Economic Analysis of the Corporate Rim versus Preservation in the Murderbot Diaries

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This won’t be anything scholarly, but I’ll try to hit the high points. I don’t mean to pick on Martha Wells, in particular. I love the Murderbot Diaries, and generally the economic system has been vague enough to get by. However, after a few installments, it’s now specific enough to get a grip on.

First, the Corporate Rim is a fairly standard instance of unregulated capitalism. It’s unclear where the government is that should be regulating it, or even if there is such a government—maybe there’s only a network of local administrations and a civil court system. If so, this is a case of imperialist might-makes-right, and it’s no wonder everybody has to hire muscle to carry out simple planetary surveys. The corporations indenture workers on labor contracts where they do get paid, but also have to pay the companies for board and health care, meaning they won’t have much at the end of the contract. In addition, the corporates buy and sell planets, kill off inconvenient competitors, ignore laws about interdicted areas, enslave human-machine hybrids, and are irresponsible with terraforming operations and seeding of colonists. Apparently there’s also a lot of damage from production like mining operations that the companies expect to abandon. This sounds very workable, but it’s also clear that it’s not the most optimal system.

Preservation is an independent freehold planet. The colonists were originally seeded on another planet where the terraforming was ineffective, so they were starving. They were rescued by a colony ship that stored them in the hold and brought them to Preservation. The colonists then rebuilt the ship into a wormhole port station. It’s unclear who operated the ship or how they got title to the planet, but the story suggests this was a rescue operation rather than a business deal–maybe someone looking for colonists to populate their private planet. According to Murderbot, the planet works on a barter system but the station works on hard currency cards in order to interface with systems that travelers come in from. Farms on the planet are operated by family groups, and everyone seems to be prosperous, though we have no information on how this works. (Does the government own the farms? Where are the farm workers? Do they use bots for the dirty work? Does everyone take a turn in the fields?) The government doesn’t seem to lack for funds. Commerce is low key and many things seem to be provided free of charge, including traveler lodging on the station. It appears that public servants volunteer their time, and are required to continue their normal occupations at the same time. This is why Mensah is the planetary leader and also working as lead on a planetary survey. Presumably she also has duties on the family farm, though we never see her working there, only on the survey and the station.

Okay, so I have some questions about how this system works. The main one is how family-operated farms and a barter system can generate enough wealth to build and maintain a wormhole station and operate a fleet of ships that is available for surveys and rescue missions. This sounds Bronze Age pastoral. The barter system means they will trade chickens for medical care, and it will take a lot of chickens and cows to buy a spaceship. Pin Lee is a lawyer and Ratthi is a biologist. Do they get paid with tomatoes and squash? Do they work on farms in addition to this? Does Preservation have manufacturing capabilities? How does that work on a barter system? They’ve bought an option on another planet and are considering further investment. What are they planning to do with it? Where did they get the funds? Plus Mensah has plenty of cash on hand to pay off the Company for bonds and to buy one of their SecUnits. Presumably this is government funds she’s using. Therefore Preservation must grow, mine or manufacture something of considerable trade value with the Corporation Rim in order to have this kind of budget. It can’t be generated from a farm and barter economy without a currency to store value. That just won’t work.

Review of “Obsolescence” by Martha Wells

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This short story is based in the Murderbot universe, and appears in the anthology Take Us to a Better Place, released by Melcher Media on January 21, 2020. This review contains spoilers.

Jixy is an administrator at Kidland Station, somewhere in space. She is first alerted to a problem by screaming children, and finds, to her horror, that Greggy seems to have had a terrible accident. It’s a messy cleanup job, and worse, it looks like some of his components have been stolen. Greggy was a retired exploration rover, an early version of a human-machine construct, who was working at Kidland Station in a second career as a teaching assistant. Suspecting that Greggy might have been attacked by an unauthorized visitor, Jixy puts the station in emergency mode and orders a search of the module. It’s a scary situation, as everybody remembers stories of raiders that attack people to steal their prostheses and augments. Can Jixy find whoever is responsible before they strike again?

On the positive side, this story follows up on information we’ve gotten from Wells’ Murderbot Diaries series. One reason that Murderbot tries so hard to blend in with the human population is that it’s concerned about being identified as a rogue construct without any rights, which would be fair game for a chop shop gang. Murderbot also mentions the exploration rovers as an early example of human-bot constructs. Generally these were people who had suffered some highly debilitating accident and were offered the chance for reconstruction to help establish the first bases on Luna and Mars.

