Amy Goldschlager Reviews the Murderbot Audiobooks

All Systems Red, Martha Wells; Kevin R. Free, nar­rator (Recorded Books 978-1-5019-7701-5, $11.95, CD, 3.25 hr., unabridged [also available as a digital download]) October 2017.

Artificial Condition, Martha Wells; Kevin R. Free, narrator (Recorded Books 978-1-5019-7700-8, $11.95, CD, 3.25 hr., unabridged [also available as a digital download]) May 2018.

Rogue Protocol, Martha Wells; Kevin R. Free, narrator (Recorded Books 978-1-5019-7699-5, $11.95, CD, 3.75 hr., unabridged [also available as a digital download]) August 2018.

In a corrupt, galaxy-spanning future, a socially awkward, ruthlessly pragmatic, and above all, video serial-loving cyborg is owned by an unnamed Com­pany that rents it out as a security unit. They learn how to hack the programming that controls them and eventually decide to give freedom a chance. Or, at least, they try to in this series of novellas, but can’t quite stop following their original function: to protect naïve humans from the various menaces roaming the galaxy (the occasional predator, but more frequently, rapacious corporations willing to stoop to mass murder to turn a profit). They call themself “Murderbot,” due to an incident in which one of those corporations hacked them and forced them to slaughter their human clients.

Before I even began listening to this series, I wrongly attributed sinister motivations to Murder­bot, simply based on the choice of narrator. I first encountered Kevin R. Free as the incredibly creepy Desert Bluffs radio host and acolyte of the Smiling God on the podcast Welcome to Night Vale. I owe Free an apology for typecasting him; these audio­books demonstrate his considerable range as a voice actor. As a radio host, he projects an over-the-top and smarmy surface cheerfulness that barely conceals the boiling hostility underneath. But as Murderbot, Free is a cynical but essentially good person with an inability to express just how much they can love and want to be loved. They struggle hard to maintain a flat affect, because they are distressed by large displays of emotion, either from others or produced from within themself.

The stories (three out of the four; at column time, the most recent one, Exit Strategy, was not avail­able in audio) are a bit repetitive, but it’s great fun to spend some time with the musings of Murderbot, who has a somewhat dim view of the vagaries of humans, even as they can’t stop caring about and for them, which is a very understandable perspective.

This review and more like it in the January 2019 issue of Locus.

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