When Sci-Fi Is Fun

Those of you who follow my writing know that I am a huge science fiction fan. It’s a love affair that started early when my dad put Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, and Robert Heinlein in my hands. That love for the genre never cooled, and the authors I’ve followed in the decades since that time have shaped a lot of my thinking as a scientist.

I’ve recently found a new writer whose work has brought me nothing but pure delight. I not only wanted to introduce you to her, but also to reflect on the different pleasures and uses of science fiction in a culture that relies ever more heavily on real science for shaping its futures.

For some writers, science fiction is way of exploring the contours of emerging and possible human cultures. In the early 1980s, William Gibson and others created the narratives of cyberpunk which not only imagined how “information-technology” societies might behave, but also ended up helping to define the world we live in today. Writers like Kim Stanley Robinson brought the focus of science fiction back to the settlement of the solar system and, in that way, helped imagine the world that commercial space ventures—like Elon Musk’s Space X—are trying to make real. And for writers like Octavia Butler, science fiction became a way to imagine human experience in new ways when set against the backdrop of other life and its possibilities.

All of these works tell great stories, but they also pose deep questions about who we are, what we are, and where we are going. But in the end, for good sci-fi, it’s always the stories that matter most. And sometimes you just want a story that’s just fun.

And that brings me to Martha Wells and her Murderbot Diaries.

The main character of the 4-novella series doesn’t really have a name. That’s because it’s a robot. Well, not a robot really, but a “construct” that’s part machine and part organic. It doesn’t have a name because no one ever gave it one. It’s a SecUnit (short for Security Unit), a piece of intelligent equipment owned by a company that offers a variety of services for clients who, say, want to survey new and potentially dangerous worlds. SecUnits are well armed and very, very dangerous, which is why our SecUnit refers to itself as a “murderbot.”

A free-agent bot

When we first meet our Murderbot, it has just found a way to disable its internal governor so that it can download “media” from the galactic version of Netflix. It really, really likes media and is particularly fond of a show called The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon. But by disabling its governor, it suddenly finds itself to be a free agent in the midst of its human clients—clients our protagonist deems insufferably stupid.

One consequence of the organic/machine technology making up Murderbot is profound social anxiety, and it’s that turn of character that makes the story so much fun.

The internal narrative of a weaponized robot who also sounds a lot like a bored, anxious, and highly self-critical teenager elevates the story above ordinary sci-fi opera. On the mission that opens the series, Murderbot becomes genuinely fond of its human clients, who treat it like a person—a new, confusing, and generally cringe-worthy experience the SecUnit. Making this transition also leads to some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments in the book—like when one human doesn’t believe Murderbot’s story about disabling its governor to watch new episodes of Sanctuary Moon. The two get into a heated argument about the ending of one of the episodes (much like people fight over Game of Thrones), which finally convinces the doubter.

Wells has created an utterly endearing character and given it a downright compelling story. It’s not really about BIG IDEAS. It’s just about fun and adventure in the same way that Firefly (one of the best shows ever) was just about fun and adventure. It’s just a great story that could only be told through the lens of science fiction.

So, while I am all for readers picking up Gibson, Robinson, and Butler and loving the hell out of them, I also recommend you spend some time with Murderbot for the sheer pleasure of its company.

Image: From the cover of All Systems Red, the first book in the Murderbot series.

Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester.