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Rogue Protocol
Murderbot Diaries #3
by Martha Wells
Tor, $17.99, 158pp
Published: August 2018

I fell for Murderbot early in her first novella (and yes, I still think of her as female, even though she is not given a gender here and she probably doesn't have one). I thoroughly enjoyed both previous novellas and felt that their biggest flaws were inherent in their length as novellas. I always wanted more than was ever going to happen in that sort of word count. I certainly won't suggest that I had less fun this time out and 'Rogue Protocol' continues to move the series arc onward, but it still felt a little lesser to me than its predecessors, even though there's clear value here.

Once again, Murderbot has found her way to a new location, this time Milu, a disused terraforming facility in space owned by GrayCris, the shady corporation from 'All Systems Red'. It was abandoned a while back and is about to fall to its doom, but another company has filed to take possession and plans to assess whether it's worth anything. Murderbot has a theory that GrayCris never used it for its intended purpose but has been using it as cover for their illegal collection of valuable artifacts from alien civilisations. She needs to prove this before the evidence is gone to help Dr. Mensah in her now well-publicised fight against GrayCris.

A template is starting to form around how she works at this. She has every expectation of doing so entirely on her own but that doesn't work out in the slightest. Even though she really doesn't want to work with humans or even let them know that she's there, she ends up helping out the team who are assessing the facility because, while they may be entirely competent in their field, they're a long way from competent in situation in which they soon find themselves. Our favourite AI may struggle to understand why she continues to help people, but she's learning and we're right there with her.

And, of course, she hooks up with another AI, this time a personal assistant robot called Miku. She's with the GoodNightLander Independent factfinding team, working for them but believing that she is also their friend. What's more, the humans think that too, though they really treat her like a pet, which opens up all sorts of new discussion points about the interaction of humans and AIs. Perhaps the name conjures up an image all on its own; even if it doesn't, I can highlight that she's clearly a take on the chipper Japanese schoolgirls found in kawaii anime. She's infuriatingly bubbly and not a bit concerned about that.

By the way, it struck me that Murderbot is a pirate. I mean sure, she's technically breaking all sorts of laws by hacking her own governing module and wandering off on her own, even though she's not technically left a contract. It's illegal for a SecUnit to be in public unsupervised, to masquerade as a human being or to modify herself physically to appear to not be a SecUnit at all. Given those major crimes, cultural piracy is hardly worthy of mention, but her go-to process for haggling with ships to take her somewhere is to trade media. It seems that currency in the AI trading space is space operas. I'm in. One lesson I've learned here is that I want to binge watch 'Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon'.

Of course, the routine factfinding mission of Don Abene turns out to be far from routine and all of the plans that Murderbot has made have to be changed to help her out in ways that require her to eventually betray her own disguise. After all, while the first thing that might spring to mind when thinking about Murderbot is her unparalleled line in sarcasm ("Who knew being a heartless killing machine would present so many moral dilemmas."), the second is her potential for as much violence as her chosen name might suggest. This thrilling instalment in her ongoing saga has her fulfil that potential.

The best aspect to this story is Murderbot herself, easily my favourite AI of modern times, but the palpable mood is a solid second. There's mystery and danger and intrigue and we're ably reminded of why large empty artificial bodies in space are fantastic places to invoke a tone of horror. 'Alien' springs very quickly to mind, but there's no need for humans to dig deep into heroism when there happens to be a SecUnit is wandering about keeping an eye on things.

The worst aspect is harder to pin down, but I think it's the lack of strong humans. I don't mean in a physical sense, but the capability of Dr. Mensah in the first book, to whom Murderbot is still firmly tied in her mind, hasn't been mimicked in anyone else in the series sense. Maybe that's a deliberate choice that will become clear later in the series, but, for now, I wish that Murderbot can encounter a human being that isn't effectively a damsel in distress.

Any which way, this is another fun Murderbot read and I look forward to instalment four, which is a novella entitled 'Exit Strategy'. After that, we get to the first full novel, 'Network Effect' and, soon, its sequel, 'Fugitive Telemetry'. I'm especially keen to get to those novels, because they'll allow a lot more depth than any of these novellas have been able to deliver and I have zero doubt that Martha Wells is up to that task. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by Martha Wells click here

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