Thursday, January 14, 2021

Review: Artificial Condition: Murderbot Diaries

Move over Reacher, Rapp, and Bond there's a new action hero in town named, well, he doesn't have a name. But he calls himself Murderbot. Technically Murderbot isn't a person, it's a construct--part robot, part lab-grown organic material. But in so many ways, he embodies all our are struggles. On one hand, he's got a strong moral code, the urge to protect and defend and epic hacking and smashing skills. On the other hand, more than anything else, he wants to find a dark space to sit and watch 'media.' I just finished book two of the Muderbot Diaries, Artificial Condition by Martha Wells and it held up to the high bar set by book one. Below are some thoughts on this second book and the series in general. Careful, there spoilers, so best to skip this post if you haven't read books one and two. And if that's the case what are you waiting for? Go read them, they're short, smart and fun.

[Spoilers ahead!]

I'm fond of saying that what really makes a book a win for me is when I learn something. Learning in this context can mean almost anything. Consider the body tweaks Murderbot decides to have Art perform on him. When he makes special note of the data port in the back of his head, I assumed he meant he was going to have Art remove it. Murderbot explains that some humans have data ports, but most don't. If he's going to blend in with people, removing it would be the obvious choice.

During the climactic close combat scene we learn the details of how Murderbot had his data port 'taken care of.' He didn't have it removed, instead, he had it internally disconnected.

This was a genius move. To anyone who figured out Murderbot's identity, they'd assume that the data port was his kryptonite. Slap a combat override module in the port and you're good to go. That's precisely what the baddies do, of coures. And it doesn't go well for them because the port is dead.

My lesson: think twice before you hide a perceived weakness. It may be possible to turn that weakness into a strength by leaving it in plain sight and letting other's assumptions work to your advantage.

This strategy reminds me of the tactics employed by physical security tester Jason E. Street. He describes showing up at sites he wishes to breach in a wheelchair with boxes on his lap. Who's going to be the jerk who doesn't get the door for him?

Zooming out from combat tactics, I really like how Wells tackles the thorny ethical issues that go with the topics of AI, lab-grown human parts and smarter-than-human machines. On their surface, the universe the Murderbot occupies is fairly striaightforward. There are humans, augmented humans, bots and constructs. Humans, including the augmented variety, have rights, non-humans don't. There's plenty of action and humor to occupy the reader, so they need not question this social structure.

But, look a little deeper and you see things get more complex. Consider the makeup of each type of being. Humans are completely organic, augemented humans are a mix of organic and machine, bots are fully machine and constructs are again a mix of organic and machine. In this context, why should constructs be denied rights when they are built from the same materials as an augmented human? Is there that much difference from having organic material grown in a womb than a lab?

Wells uses our hero, Murderbot, to drive this point home. Not only does he look and act human, but he finds joy in relishing his freedom. When a human asks him to complete a task, it's the ability to say no that helps awaken the Murderbot to his full potential.

Finally, on a completely unrelated note, I can't help but wonder what those in the Autistic community think of Wells' Murderbot. It's quite possible my naive understanding of the Autism spectrum has me connecting unrelated dots, so you'll have to forgive me if this is a reach.

It seems that Murderbot has many mannerisms that would be associated with those on the spectrum. He's a brilliant tactician and combat specialist, and yet he's uncomfortable with even the most basic social interactions. He regularly opts for a 3rd person video view of a scene, rather than looking people in the eye. During a number of interactions, he and Art teamed up to perform sophisticated real time analysis to understand simple body language cues and mannerism, the type that a 5 year old would have no problem processing. And finally, in the closing scene in Artificial Condition Murerbot treat a request for a hug the same way I'd treat a request for a root canal. Did Wells intentionally model Murerbot after those with Autism?

Is Murderbot a hero the in the Autistic community? An insult? Or, a figure that's no more connected to them than I am to James Bond. From a bit of research, it appears that I'm on to something. There's also this bit of explanation from Martha Wells herself:

Question: As a mental health professional, I can't help but notice that, were he a human, Murderbot would likely be considered to be on the autistic spectrum. Was that a conscious choice or more of a coincidence? If it was an intentional decision to have Murderbot and autism overlap, what did you study to better represent neurodiversity on the page?

Answer: Those aspects of the character were based on my own experience. I'm not neurotypical, and I've been affected by depression and anxiety all my life.

That's a lot of insight and questions from a novella. If nothing else, take that as a sign of how good the Artificial Condition is.

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