All Systems Red is a hard science-fiction novella written by Martha Wells and it is also the first book in The Murderbot Diaries series. After hearing quite a bit of praise surrounding the book, I looked it up, found it on sale, and decided to give it a read. Upon finishing it, I must say that it is a fantastic beginning to what I hope will turn into a marvellous sci-fi serial.
In All Systems Red, we follow an android who, via some software tinkering, finds itself to be self-aware. This leads to it developing an existential identity crisis and anti-social tendencies. Meanwhile, it’s on a distant planet with a couple of teams doing surveys of the flora and fauna. When the accompanying survey team goes dark, it’s sent on a mission to investigate, which forces the android to interact more actively with its team and to address some of the internal conflicts that it’s facing.
One of the best parts about this book is the android, SecUnit as it is called in the story, and its first-person narration. It has such a colourful personality, one that I feel all introverts and people with social anxiety can relate with. It’s not afraid to curse, it prefers to keep to itself and marathon film and television media to avoid social interactions. It has insecurities that most humans struggle with daily. SecUnit is also very sarcastic and humorous. I found it wonderfully entertaining to see this android having an existential crisis and commenting on its more technical aspects while sustaining a vividly human persona. Additionally, since the android is genderless, I appreciated that the author didn’t assign it a gender, even it’s design is androgynous. Everyone referred to SecUnit as “it,” and while it is slightly awkward, I felt it was a perfect fit to SecUnit’s individuality as well as to the narrative as a whole.
As someone who has atrocious social anxiety and mild anti-social tendencies, the android’s disposition and interactions with its team felt like a strong allegory for people like me. I felt the author was trying to illustrate how challenging certain situations can be for us and that just because we have difficulties socialising, it doesn’t make us any less intelligent or make us incapable of doing the same things as folks who don’t have the same struggles. Another huge benefit was that this experience is shared via the first person, so the reader can get a very intimate look into how our brains tend to react and anticipate conversations when placed in an uncomfortable social situation.
People who may have a tough time grasping the notion of social anxiety and what it entails exactly for folks who live with it, and if they are interested in learning more about it, should read this novella based on that aspect alone. It is one of the first books that I have come across in a long time that accurately represents this concept, and does it in a way that isn’t harmful or patronising. It’s fucking brilliant.
Other things that kicked ass include the storytelling and writing style. It’s fast-paced and unfolds very neatly, never breaking away from the plot for side excursions, or awkwardly taking breaks to explain a myriad number of complex sciences. The science-fiction facets, such as the technology, how the androids are constructed, the survey teams’ mission, etc.—is light enough to appeal to first-time sci-fi readers, while still being intelligent enough to charm passionate genre enthusiasts. The explanations are built into the world-building, which helps us visualise this planet; the setting, the ambiance, the strangeness of the unknown and the calm of undisturbed nature. Even the tension that arises from having a survey team mysteriously disappearing was gradual and satisfyingly natural. While the suspense never reaches a level of tight, edge-of-your seat, apprehension, it does grab your attention and keep you invested in what the hell is going on, which is further complemented by its volatile reveals.
There is a lot of diversity in this book as well. Most of SecUnit’s team members are people of colour and one of the couples on the team consist of lesbians. They all had distinct personas with good chemistry and dialogue, but I will admit that at certain times, more so in the beginning of the book, I did get them mixed up here and there.
All Systems Red is an admirable novella. In fact, I adored the story so much that I found it difficult to believe it was so short! My experience reading this was delightful, engaging, and enlightening. This is the kind of book that you can read by itself, as there’s so much to enjoy and it has a superbly satisfying ending. But the finale is just vague enough to allow room for a sequel. So, if you get invested in SecUnit’s journey, you can read more about it in future instalments, of which there shall be three for a total of four titles in the series. Overall, highly recommended.