System Collapse by Martha Wells science fiction book reviewsSystem Collapse by Martha Wells science fiction book reviewsSystem Collapse by Martha Wells

The first thing to know about Martha Wells’ System Collapse is that if you can’t dredge up memories of its (chronological) predecessor, Network Effect, you’re going to want to refresh yourself either by a reread (fun enough) or skimming a few reviews, as System Collapse picks up directly afterward and really feels like it could have just been part of Network Effect (you know, had it been written at the time).

The reasons are multiple for wanting to remind yourself of events: the plotting, as noted, starts nearly immediately after the close of Network Effect, there are several character groups one is going to want to keep straight (a colonist group, another colonist group, a surprise colonist group previously unknown, a group of Murderbot humans some of whom are relatively new, the corporate bad guys who themselves have their own factions, the university good guys who may or may not arrive in time to be of help, etc. But the most important reason to refresh your memory is because System Collapse is really built around Murderbot’s PTSD (while the “system” of the title can have several referents, one is certainly Murderbot’s own system) stemming from a key event in the prior novel. So it’ll help if you remember just what that event was and why it was so traumatizing.

The action all takes place on the same planet from Network Effect, with revelation of the aforementioned surprise group of extra colonists prompting an excursion by Murderbot and his humans to the polar region where this splinter group — long out of contact with the other colonists — supposedly exists. The key is to get there and give the colonists their various options before the corporate villains (Barish-Estranza) show up and put them into indentured servitude (voluntarily or involuntarily). Of course, getting there first and convincing the colonists before the bad guys arrive would make for a pretty slim novel, so as one might expect, things don’t go quite so smoothly. The corporation is already there, they’re devious and deceptive as corporations are wont to be, and they’ve brought along their own SecUnits, meaning poor Murderbot would be outgunned even if it were operating normally.

The Murderbot Diaries And it is absolutely not operating normally. The first clue we get to this are the number of “redacted” moments that appear early on in the narration (one of my favorite, most cleverly devised, elements of the series is how Murderbot’s speedy brain’s ability to multi-task combined with its self-diagnosis programming allows it to act as both a semi-omniscient third-person narrator and a first-person narrator simultaneously). Eventually we’re told the cause of this, and the rest of this storyline focuses on Murderbot’s attempts to deal with the trauma. Or really, for the most part, its attempts to avoid dealing with it, despite the proffered assistance from its “annoying” friends: the humans under its protection and its AI friend ART. This personal sense of uncertainty, its sense of vulnerability and shame at that vulnerability, combined with its fear/guilt that said uncertainty will cause it to let down its friends and allow them to come to harm; all of that serves to further humanize (or “person-ize”) Murderbot, as well as pop up the tension when it comes to running and shooting and fighting. Although less of that occurs here, making this a more introspective story than many of the prior ones. As well as more meta, given that storytelling plays a prominent role in the attempt to stave off a corporate victory (and the referenced idea of disinformation makes it sadly topical as well).

Meanwhile, the usual snark and humor runs throughout, even if tempered by that vulnerability and uncertainty, making this just as entertaining as all the rest of the series. Obviously, this is not the place to start the series (if you mistakenly picked it up thinking it was a standalone/first work, stop reading now and go back to begin with All Systems Red). So anyone reading System Collapse is well aware of the series’/character’s many strengths. Suffice to say they’re all on display here. Just remember to catch up on what happened just beforehand before diving in.

Published in November 2023. Following the events in Network Effect, the Barish-Estranza corporation has sent rescue ships to a newly-colonized planet in peril, as well as additional SecUnits. But if there’s an ethical corporation out there, Murderbot has yet to find it, and if Barish-Estranza can’t have the planet, they’re sure as hell not leaving without something. If that something just happens to be an entire colony of humans, well, a free workforce is a decent runner-up prize. But there’s something wrong with Murderbot; it isn’t running within normal operational parameters. ART’s crew and the humans from Preservation are doing everything they can to protect the colonists, but with Barish-Estranza’s SecUnit-heavy persuasion teams, they’re going to have to hope Murderbot figures out what’s wrong with itself, and fast!


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.