Martha Wells, Network Effect (2020)

Author: Martha Wells

Title: Network Effect

Format: E-book

Pages: 350

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.

That’s such a nice cover for the omnibus version from Subterranean!

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.

Score: 8/10

52 thoughts on “Martha Wells, Network Effect (2020)

  1. You had me with the f-word 🤣
    Those megacorporations: did Amazon manage to rename itself (Andromeda maybe?)? Surely Facebook is around, enslaving the people!
    Re:novella series: I get your message, but I‘m not so sure. Some authors are just better at medium length (KJ Parker), others like to push out a side job here and there (Bujold). Wells seems to have hit the needs of a broader public, as opposed to her better but less successful Raksura series. I‘m happy that novella size is finally here to stay after a long drought. It’s all about economy! Btw, Germany has its own SF novella series (though it doesn’t call itself novella): Perry Rhodan. Every week a new volume, since 1961, more than 3000 titles. It has a lot of fans here (and a Wikipedia with the perrypedia).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. In a way, I felt the main baddie of the series, GrayCris, is a sort of evolved SpaceXFacebook thingy… 🤣

      Well, I make the point re novellas because some of the first four would IMO work better as one book; not to mention the first 4 actually form one plot arc and could’ve easily be combined into one – that’s what Subterranean actually did with their omnibus; it’s just the price is prohibitive. I like novellas – I just feel not all stories fit the format 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hmm… I’m trying to device a reading strategy. So this novel was worth it, right? But not necessarily a must read either? It is not too long for its own good, like a novella stretched out? I think I will read the second novella, Artificial Condition, and then if I feel like reading more I will jump to the novel. How does that sound to you?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’d say your strategy sounds optimal; you need no. 2 to really be able to enjoy no. 5, but no. 3 is IMO the weakest of the bunch and you can easily live without it. No. 4 is pretty good, too, but again, not absolutely crucial for reading the novel.
      The novel is I think the best of the bunch, so if you liked All Systems Red, you’ll probably enjoy this one a lot. It’s just the right length; I didn’t feel bored at all 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thankee! You’re the resident Murderbot expert 🙂 After finishing A Little Hatred I’ll pick up the second novella. The rest is too expense for my wallet. I would have liked to buy a 4-novella omnibus but that Subterranean Press one is even more ridiculously expensive.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Heh, happy to be of service! 😁 I’m very much looking forward to your review of the second one!
          Yeah, that’s a big part of my griping about the novella format; they are as expensive as full novels, and are third the length. I just read them all on a library loan and through NG.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. You basically make the same point re: relatability as in Jeroen’s review of the first title. Still not sure whether it would appeal to me. But as I said earlier, I’m in for some SF pizza, so.

    Would this work as a standalone?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s a tough one; I this series works better when you have a certain exposure to previous installments, as it’s mostly about personal growth. You could probably read it as a standalone, but I’d expect the payoff would be significantly diminished. Try the first one, it’s short and a good intro point – and this way, you can check if this pizza is right for you 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have yet to read this one, even if I have already read all the others, but I am waiting for the right moment, because this series has become a comfort reading for me, too, so I would wait for when I need some pick me up!
    And I wholeheartedly agree with you about the humanity of Murderbot, he is not an “alien” AI and relate to him is just so easy because he is human at his core! Anyway, I have really enjoyed your review, it was amazing!!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Susy! 😊

      Yup, comfort SF read it definitely is! I liked the novel the most, mostly because it was more developed than the novellas and there was more time for character growth and worldbuilding. Happy reading, Susy! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  5. You nailed it, indeed: Murdebot is the kind of grumpy, asocial character that we all end up loving not in spite of its personality quirks, but because of them. Most of our enjoyment in this series comes from the amounts of snark that MB can deliver at the slightest opportunity, particularly when observing human behavior – and her I also agree on its wish to BE human: a wish Murderbot cannot admit even to itself, and yet why does it keep studying human behavior so closely? 😉
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for reading! 😀
      Heh, Murderbot like and good teenager won’t admit to anything that’s got to do with feelings 🤣 I think that’s the whole point, though – even if Murderbot itself won’t admit to being human/person, the humanity of people around it can be measured by their approach to Murderbot as one 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  6. SO GOOD! And I gotta agree, I love Murderbot in any format, but it was also nice being able to settle in with the characters with a longer novel. That said, I gave Fugitive Telemetry the side eye when it went back to novella format, but it ended up being my favorite yet, haha!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Heh, I enjoyed the novel more than the sequel 😉 Fugitive Telemetry didn’t have that suspense for me, since early on it’s hinted that it takes place before Network Effect… Happy to hear this was your favorite, though – it definitely had a lot going for it, and more than one type of f-word, that’s for sure 🤣🤣

