Book review: Exit Strategy, by Martha Wells

12 10 2018

Martha Wells is an American speculative fiction writer who until recently was best known as the author of the ‘Raksura’ and ‘Ile-Rien’ fantasy series; Wells has also written tie-in novels for the Star Wars and Stargate franchises. Within the past year or so, she has received increasing attention and acclaim for a new sequence of thoughtful and propulsive SF novellas, collectively termed ‘The Murderbot Diaries’, which detail the exploits of a somewhat-misanthropic combat cyborg (a ‘SecUnit’) that has slipped the yoke of its human-controlled programming and is now trying to find its own place in the hostile and confusing realm of human society. I’ve previously reviewed the three earlier novellas in the ‘Murderbot’ sequence.

ExitStrategy

Exit Strategy is the fourth title in the series, and follows a form that will be familiar to readers of the three earlier novellas: (1) Murderbot breathes sigh of simulated relief at conclusion of preceding events, looks to plan escape so as to minimise detection. (2) Murderbot is distracted in its preferred task of ingesting media shows by self-perceived need to safeguard stupid humans from their own intended reckless actions. (3) Murderbot carefully plans best-practice approach for averting harmful consequences to identified group of stupid humans. (4) Murderbot puts plan into effect. (5) Shit gets real: best laid plans, etc., etc. (6) Bad things happen.

This time around, the ‘stupid human’ most directly in need of safeguarding is Dr Mensah, who is technically Murderbot’s ‘owner’, and for whom the technically-rogue Murderbot therefore feels conflicting emotions… which is to say, emotion of any sort. Mensah has been kidnapped by evil corporate empire GrayCris, an entity with which Murderbot has had several previous dealings, none of them good. With the human it most cares about at the mercy of a ruthless, almost-lawless corporation, how will Murderbot rectify the situation?

Wells’ Murderbot novellas always build patiently to an explosive finale, and Exit Strategy is no exception. This perhaps makes it sound formulaic; not an inaccurate assessment, perhaps, but an incomplete one. There’s a slowly-developing awareness accreted across all four novellas that the SecUnit, repeatedly forced by circumstances to mimic a human being (so as not to appear in public as a dangerous, and therefore eminently targetable, item of killing machinery), is gradually becoming more adept in this role, a process which Wells uses to subtly tease out useful insights into the nature and limitations of humanity itself, as seen by an entity that’s still technically outside that walled city. Somewhat surprisingly for such an ostensibly-unemotive protagonist, the principal sparseness of the writing shows up not in the characterisation, which is fairly vivid (as expressed through body language, observable reactions, and SecUnit speculation), but in the scene-setting which, because it’s portrayed almost entirely without metaphor, can come across as pallid, functional, and sketchy, like a wireframe rather than a fully-rendered scene. Action sequences, however, are expertly-defined and propulsive. Murderbot is at its best seeking to survive against seemingly-overpowering opponents.

And, like some cross between Marvin the Paranoid Android and Terminator, Murderbot as a character is deliciously self-deprecating, curmudgeonly, and flippant at times. It’s a memorable nonhuman creation, by turns refreshingly philosophical and highly entertaining. By seeking to reunite the rogue SecUnit with Dr Mensah, Exit Strategy brings the multi-novella story arc to a memorable and effective conclusion. (There are, nonetheless, some indications that Murderbot is to return in a subsequent novel, which will be interesting.)

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