On the not so positive side, this suffers greatly from lack of Murderbot. Without its wry observances, the story fails to generate anything much in the way of interest. The vision of Greggy floating in his own remains is somewhat horrific, as is the perpetrator, but otherwise, I’m not sure of the point here. That transhumans will get obsolete the way an old car does? Well okay, maybe so. It’s a bit short on details, too.

Three stars.

Review of “Compulsory” by Martha Wells

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This is a great find. It’s a Murderbot short story published by Wired magazine in January 2019 as part of the The Future of Work series, which should make it eligible for the next awards cycle. I imagine this could also be a teaser for Wells upcoming new Murderbot novel, Network Effect, which is scheduled for release in May of 2020. Her website suggests there might be a few more short stories upcoming. This review contains major spoilers.

Murderbot is working a mining contract where it’s obvious all the humans hate each other. At the moment, 98% of MB’s attention is on episode #44 of The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon, while the remaining 2% is monitoring ambient audio to keep track of what the humans are doing. Elane, Sekai and Asa are humans arguing on the observation platform. Sekai accidently falls into the mining pit, and MB sends an alert to HubSystem. MB’s current job is: 1) to keep the workers from stealing company property, 2) to keep the workers from killing management and 3) to keep the workers from reducing productivity. Because rescuing the worker falls outside these parameters, HubSystem orders MB to stay at its duty station. MB estimates incoming safety bots will be too late to rescue Sekai, so it steps off the observation platform, kicks off the stabilizer wall into a lower gravity well and lands on the housing above Sekai. She reaches up and catches its hand just as the blade she landed on cycles and drops ore into the smelter. HubSystem tries to fry MB’s circuits for disobeying, but ha, that governor module died a long time ago. MB climbs out of the pit, carrying its rescued human, meanwhile hacking HubSystem to make it think it gave the orders for rescue. MB checks the management feed to make sure this has gone undetected and finds company management is puzzled but unsuspicious. More terrifying: Sekai has gotten a glimpse of the real Murderbot.

This is a compact wrap-up of the MB state of affairs, well presented in a mere 1000 words. MB narrates, and its personality and humor come through in the usual way. You get an idea of its physical capabilities and hacking ability—which is what makes it so dangerous without the governor module—and the way it wants to watch media shows and sort of enjoys actually being of use once in a while. That’s a great touch at the end, too, where it thinks Sekai can almost see through the armor to the real, complex person underneath.

On the not so positive side, why didn’t that observation platform have some pretty sturdy guardrails in place? Surely a lot of workers falling off the edge would clog the machinery below. And how did MB climb out of the pit? Is there an access ladder or not? Inquiring minds want to know. Actually, the only serious complaint I have about this is that it needs to be longer. It could easily be the intro to another novella.

Highly recommended. Five stars.

Review of Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

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This is the fourth novella in the series titled The Murderbot Diaries. It was released 2 October 2018 by Tor. This has been a highly successful series, including the Hugo and Nebula winner All Systems Red, followed by Artificial Condition and Rogue Protocol. A full length novel continuing the story is scheduled for release in 2020. This review contains massive spoilers.

At the end of Rogue Protocol, Murderbot has safely escaped Milu on Ship. Since Ship isn’t all that bright, it monitors Ship’s inputs as they approach HaveRatton Station. When Ship is directed to divert from its usual dock by Port Authority, Murderbot uses an evac suit to leave through the cargo module airlock and enters the station through another docked ship. The diversion turns out to be about a large security force waiting for some rogue SecUnit. Hm. Safely on its way, Murderbot checks the newsfeeds and finds that GrayCris has charged its owner Dr. Mensah with corporate espionage and that she is now missing. Intensive research suggests this is about the data Murderbot collected on Milu, and that she’s being held on TranRollinHyfa Station where GrayCris has its corporate headquarters. Murderbot uses an ID chip and a hard currency card it took from hired killers Gerth and Wilken and catches a fast passenger transport for TRH. Once there, it identifies a bond company gunship sitting off the station. Pulling a status report, it finds the ship has been refused dockage by the station, but a shuttle from the ship has docked. Drs. Pin Lee, Ratthi and Gurathin are on the station attempting to negotiate Mensah’s release. Can Murderbot get her out of GrayCris’clutches without getting caught itself? If so, then what?

