ship in space. Just after the base ship exits a wormhole on its return to Preservation Station, there’s another attack on their group. This one succeeds in capturing Murderbot and Amena in their spacesuits and pulling them onboard the raider ship. Murderbot is completely bewildered to discover that the ship that attacked them is its old friend ART (an acronym for “Asshole Research Transport”) from Artificial Condition. But ART, the powerful artificial intelligence that controls the ship Perihelion, is nowhere to be found once they’re onboard the ship. Instead there are gray-skinned hostile humans that immediately try to kill Murderbot. Now it’s on!
The bot and AI characters — Murderbot, ART, and a couple of new ones — are absolutely fantastic. Murderbot’s and ART’s friendship (though Murderbot would be really reluctant to call it a friendship) gets a lot more complicated and real, especially after Murderbot thinks ART has betrayed it. One of the subplots features sentient killware, a lethal kind of spyware/malware, which was one of the best parts of this book, fascinating and unexpectedly poignant. Murderbot takes some substantial steps forward in its self-understanding and in deciding what it wants to do with its life. The right of self-determination for all sentient intelligences is an ongoing theme in Network Effect.
In addition to Murderbot’s favorite human Dr. Mensah, a couple of other human characters start to stand out, including Mensah’s daughter Amena, who has a way of cutting through Murderbot’s protective shell. Wells has a degree in anthropology, which explains a lot about how well she writes the relationships and interactions between people and bots in this series. The title “Network Effect” has at least two different meanings: it’s a key aspect of the enemy Murderbot and its friends and allies face in this novel, but it also references the growing and changing ties between Murderbot and its human and non-human friends. Murderbot still hates the F-word — that would be “feelings” — and it likes to snark about humans’ stupid decisions, but it’s now willing to admit that it cares about people and actually enjoys helping and protecting them.
A little of the tension went out of her body. “Thank you.” Her face looked younger. She looked like she had been pretending to have hope and now she didn’t have to pretend anymore.
(Confession time: that moment, when the humans or augmented humans realize you’re really here to help them. I don’t hate that moment.)
Network Effect isn’t perfect: the pace lags in parts and the plot gets overly convoluted and confusing in the second half. One significant aspect of the key danger that the characters face doesn’t make sense to me logically. HIGHLIGHT TO REVEAL SPOILER: It’s an alien malicious code that needs to be passed from machine to humans to machines as it infects and takes over and controls you. No good reason is given for this odd quirk. [END SPOILER]
But the good parts of Network Effect are just SO good that they completely outweigh any plot weaknesses. One more example: There’s a bit with some “HelpMe.file” excerpts that Wells uses to good effect to relate some of the backstory. They’re initially a bit of a headscratcher, if only because of their odd headers, but when the payoff comes much later in the book, it’s a brilliant plot turn.
Murderbot — both the character and the series — has grown on me immensely with each book in the series. Murderbot may be a cyborg, but it’s one of the most human and appealing characters I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.
Not having read any of the previous entries in Martha Wells’ MURDERBOT DIARIES series, I wasn’t sure how well Network Effect would work as an entry point, but I’m pleased to be able to say that it holds up really well. Wells provides a good amount of backstory, with a myriad of tempting tidbits that only made me want to check out more of the series.
Murderbot itself is utterly fascinating, and the ongoing internal drama of its explorations into self-determination was as compelling as the overarching narrative concerning ART’s missing crew, grey-skinned humanoids, Murderbot’s humans, and various factions fighting over control of galactic expansion and terraforming. I chortled, I sniffled, I cheered, and I kept wishing Timestream Defenders Orion and Lineages of the Sun were real media to stream.
Obviously, I need to start over from the beginning, with All Systems Red, and will do so at the earliest possible chance.
Reading Network Effect, I was delighted and baffled to see ART back. Delighted, because ART is a great character, like SecUnit. Baffled because… what the heck did ART do? Eventually, everything is made clear.
