Saturday, August 14, 2021

Book Review: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Published: May 2, 2017
Received: purchased
Read from March 9 to 15, 2020

Synopsis from Goodreads:

In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.

But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn't a primary concern.

On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied 'droid—a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as "Murderbot." Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.

But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it's up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.


This book was a Life's Library read, and when I first got the book in the mail, I wasn't sure what to think. While I like sci-fi, the cover of All System's Red with a robot front and center, dark colors, and the series title that included "Murderbot," it felt very ominous. Despite liking sci-fi, I don't typically like movies that are all about action and little else, and that's what the cover initially had me thinking about. But Life's Library usually picks great books, so I was going to give this one a shot.

And I'm really glad I did because it's nothing that I thought it would be from the cover. Despite the cover also being a good representation of the book.

All System's Red takes place in a world where humans live across various planets. Companies have created humanoid robots that serve various functions, with certain types of robots specializing in certain functions. Individuals or groups generally rent the robots from the company for a set time period, and then the robots are returned to the company to be rented out again. In between being rented out, the robots "live" at the company.

Murderbot, the main character of the book, has begun calling itself Murderbot. That isn't the name the company or anyone else gave it. It's "proper" name is a Security Unit, or SecUnit, and as its name suggests, it's meant to be used for security. Murderbot has taken to calling itself that because it's aware of how easily it could kill everyone, even though it's choosing not to.

We learn early in the book that Murderbot has overridden its governor module, so it doesn't actually have to obey people like it should. Still, Murderbot is choosing to follow orders. All it really wants to do is watch soap operas, which it does constantly. All of which creates a fascinating premise that had me hooked immediately.

The way robots work in this universe also creates an interesting problem for readers. Robots are referred to using "it" pronouns, which is quite jarring and raises a number of interesting questions. First, how much of a person is Murderbot, considering it's not living and has been programmed to behave a certain way? (A question that's particularly fascinating with Murderbot compared to other robots because Murderbot no longer has a governor module controlling its actions.)

That answer to that question has implications for the system in this world too. Robots are treated like property by both the company and the people who rent them. Referring to them as "it" reinforces the idea that they're only objects, and it distances people from feeling any guilt for treating them as property. Are people wrong to do that? Well, it depends on how much personhood robots actually have, and Murderbot, having overridden its governor module, complicates a lot of those beliefs.

Overall, All Systems Red was an incredibly fun read while also raising some fascinating questions about problems we may face in our own future. Since it's a novella, it's also a very quick read. There are other novellas in the series and even a novel now. I will absolutely be reading them because I grew to love Murderbot even over the course of a novella, and I absolutely need more.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Book Review: Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Published: April 20, 2019 (First published: October 1993)
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Received: purchased
Read from January 29 to February 24, 2020

Summary from Goodreads:

When global climate change and economic crises lead to social chaos in the early 2020s, California becomes full of dangers, from pervasive water shortage to masses of vagabonds who will do anything to live to see another day.

Fifteen-year-old Lauren Olamina lives inside a gated community with her preacher father, family, and neighbors, sheltered from the surrounding anarchy. In a society where any vulnerability is a risk, she suffers from hyperempathy, a debilitating sensitivity to others' pain.

Precocious and clear-eyed, Lauren must make her voice heard in order to protect her loved ones from the imminent disasters her small community stubbornly ignores. But what begins as a fight for survival soon leads to something much more: the birth of a new faith...and a startling vision of human destiny.

This highly acclaimed post-apocalyptic novel of hope and terror from award-winning author Octavia E. Butler “pairs well with 1984 or The Handmaid's Tale” (John Green, New York Times)—now with a new foreword by N. K. Jemisin.


When I learned that we'd be reading Parable of the Sower for Life's Library, I was excited. I had heard about this book for years, and it had always been one that I intended to get to but never did. I'd heard a lot of good things about Octavia Butler as a writer, and dystopian is one of my favorite genres. Not having read a dystopian book in a while, I was excited to get into this one.

Right off the bat, I was intrigued by the world building in the book. It takes place in California starting in 2024, a year that feels very close. It's been more than twenty years since Butler wrote the book, yet the future she imagined doesn't feel incredibly shocking. In fact, it feels a little too close to home at times. We only hear bits and pieces about the president in this book, but he calls to mind current US politics. In fact, the strangest part was probably that we didn't hear more about the politics.

Climate change is also a big factor in the world building, and with the massive wildfires and other natural disasters happening now, that all felt perfectly believable too. I'm not sure that we'll be exactly where Butler imagined three years from now, but we're already too close for comfort.

Religion is also a big focus in the novel. Lauren's father is a Baptist pastor in their community, so Lauren has grown up with religion. However, during the novel she starts creating her own religion called Earthseed. Earthseed very much draws upon Christianity but also other beliefs that Lauren gathers. Her ultimate goal is for Earthseed to colonize space. Her fixating on such a goal makes sense when you consider the state Earth is in. Even now, colonizing Mars or another planet is a hot topic.

These religious aspects presented an interesting layer to the novel. Lauren also believes that she has "hyperempathy" and can experience the feelings of others more than a normal person. This is something that many of the people around her accept as true too, but it lends almost a fantasy-like element to the book. Is Lauren actually experiencing something special there or is it just a normal human reaction to things that, while stronger than what some experience, is explainable? You don't get an answer to that in the book, but it does help explain how Lauren could come to view herself as almost a savior figure who's saving people with Earthseed. She's very much convinced that she has this power.

It was also Earthseed and Lauren's supposed "hyperempathy" that made me very wary of Lauren as a character. The book is in her point of view, and I did come to empathize with her in many ways. She loses a lot over the course of the book and faces many horrific things. She is undoubtedly suffering from trauma, and little to no one in this world have the resources to actually treat that trauma. Watching Lauren grow into a person who believed she could be a savior was almost alarming when what I really thought she—and every other character in the book—needed was help.

That created an extra layer of tension on top of the immediate dangers Lauren and those around her faced throughout the book. The ambiguity of just how special Lauren is was what drove the book for me. This is fiction after all. Maybe within the pages of the book Lauren does have "hyperempathy" and is meant to be a savior. In the end, it felt like there were more questions than answers, but the questions were fascinating ones.

There is a sequel called Parable of the Talents that I would like to read. From what I understand, it explores Lauren continuing to establish Earthseed. I'm very curious to see that explored even more and maybe get more answers. Or maybe not. Either way, I do hope to read it.