This continues the story arc with the same great features of the other novellas. The world building is notably excellent, as are the characters. Because it’s written in first person, we have the advantage of Murderbot’s wonderfully entertaining viewpoint. Not only is it getting much better at impersonating a human, but I’m suspecting that “comm interface” component ART made up for it provides a lot of extra processing power. We’re also finally seeing why rogue SecUnits really are dangerous, as Murderbot casually hacks its way through the station’s protected systems while simultaneously outwitting GrayCris’ security force and carrying on an apparent love affair with Dr. Mensah (just like on the media shows). Once it’s trapped, the violence escalates, and it doesn’t want to shut the aggression down. Only Mensah’s tenuous hold on it keeps things together. There’s been a rising action line through the whole series, and this caps it off nicely.

On the not so great side, I’ve got some nits to pick with the whole story arc at this point. I suspect the series was written fairly quickly, as Wells has said it’s a short story that got out of control, and after the huge success of the first novella, she quickly got in gear to produce the rest. Tor was also in a hurry to follow up on the initial success, and went light on the editing. That means there are some inconsistencies in the content. 1) ART’s modifications included reducing Murderbot’s height by either one or two centimeters; we’re not sure which. 2) The sampling device that tried to capture Don Abene in Rogue Protocol snatched her helmet away, but later she has it again. 3) In Exit Strategy, the Preservation group plans not to mention Murderbot is a SecUnit so there will be no questions about citizenship, but somehow Mensah’s daughter knows. Also, the plan to produce a documentary (presumably what this series is) will also reveal this issue. Hello? 4) At the end of Exit Strategy, what happened to Murderbot’s projectile weapon? I can’t believe it left that behind, but it just sort of disappears. 5) At the end of Exit Strategy, was it struck by shrapnel or a projectile? It says both in different places. 6) In Exit Strategy, I didn’t quite believe the scenario that led to system failure. It seems like a processing overload would have just led to burnt out capacitors. Extending into a different system should be done with copied code, right? Like a virus? And that shouldn’t jumble up the original code, right? Somebody who knows about AI architecture help me out on this one.

Highly recommended. Five stars.

Review of Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

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Rogue Protocol is a novella, the third in the Murderbot Diaries series, following All Systems Red and Artificial Condition. It was released by Tor/McMillan in August 2018. Exit Strategy, the last installment of this series, is due in October 2018.

Finished with investigating its half-memories of a massacre at Ganaka mining pit, Murderbot hitches a ride on a passenger transport this time, planning to look into the activities of the GrayCris Corporation that attempted to assassinate Dr. Mensah’s team. Because it’s representing itself as a security consultant, it has to endure and mediate the conflicts the human passengers on this trip, but finally makes it to the transit station for Milu. It appears that GrayCris is illegally mining alien artifacts, and Milu is an abandoned terraforming operation that could easily have been used as a cover. The facility’s new owners have sent a team for assessment, and Murderbot catches a ride to the venue with their human security team. The security team has ulterior motives and the facility is hazardous, so problems quickly develop. Can Murderbot rescue the assessment team? Can it find evidence against GrayCris to help Dr. Mensah with her charges against the corporation? Stay tuned.

This installment of the story has many of the same good points as the original novella, including great characters and lots of strategy and action. This installment also makes more sense in the overall arc of the series than Artificial Condition did, as Murderbot has a specific objective related to Dr. Mensah and GrayCris.

It appears that Murderbot is getting more comfortable in the human world, and it’s starting to feel confined in small storage lockers. I’m not sure if this is evolution of the character or just that somehow it’s crossing over the line and becoming a little too human. The industrial machine quality of its personality is part of its charm, and I’ve not been thrilled with its emotional issues. Whatever, we seem to be working through those.

For a novella, this installment is still not worth the price, but almost (total cost of 4 e-book versions will be about USD$35). As a full-length novel, I’m thinking the series arc will be episodic, something like a TV mini-series that has to entertain weekly, but still make sense on a larger scale. This quality makes it hard to implement character development and world building, and I think both are suffering a bit from the structure of the work. It would be great if Wells could provide us a more in-depth adventure for the same characters.