I enjoyed watching SecUnit’s community grow, not only with human allies (SecUnit adds few in this book) but with machine intelligences as well. The genuine political differences between the Corporate Rim and Preservation are explored here, without stifling the increasing tension. It’s always fun to watch Wells unfold the various human reactions to SecUnit, from Thiago, who inherently distrusts it, to Amena, the teenager who trusts SecUnit implicitly but views it as a shackling buzzkill, a granny-unit instead of a Security Unit, as it were.
While raising important and disturbing questions about corporatism and personhood, Wells also delivers an intriguing fun-filled adventure told in a distinctive, funny and engaging narrative voice. Thoroughly enjoyable.
I love Murderbot. This is another great story. If you haven’t tried them, the audiobooks are really good.
If you’ve read THE MURDERBOT DIARIES by Martha Wells, then you know the only thing better than Murderbot is more Murderbot, and thus the only thing better than a MURDERBOT novella would be a MURDERBOT novel. Which is just what Wells gives us in Network Effect and while the expansion doesn’t come without some issues, I for one couldn’t be happier.
After the events of the prior novella, Murderbot has joined a team of planetary surveyors from the Preservation Station (I’m going to assume you know the background to this universe), including several members of Murderbot’s original team as well as Amena, the daughter of Murderbot’s closest human friend Dr. Mensah. The story opens with a bang as the group is under attack and, as usual, Murderbot has to rescue “the stupid humans.”
The successful rescue is followed by only a brief period of peace, as in shockingly short order Murderbot and Amena find themselves abducted and fighting for their lives on board the ship that formerly housed Murderbot’s old AI buddy ART (Asshole Research Transport), who seems to have been murdered by their captors. The story eventually broadens beyond the running battle aboard the ship and throws a lot at the reader: space raiders, possible aliens, dangerous ancient alien artifacts, a lost space colony, hostage situations, self-replication, corporate skullduggery, grief, trauma, more desperate rescue missions, and the age-old question of why adults don’t murder their own adolescents.
It’s a lot, as noted, and if there’s a weakness to Network Effect it’s that the expansion from novella to novel maybe added a bit too much extra material and that the extra material also comes with some pacing issues. But honestly, that’s a minor quibble as that one weakness is more than made up for by a host of other elements, such as Wells’ deft hand at action scenes, the way she seamlessly and concisely brings in more serious aspects of the corporate dystopia that runs much of this world (something aided by how this is Amena’s first exposure to that dystopia and so she gets to act as the appalled stand-in for the reader), her meta use of media, and her sharp, vivid characterization across all the characters, human and non-human.
But as usual, the two stand-out elements are Murderbot itself and their (Wells’) desert-dry and oh-so-funny sense of humor. Murderbot’s characterization is rich and multi-faceted. It continues its ongoing journey toward a sense of self and a sense of place within the human community and, to a lesser extent, the bot community. Lesser only in the sense that there are fewer bots and unlike with the humans we have yet to really get a sense of them as a collective community; Murderbot’s AI relationships are certainly no less important or intensely emotional — just the opposite.
All of this navigation of interactions is tinged by Murderbot’s ongoing effects from trauma, a storyline nicely mirrored by Dr. Mensah’s own attempts to deal with the aftermath of trauma as well. Just as it takes Murderbot to tell Mensah she isn’t dealing with it so great, it takes an outside — in this case Amena — to make evident to Murderbot that it is suffering from trauma and grief (long-held from his past actions and newly-formed from the seeming demise of ART) and that this is affecting its decision-making. Wells is wonderful at being able to shift so smoothly and effortlessly between humor (the scene where Murderbot breaks up a possible hook-up is laugh out loud funny) and poignancy, and neither is achieved cheaply.
Murderbot is one of the most endearing characters in contemporary fiction, and that characterization is wonderfully meshed with a pitch-perfect voice. And while each story save this one is relatively brief, one has a sense that both the plot and character are building toward something larger: a full sense of self-awareness and community for Murderbot and (one hopes) a comeuppance for the horrifically cruel nature of the Corporate Rim, which is revealed in ever more detail just as we’re also given more and more glimpses of abhorrence of and resistance to that cruelty. I can’t wait for the next installment.