Imagine for a moment that Hercule Poirot is a robot. Cyborg really. Armed and armored against all the evils men do.
Imagine if Agatha Christie or Nancy Atherton woke up one morning and decided to put their newest cozy secret in a quaint, progressive orbital station rather than a quaint English seaside village. that Angela Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher was thrown a thousand years forward to throw herself over the body of a dead spaceman dumped in a hallway – no fingerprints, no DNA, no record of how he got there or who set him up.
Martha Wells’ latest entry in her award-winning, nerd-charming, tropic-bending Murderbot series, Fugitive Telemetry, is a ton of things you probably weren’t expecting. It is an unadorned entity. A cozy secret full of plasma cannons and spaceships. An IT thriller (like so many Murderbot stories) that serves at least in part as a forensic investigation of linked surveillance and data systems. A variant with a locked room in which, as soon as the body is discovered (page 1, line 1), the old mansion is closed, all inside are closed and a comfortable flood wipes out the only bridge from the island.
Granted, in this case the old mansion is the Preservation Station and the flood is an armed strike ship ordered to keep all vehicles from leaving, but you get what this is about. By the time the very first chapter is done, our stage will be ready: There has been a murder at a station that is usually so peaceful and utopian that the machinery used to scan things like murder victims is put into “Preventive Health Checkup Day.” “Used on is the local school. Local Barney Fife MPs are baffled. The die-hard, no-nonsense police chief (Senior Officer Indah, for whom Murderbot reluctantly works) doesn’t believe any goddamn robot has anything to do with investigating murders on her ward. Meanwhile, Cyborg Poirot is on the fall …
It’s fun, sure. It’s a romp. Murderbot is good (if grumpy) company as always. His parenthesized deviations from the sluggishness and squeak of people, his obsession with his shows, and his constant inner moral struggles for death as a harmless, mostly normal, free, former corporate slave who poses no threat to or falls into his human neighbors leaning into its darker past and becoming the full-fledged Murderbot that it really is are all there. Every Murderbot book is, in some ways, a passing narrative. The bigger arc (Murderbot tries to escape its violent, repressive past and become the best, truest version of himself) has been read by many different people as so many things, and one of the things that make Wells’ series so comforting is it that of Murderbot’s main story is about a non-human who tries to pretend to be human and in the process to invent his own better self. You can root for such a character. You want them to be successful.
Fleeting telemetry is also an oddity in Wells’ canon. Though it’s in no way a Ret-Con, the entire story goes back a step, that was after the first four novels in the series (All Systems Red, Artificial State, Rogue Protocol, and Exit Strategy) but before the novel Full-length network is effected. It’s a story that takes place over a single day – leaving little time for the usual rummaging, media consumption, and the nifty comments on human systems that make Murderbot so charming. It hints at (but doesn’t address directly) much of the main story of the series (the actual murderous GrayCris company, Murderbot’s past, or those who haunt it) and for the most part functions as a stand-alone story.
One of Wells’ superpowers for a long time has been their ability to put the material of an epic poem into a very small package.
However, one of Wells’ superpowers for a long time has been their ability to put the material of an epic poem into a very small package. And here she uses the compressed timeline and the single location to get Murderbot into a situation of constant moral reckoning. If it wants to prove that it can be better and deserves the freedom to live the life it has chosen, it must obey the rules imposed on it by the society that it has (barely) chosen to accept. But if it wants to solve this murder, answer some key questions, and prove how much better it is than all the pesky people holding it back (never a minor problem), all it has to do is turn off the arm lasers and virus programs and hack and murder its own Way to a quick answer. It is a question of ends / means. And Wells does not offer easy solutions in the complex architecture of systems and society that it has created to surround the narrative.
Sure, there is no end here without a showdown, some explosions, a cool robot fight and a chaotic ending full of smugglers, broken glass and gunfire. But how a person (one thing, an object that is about to become something else) was made to enforce rules, who came into being by breaking rules and is now forced to abide by them, without getting there, without further moral compromise, is the tension that Wells creates. Murderbot was made Murderbot. That will never change.
The question is, can it choose to be more?
Jason Sheehan knows a thing or two about food, video games, books, and Starblazers. He’s the restaurant reviewer at Philadelphia Magazine, but when no one is looking he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray cannons. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.