Minor content editing issues. Four stars.

Are Pronouns Really that Important?

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Recently I’ve gotten, not just one, but two surveys from organizations asking about my gender identity/sexuality and what pronouns I’d prefer to use. Presumably this is so groups I’m affiliated with can 1) make a count of non-binary and/or genderqueer authors and 2) keep track of how everybody wants to be addressed. This makes it seem like an opportune time to discuss pronouns.

For anyone who is totally out of the loop on this, I’ll make an effort to explain—not that I’m an expert, of course, or even keeping up. Correct usage seems to shift significantly over time. “Genderqueer” is a term for people whose gender identity lies outside of what is considered normal male and female genders—gender being a role, as opposed to a sex, which is based on equipment. Someone who is genderqueer might express femininity, masculinity, neither or both as part of their gender identity. Related to this, gender neutrality is a movement to reduce gender-based discrimination through establishment of gender-neutral language, including pronouns.

This explains the recent innovation of “Latinx” instead of “Latino” or “Latina,” for example. There is also a considerable list of pronouns which have been advanced as gender-neutral. Because of the extensive variety of individual preferences, progressive organizations are apparently finding they need to set up databases to keep track of who prefers what. For anyone interested in the associated discussion, Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson recently made an entrance onto the international stage by refusing to go along with this at the University of Toronto where he works. The review site Rocket Stack Rank was also called out recently for complaining about the non-standard usage.

There has been a flow of books and stories recently that use these non-traditional pronouns. Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series is one example, as is Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota, both recognized with major awards. On the short story side, examples include “The Worldless” by Indrapramit Das, “Deep Waters Call Out to What is Deeper Still” by Sarah Frost and “The Pigeon Summer” by Brit Mandelo.

So, how do these non-traditional pronouns actually work out in practice? Do they accomplish what they’re designed to do? Do they improve the readability of the story or novel where they’re used?

Use of “they” and “their” has become so prevalent that I see Liz Bourke recently imposed this form on the genderless Murderbot, who is not a human being and correctly designated as an “it” by its creator Martha Wells.

Comments on the issue are welcome.

Review of Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

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This is volume 2 of The Murderbot Diaries, begun in 2017 with the entertaining and award winning All Systems Red. It’s a novella published by Tor/MacMillian and runs 160 pages. This review may contain spoilers.

Murderbot has successfully escaped a quiet existence at PreservationAux and set out to find what its dark half-memories of a massacre are about. The transport it hitched a ride on arrives in port, and Murderbot transfers to another outbound transport, headed for the Ganaka mining pit where it thinks the massacre took place. This time, however, it has hit on a highly intelligent research vessel hired out for transport by its university. The two of them get off to a rough start, but ART (Asshole Research Transport) eventually comes around to the point of helping with Murderbot’s mission. Murderbot hires out as a security consultant to a group of young humans trying to get their research files back from a local company that confiscated them. This is intended for emigration purposes, but Murderbot gets involved in their problem. Meanwhile, news that it’s a rogue SecUnit has emerged. Can it keep the kids alive and find out about its past before the authorities catch up with it?

Good points: The interactions with ART are pretty much a necessity to deal with the realities here. ART challenges Murderbot’s stubborn, poorly thought out assumptions about how it can masquerade as a human and get to Ganaka Pit to find out what happened there. ART is a great character with some pretty transparent failings itself, and the two of them turn out to be a good team. Murderbot contracts for work itself and shows the same empathy and responsibility on the job that it showed for the last set of clients, which is some of the heart-warming part. The rest of it is ART, a super-intelligent, empathetic creature trapped forever in the cold vacuum of space, who wants to ride along for a while and experience a taste of the human world.

On the not so good side: It looks like the four installments of this will make up a full-length novel, but each installment is priced like a full-length novel. This installment feels short and incompletely developed (i.e. not worth the price), but hopefully the further installments will integrate it into the story better. I’m of the opinion that events and characters shouldn’t be introduced unless they’re going to contribute to the overall plot. In this case, it appears that Murderbot has rescued the kids and their files and neutralized all threats against them. However, this company had better be part of the Ganaka Pit problem, or else it’s just leading the reader on. As the novella ends, there’s no indication of this connection.

Minor editing issues. Four stars.

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