Author: Martha Wells
Title: Network Effect
Series: The Murderbot Diaries #5
Network Effect is the first and only Murderbot entry to date that had managed to achieved the novel length; the previous 4 were novellas, and the subsequent one, Fugitive Telemetry, which will be published on 27 of April and which I’ll review next week, also reverts to this format at meagre 176 pages.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I like novellas. I like them a lot. I’m just not a fan of a serialized novella format. To me, it just doesn’t make any sense. If you have so much to say that you need 4 or 6 novellas to do it, why don’t you just write 2 or 3 novels instead?
With Network Effect, I finally got my wish: 350 pages of one story, undivided. And I must say I enjoyed it quite a lot, definitely more than some of the previous novellas as well as (spoiler alert) the sequel. In Network Effect, Wells gets to create a more elaborate and meaningful plot, full of the ugly f-word (feelings, for those who hadn’t met Murderbot yet) balanced by significant amounts of action. We also get ART (an AI from the second novella, sorely missed since) back, and that in itself is a point in favour, as ART’s overbearing know-it-all disposition and authoritarian tendencies always make for a good counterweight to Murderbot’s gloomy Eyeore personality.
Network Effect also manages to fill out a significant chunk of the world, barely sketched before. The evil megacorporations ruling the known part of the galaxies have not always been there to order people around – there had been a time when corporations were small and vulnerable, and colonists had a say in their decisions, or at least weren’t necessarily treated like slaves. That time had ended badly for everyone involved, however, and many of those colonizing corporations went bankrupt, the colonists and their colonies more often than not becoming not-so-valuable chips in a trade war. Some of them were forgotten, or purposefully omitted from financial reports, and were rediscovered, hundreds of years later – and as the megacorps are more interested in the planets and remaining equipment than those poor wretches who may have or have not survived in their budding colony without a helping hand, reclamation efforts are as intense as they are clandestine. And so, when a sudden attack of a vessel recognized by Murderbot as its supposed friend ART finds the SecUnit’s human clients scattered, scared, and in a lot of danger, well – the game is afoot.
Let’s be clear here: if you expect to be bedazzled by SF elements, or if you eagerly await an obsessively detailed and logical worldbuilding, or if you’re looking for philosophical ruminations on the future of humanity and/or universe, Murderbot is not the right book for you. There’s no science in this fiction, no deep questions or soul-searching, and whatever worldbuilding is there, it’s mostly as a background for Murderbot’s development. Wells’s series is written with enjoyment in mind; and much like the soap operas maniacally devoured by the protagonist(s), any realism is actually a flaw to be avoided at all costs.
Also, if you’ve read SF before – Corey’s Leviathan Wakes, for example (which is not very unique in itself, btw, but sleekly aggregates a few tropes), or Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy, you’ll recognize a fair share of this novel’s plot points, twists and resolutions. In short, Wells’s Murderbot series is not very original. It’s enjoyable, entertaining, well written, and sleek, but there are many other like this. So what makes it so popular? I’d say that the main strength and uniqueness of this series lies in its protagonist: grumpy; uncooperative; convinced of its own mental superiority; afraid of relationships and the toll they can take on all involved; secretly luxuriating in its own suffering, because it’s easier than the alternative of actually getting out of its shell and risking rejection; wanting to be left alone and indulge in guilty pleasures, such as watching Sanctuary Moon, but not really, because what it would really secretly need would be to be noticed and recognized as a person, even if it comes with the burden of talking to others and being responsible… You get the picture. You can see it sometimes in the mirror, too.
I know this is an unpopular opinion, but to me, Murderbot is not a depiction of a non-human intelligence. On the contrary: it’s so very human, that it’s practically the quintessence of how humans can envision a comforting image of AI. But that’s why Wells’s books managed to gather such a following. We see ourselves in Murderbot, as we cannot see ourselves in Polity AIs, Simmons’ entities from Hyperion or KSR’s Ship from Aurora. We want to pat it on the back (not really, though, it would probably shoot our arms off) and say it’ll be all right exactly because Murderbot reminds us of our younger, rebellious, awkward selves. It may come across as more of a gifted teenager on the autistic spectrum than anybody else, granted, but all its reactions and thought processes are indelibly human. It’s not a flaw, mind you: it’s what makes it so relatable, and so sympathetic to us. We see it grow and come to grips with its own feelings and wants. And while Network Effect sometimes straddles the line of cloyingly sweet, for the most part it manages to stay on the palatable side of it. Gruesome deaths and numerous murder mysteries certainly help :P.
Wells clearly found a formula that works with these books. They are snappy and snarky, and mostly follow a predictable pattern, but the Murderbot’s perspective is really highly entertaining. Network Effect works even better in that respect than the novellas because due to its length certain underlying themes and ideas got the chance to be more fleshed out and ultimately more rewarding for readers: from the Murderbot’s quest to understand the meaning of one’s agency and personhood to more focus on worldbuilding and successful application of various flashy SF tropes nicely bound together in an exciting, enjoyable bundle. It’s soft SF with a unique protagonist, big heart, and a dose of much needed optimism. Its mood reminded me strongly of old Star Trek. I don’t want to sell Murderbot short, but for me, Wells’s series is like a comfort food: a home-made pizza or a crusty apple pie. A tasty treat, easily digestible and considerably brightening your everyday routine, even if not jaw-droppingly exquisite or refined – and it has the added benefit of making you momentarily sated and at least a degree happier than before.