Talking Murderbot With 'Network Effect' Author Martha Wells

Action heroes don't spend much time sitting around on the couch, watching hours of TV, usually because they're too busy killing people. But Murderbot is different. Introduced in the 2016 novella All Systems Red, author Martha Wells' bestselling The Murderbot Diaries have won the highest accolades in science fiction, in part by bridging that empathic gap between us and those fictional warriors. Like them, Murderbot save lives and stomps enemies, but like us, Murderbot watches (and rewatches) hundreds of hours of streaming media and frets over every social encounter.

Network Effect, the first full-length novel in The Murderbot Diaries, came out Tuesday from Tor. Like its novella predecessors—All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol and Exit StrategyNetwork Effect is narrated by a part-human, part-AI security "SecUnit," who succesfully hacked the governor module meant to keep it subservient to corporate directives. With its freedom it mostly watches TV (and busts open a corporate extraterrestrial artifact conspiracy).

murderbot-network-effect
Tor

Accustomed to following orders like an automaton while griping about humans to itself, Murderbot's hard-won freedoms come with their own challenges. Almost harder than not caring about anything is finding itself invested in the fate of humans and friends, like the condescending starship AI it's dubbed Asshole Research Transport (or ART). In Network Effect, Murderbot may have more freedom than ever, but it remains as anxious, troubled and second-guessing in social interactions as ever. Lucky for Murderbot, there's a lot of killing, drone-smashing and media binging to do.

Newsweek subscription offers >

We spoke to author Martha Wells about Murderbot, Network Effect and the complicated galaxy the cynical SecUnit rampages through.

Newsweek subscription offers >

Before diving into Network Effect, how would you describe Murderbot or The Murderbot Diaries to someone who may be unfamiliar?

Murderbot is a science fiction series, set in the very far future. The Murderbot character is a person who is called a construct—part robot, part human-cloned tissue. They're called SecUnits and they were designed to be security, to protect people and be able to do the kind of dirty jobs people don't want to do anymore. At least this murderbot was built by a large corporation that is, basically, your typical soulless, indifferent-to-human-suffering type of corporation that usually rents out equipment—including SecUnits—to places that are doing mining, planetary exploration, that kind of thing. They end up being used a lot to oversee human labor, who are basically people who are indentured and low-paid workers. So instead of protecting people, SecUnits end up doing a lot of enforcement of corporate regulations. They're also supposed to have a governor module that controls their behavior and punishes them or kills them if they do anything that they're not ordered to do. This particular murderbot has found a way to hack their governor module. But more than the expected thing people think SecUnits would do—go off on a murderous rampage—it instead has basically been downloading entertainment media from various online sources and also still doing it's job, because it doesn't really know what else to do.

In the first four novellas in The Murderbot Diaries, Murderbot finds itself in the middle of this conflict between a corporation called GrayCris and government officials of this colony system called Preservation. If those stories form a "Preservation vs. GrayCris" arc, what is the can of worms you're opening in Network Effect?

In the second novella, Artificial Condition, Murderbot meets ART, who's an artificial intelligence running a large transport starship. In Network Effect, Murderbot and ART run into each other again. That was one of the reasons that I wrote the book is that I really wanted those two characters to get back together and I finally thought of a way to do it.

The series is from Murderbot's perspective, who doesn't care much about the wider galaxy (outside of its favorite media), but I assume there's a lot of worldbuilding you have to juggle. We learn a bit about regions of space like the Corporation Rim, but would you tell me a little more about the state of the larger galaxy?

The Corporation Rim does control a lot of territory, but there are a lot of independent worlds and places outside it and also a lot of unexplored space, basically. In my head, what I see is that there was a whole society—pre-Corporation Rim—that went out and explored and colonized and developed terraformed worlds and all these different places. The Corporation Rim then grew and took over a large section of that. There was a disruption when that happened and so a lot of the pre-Corporation Rim colonies were either destroyed or have been lost. There are a lot of unknown territories out there. I like to do that in my books, I don't like to define rigidly what the world is, or what the boundaries of the world are. When I'm reading books where that's done I feel like that limits the reader's imagination.

I'm kind of a seat-of-the-pants writer, so I don't plan out a lot ahead of time. I also like to explore the world along with the reader, so I don't talk about how the world works in general, partly because I want to get the reader concentrated in the plot, but also because I don't want to set up things so that, later, when I come up with a different idea for the next book, I have to contradict myself or come up with a way around it. I'm just exploring the world. I tend to develop a lot of stuff I need for each story in particular, and then for the next story I realize, "Oh, well, there's places to go from there. I need to explore this idea." So I'm kind of making it up as I go along, though I do have ideas about how the world came to be and what caused the society to develop this way, but I don't usually get into those, because it's not important for the story that's being told in that moment (but it might be important later).