      Like

  7. i listened to one of the shorter books on audible while wife and i were of on adventure some where a year or so. enjoyed it enough to want to try the rest of the series sometime. Great review Ola

    Liked by 2 people

  8. piotrek

    Well, “Murderbot” is definitely a great name, so… maybe one day? This sounds like sth good, but not necessarily a required reading 😉 I’ve been reading a lot of SF lately, I’m listening to quite good Polish space opera now, so I’ll just put this on the list for the time being 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

      1. piotrek

        “Głębia” cycle by Marcin Podlewski, it’s enjoyable, even if not particularly innovative (so far). We have a universe that once was an empire, but a war with aliens, and then AIs, ravaged it pretty good, now there’s a United Federation of sorts with core around Galaxy’s centre and outer worlds where scum and villainy prevails… but characters are interesting and I’m going to listen to at least the entire first book.

        SF sounds funny in Polish, though, unless it’s Lem 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Oooo I love that cover! Didn’t know they’d done an omnibus. I also loved Fugitive Telemetry! Probably my favorite thus far. But that price tag… 😞

    And why’s that an unpopular opinion?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, that price is quite preposterous. That cover, though – very nice! 😀

      Oh, I’ve read quite a lot of reviews arguing that Wells writes a great non-human/alien intelligence/AI in Murderbot. To me, Murderbot is nothing but human since I don’t consider human logic/emotions universal on a galactic scale.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m trying to wrap my head around “I don’t consider human logic/emotions universal on a galactic scale” and failing. Uh, do you mean, you do don’t ummmm… 😅

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I don’t think human logic and human emotions would be applied by aliens in their entirety even if some analogs would exist – emotions are rooted in the physical substrate our our bodies and in the experiences we have within our particular environment – so if there are some aliens out there, built on a silicone substrate, for example, and having a totally different idea of society, they would not necessarily understand us easily – and vice versa 😉
          Trying to write short comprehensive comments on this is just bound to fail 😅

          Liked by 1 person

  10. I’ve only read the first novella and agree about the unoriginal plot and the Murderbot character carrying the whole story. It really is a great character (and yes, very human). I may follow your example of reading series out of order and jump directly to this story, skipping the other novellas.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That might work for you! 🙂 I’d say reading the second novella before the novel might be a good idea as one of the main characters from the novel appears first in this novella – but the next two can be easily omitted 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Currently finishing this one up myself and so many of your points are so… you. 😛 It’s true that there’s really nothing extraordinary about this Murderbot series. It’s just the character and its adventures that make for wonderful sci-fi opera entertainment. I do think that the author wrote the character as if it was some kind of Gothic kid who’s going through an identity crisis and finally understanding what feelings are, while also understanding its duties and whatnot. The fun factor is really what makes me come back for more, no matter the format. 😛 Great thoughts, Ola!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ummm… Thanks? 😉
      Heh, not sure if I should feel complimented or offended 😛

      Yup, totally – it’s entertaining and fun, and it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure, as Murderbot’s constant whining and bitching is quite refreshing and makes us all feel a bit better that this behaviour is not unique to ourselves 😛

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Pingback: Martha Wells, Fugitive Telemetry (2021) – Re-enchantment Of The World

    1. Libraries, my friend! It’s all in the libraries! 😁 And you can probably get an ebook, too, if you’re interested! That further means that you can punish the greed in the most insidious and rewarding manner! 🤣

      Liked by 2 people

        1. Have you guys opened the libraries yet? I know GB is slowly opening but I’m not sure how far it went. I read all of these on a library loan, except the last one which I got from NG.

          Liked by 2 people

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