Murderbot Taught Me About Myself. And About Humans, Too

Alien-like landscape with the words "Avoid getting eaten"

My absolute favourite series of the last few years is The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells. It is made up of several novellas and a recent novel, Network Effect. Turns out, I am far from alone. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who does not like this book or series.

Murderbot is grumpy. Murderbot is just trying to do their Murderbot thing. But humans and their drama keep getting in the way, and Murderbot has to stop binge-watching media and deal with them.

I am Murderbot.

“I liked the imaginary people on the entertainment feed way more than I liked real ones, but you can’t have one without the other.”

Martha Wells, All Systems Red

Murderbot helped me realize how separate I feel from “regular people”. Every time Murderbot would wonder why the heck “the humans” acted a certain way, I would nod my head in total understanding.

After reading the series, in daily life, I would suddenly find myself wondering, “What would a human do in this situation?”

I realized that I have always had these thoughts, but used different words for them. I remember thinking things like “what do other people do in this situation?” Now I just call them “humans” because it’s funnier.

It also made me realize that I largely base my behaviour on learned responses from observing others. The most stressful times of my life have been when I didn’t have a proper role model to use as an example.

To some extent this is normal. But I think in my case it goes past that.

Neurodiversity and neurodivergence

Around the time I was making my way through the series (starting with All Systems Red) I was also learning about neurodivergence. This is the movement that believes there are many ways brains can be wired, and that though these have been pathologized in the past (ADHD, autism, dyslexia etc.) they are in fact just part of natural neurodiversity.

As someone who has always felt anxious in social situations and dealt with her fair share of depression, learning about the neurodiversity movement was a game-changer. I don’t know if I will ever be diagnosed with any of these things, but I see enough of myself in cases of women diagnosed with autism later in life for me to identify as neurodivergent.

Thanks, Murderbot.

Gender identity

More recently, I was reading about Murderbot while increasingly interested in gender identity.

Murderbot is genderless, so there is some discussion in the book among the humans about which pronouns to use. They don’t like to say “it,” but Murderbot is neither a “he” or “she”. When I talk about the books, I like to say “they” because Murderbot as yet does not have a stated pronoun preference.

I am cisgender, but in the last few years have had many people I love come out as trans or nonbinary. It was interesting to be reading about a totally asexual character while also processing these changes. 

Thanks, Murderbot.

“It’s wrong to think of a construct as half bot, half human. It makes it sound like the halves are discrete, like the bot half should want to obey orders and do its job and the human half should want to protect itself and get the hell out of here. As opposed to the reality, which was that I was one whole confused entity, with no idea what I wanted to do. What I should do. What I needed to do.” 

Martha Wells, All Systems Red
Novella – Book 1 (2017)

Novel (2020)
Novella – Book 6 (April 2021)

The series

Murderbot is not the real name of the human/machine construct. The books are Murderbot’s “diaries,” told in the first person, and that is the name they introduce themselves with. At that point, Murderbot has a mysterious backstory in which they half-remember killing a bunch of humans. The truth behind that memory makes up a large part of the novellas.

Murderbot’s real name isn’t revealed to us (at least not yet). They are technically a Security Unit, or SecUnit, that is contracted out with other equipment for scientific or exploratory missions to potentially hostile planets. They are not treated as people. For example, they travel in the cargo hold, rather than with the humans.

When the humans on this mission start to treat Murderbot like a person, they don’t know how to react. They are not used to being asked questions or treated with respect, so they are socially uncomfortable and develop unique coping skills. (My favourite involve using the security cameras to watch their conversations with the humans from a safe distance.) There are some truly poignant scenes because of this, and ones that I found hit pretty close to home.

“Murderbot + actual human = awkwardness.”

Martha Wells, All Systems Red

Thanks, Murderbot

All this to say

If you’ve ever felt like you’re not quite like everyone else, please pick up these books and see if you are also Murderbot. Though the novel works well as a standalone, you’ll maximize your enjoyment if you read the novellas first. The beauty of the novellas is that the writing is tight and concise: it’s nonstop action. Think of a TV show, rather than a movie. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that you can start and finish on the same day.

Oh, and here’s a tip. If you do read it and want to share favourite lines on social media, don’t include one of the many times Murderbot uses “kill” and “humans” in the same sentence. Facebook doesn’t like that.

Thanks, Murderbot… I guess.

Featured image an inspirational poster of which Murderbot would approve, from https://murderousrobot.tumblr.com/.