Murderbot loves watching TV (or its far-future equivalent), and I really enjoy the stories-within-stories aspect of all these shows, like Sanctuary Moon and other media. How much more do you know about Sanctuary Moon and what is your favorite show within the book?

What I do, when I come up with the different shows—in Network Effect a whole bunch more are mentioned—for each one I have a real-world analog. So I kind of know what show it is and can keep track of—when I make plot points for the TV show—what kind of things would be happening. Like, Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon is kind of based on How to Get Away with Murder, but in space, on a colony, with all different characters and hundreds more episodes, basically. In Artifical Condition, ART's favorite show is Worldhoppers, which is almost like a Stargate Atlantis or Stargate SG-1 kind of thing, with people exploring. So each one has an analog like that, which helps me keep track.

With Murderbot's media consumption you've found this way to make this action hero very identifiable to us couch potatoes. But an additional aspect I like is that Murderbot has this untroubled relationship with media, whereas we might feel that watching too much TV is "wasting our time" or that we should be doing something better. How do you make Murderbot identifiable under very different circumstances from our own?

A lot of it is just my own feelings about things. When I wrote the first one in 2016, I was very angry. So I put a lot of that anger about things that were happening into Murderbot. I think that probably comes through quite a bit. Also, just some of my own experience with anxiety, and growing up with that—it was even worse when I was a kid and in high school. So taking those experiences and really thinking about what that would mean for a person in Murderbot's position and leaning into that. When I was growing up, there was very much the thing of "Oh, TV is wasting your mind" and that typical kind of stuff, but I always found it really comforting. You can critique it—you don't have to like everything about a show—but it can also be a comforting presence and keep you company. So I wanted to get that into it.

People find different things to identify with the character. I've seen someone say, someplace, that you should make your characters very generic, because then more people can identify with them. But it's actually the opposite that's true: the more specific you make a character and the more specifically they talk about their fears and needs and what's happening to them, the more points people will find to identify with.

Related to that, one of my favorite scenes is in Artificial Condition, where Murderbot has the action sci-fi equivalent of a really stressful job interview. And when I was reading, I was wondering, did you start with a mundane life event and try to find a way to make it "Murderbotty," or does it run the other way, where you're working out how to make Murderbot's sci-fi circumstance relatable?

It's more the first one. I have a whole bunch of mundane life events that are very stressful, so I put them all in. They would be even worse in this situation. As opposed to "I'm just trying to get this job," you'd be trying to hide who you were and you could be killed if people knew what you were—so I just tried to amp up the stress.

You mentioned All Systems Red emerging out of how you were feeling in 2016, but could you tell me a little more about the origin of Murderbot?

The answer is kind of disappointing. There was no big moment or anything or anything that really influenced me. I was working on my last fantasy novel, The Harbors of the Sun, which was the last book in the Books of the Raksura series, so I was working really hard on it, trying to close off that series and answer all the questions and give closure to the readers and everything. I was nearing the end of the first draft and I was getting all of these ideas for stuff, and one of those ideas was an idea for what I thought was going to be a short story.

It was basically about a person who was an enslaved security person who had freed themselves and nobody knew about it and it would have to admit that to save the people it had started to like. It originally had a sad ending. I thought I would just jot down the idea, before I forgot it, and then suddenly I had written five pages—it was the scene where Dr. Mensah knocks on Murderbot's cubicle wall.

So it came out of where I was in my career at the time, and all the science fiction I had read, starting as a little kid up until now. Plus some recent books about other artificial intelligences, like Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice trilogy, which I had really enjoyed. So I guess that had got me in a more science fiction mindset. When I started writing it I realized it needed to be longer—at least novella length—and that I didn't want it to have a sad ending. But I wasn't really sure what the ending was going to be until I got to that point.

Murderbot has run into extraterrestrial remnants before, but Network Effect dives in and shows some of the consequences of these things that have only been hinted at before. Can you tell me a little bit about your approach to extraterrestrial life?

I wanted them to know that aliens existed at one point. I haven't decided yet if they're actually ever going to encounter current, living aliens. The information that is available to Murderbot and the other characters is just what information is filtered through the various Corporations, so there's no telling, as far as they know, if a Corporation could have encountered actual aliens and killed them or just not told anyone. So there's a lot of things they just don't know about their own world. But I did want them to find a lot of evidence that there had been other sentient civilizations on the planets and places they go to. That's all they really know at this point.

Network Effects gets more into the kind of things that are found and also the reasons why. In All Systems Red you find out a lot of these alien materials are basically considered off-limits and they're dangerous to work with or mine or use, so there's a lot of specific regulations around them—in Network Effect you really start to see why that is the case. Some of these things that they do, that people have encountered while exploring or whatever, have been extremely dangerous. So it gets a little more into that part of the world.

So much of Murderbot's life takes place on this layer of abstraction above our reality, on various network feeds, but there's none of the hacker movie visual metaphors or anything like that, so what's your approach to these virtual spaces and the action that's happening above the action?

I visualize it the way Murderbot describes it. For movies, like Tron and that kind of thing, it's helpful for the viewer to imagine these things happening in rooms and corridors and spaces, but that's not helpful for Murderbot. It's actually seeing the code and the way these systems interact, in its head. It's not an abstract human concept, it's more physical for it. So that's what I was trying to get across. There's a bit in Network Effect where one of these things is going on and Murderbot describes it with this visual concept, but then says, "but that's not actually what it looks like, it's completely different."

There's this scene early in Network Effect I really like where Murderbot and ART are angry with each other. After an argument, ART starts presenting these beautiful videos to the human crew that are color-corrected and edited to perfection, which Murderbot takes as a personal slight, as if ART was showing off. But it struck me that ART (who's a university research and transport vessel) deals with students all the time and would of course be an expert in what are essentially futuristic Powerpoint presentations. So it was the first time I wondered (other than when Murderbot is mystified by and trying to understand human behavior): just how reliable is Murderbot as a judge of outside reality?

It's somewhat reliable. It's a person with depression and anxiety, so that colors a lot of its perception, just the way it would with an ordinary human. So there's that working for it, but also it's not human, so it does see the world in a different way. And one of the things that it does—I'm not sure I've made this actual text in the book yet—but it separates humans and augmented humans. The actual people in that world do not do that, but Murderbot separates out augmented humans because they were more dangerous to it when it was hiding itself after it had hacked its governor module, because they're more likely to figure it out. So there's little things it does like that, that are kind of its way of perceiving a world where a lot is not accessible to it until it started seeing media. So it's fairly reliable, but not completely reliable.

We also get little hints at how various economies work. In Preservation they have this separate barter system. It's clear Preservation is a counterpoint to the Corporation Rim, but do you see it as a Star Trek-ian utopia? What's the relationship between Preservation and the Corporation Rim?

I think this is in Exit Strategy, but a colony had basically collapsed and was not being supplied and another ship came and moved those people to where Preservation is now and their society developed from that. So it's a society with a very developed safety net, because their original compact was that no one would go hungry and everyone would have what they needed.

It probably comes off as a bit Star Trek utopian, but I don't see it as looking much like Star Trek. It's more organic than that. And I don't think it's utopian either. It's a place that's still growing and changing and feeling its way forward, based on their concept of what society is. Even on Preservation, the bots are still not completely free. They still haven't made that leap yet, so if I think it was really a utopia, there wouldn't be that problem with articifial intelligence.

You have this cast of human characters who are the friends and relations of characters from the preceding novellas, so there's some overlap for people who are familiar, but they're also new characters. What do you think readers of the previous novellas will get out of Network Effect that a reader new to the series might not, and vice versa?

Someone fresh to the series is not going to enjoy the reunion between Murderbot and ART as much as someone who has already read the first two books. I guess you can still read it and enjoy it, but it does reward readers of the previous four novellas, because it's still part of the series and there's a lot of payoff for people who have read the previous novellas and know the things that have happened and what's been mentioned before.

Congratulations on the book's release, but I have to ask what I can only assume is a very annoying question right when your new book just came out: What comes after Network Effect and what's next for Murderbot?

I've actually written something else that I can't talk about yet because the publisher hasn't announced it. I'm guessing they'll announce it soon though. And I have a fantasy short story coming out from Uncanny Magazine that should be out later this summer. I was supposed to start, for my own self, another novel, but the pandemic has kind of closed that down. I've gotten some work done, but it's just been very difficult in between worrying about the virus and everything it's been doing in the world and then worrying about my book release and anticipating that. I just haven't gotten a whole lot done. But I am going to try and write another novel next.

Network Effect is available now from Tor.

Talking Murderbot With 'Network Effect' Author Martha Wells | Culture