Fugitive Telemetry, Martha Wells (Tordotcom 978-1-250-76537-6, $19.99, 176pp, hc) April 2021. Cover by Jaime Jones.
At this point, everyone knows about Murderbot. If you don’t know about Murderbot, what rock have you been hiding under? (Is it a comfy rock? I could use a nice rock-based holiday, away from all the news. And the pandemic.) Martha Wells’s Fugitive Telemetry is the sixth outing in the award-winning Murderbot Diaries. It forms a prequel to 2020’s Network Effect – a novel I read four times within a month of it arriving on my doorstep, and delighted in each time. Fugitive Telemetry is not as substantial a story as Network Effect: it’s a long novella rather than a novel, and so it packs rather less in. It’s also a little bit less compelling, for where most of the other Murderbot stories are in the action-adventure mode, Fugitive Telemetry belongs more to the locked-room murder-mystery school, and the less hectic, more introspective style doesn’t always show Murderbot to best advantage.
This is a petty cavil, because it’s still pretty great.
Murderbot is living with Dr. Mensah on Preservation Station, anticipating a reaction by GrayCris corporation and the rest of the Corporation Rim to the events of Exit Strategy. Preservation Station doesn’t really have much in the way of violent crime, so the discovery of a murdered corpse in a corridor is unusual. It might be connected to GrayCris – or it might not. Either way, assisting in the investigation might be a good way for Murderbot to smooth out its less-than-perfectly congenial relationship with Station Security, while also making sure than corporate assassins aren’t coming for Dr. Mensah. Murderbot is not delighted at the prospect of working with people who would generally prefer it to just go away, and not delighted, either, with the stupid dead human whose murder is taking it away from watching its preferred media in peace and quiet.
Murderbot might only know how to investigate murder from its shows, but it is annoyed and inclined to show up Station Security, so it goes about its investigations with all of its usual stubbornness and unwillingness to be bested. Its efforts discover the dead human’s name and the ship that it came from, but the ship’s bot pilot has been hacked or corrupted, and though the ship is the scene of the murder, there’s very little that can be discovered there. Further progress leads Murderbot to a group of people smuggling humans out of corporate debt-slavery – of which the murdered human was one. What’s actually going on? And who’s the traitor in Station Security that seems to be betraying their every move to the murderer?
Matters move out of the realm of murder investigation and into that of rescue-retrieval. And Murderbot, once again, has to save soft, squishy, ungrateful humans from death (or fates worse than).
Fugitive Telemetry is an interesting hybrid of murder mystery and space adventure. From the beginning of her career, Martha Wells’s characters have been relatable, understandable, complex, and human; her worldbuilding deft and interesting, filled with graceful detail and implying a universe beyond the page. The Murderbot stories continue this trajectory, with an entertaining protagonist – the incredibly relatable Murderbot – and a wry, witty, darkly humorous voice. Fugitive Telemetry is a brisk, well-paced delight, and fills in a gap in Murderbot’s adventures in a satisfying way. I enjoyed the hell out of it, and I hope that Wells continues to tell Murderbot stories for a long time to come.
For the uninitiated, Murderbot is a part-organic, part-inorganic machine originally designed to do exactly what it says on the tin. Murderbot, however, has hacked their governor unit and gone rogue by choosing who their client will be. Over the series of books that make up the Murderbot Diaries, Murderbot has been learning how to be part of a human team and exist in a society that is, at best, uncomfortable with it.
In Fugitive Telemetry, Martha Wells plunks Murderbot on Preservation Station. A dead body has been discovered, which is unusual for this place, and Murderbot gets sucked into the investigation. Said death might be a sign that GrayCris is on the hunt for Murderbot’s client Mensah, and Murderbot wants to make sure she is protected.
That part of the ongoing story is less important than the straight-up whodunnit that drives this story. As Murderbot and the security crew figure out the mystery (and how to work together), Murderbot learns a thing or two about itself. All of the parentheticals and unintentional sass that we love about this heavily armed construct are on display here. Fugitive Telemetry is a little hit of Murderbot’s journey.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.
This review and more like it in the January 2021 issue of Locus.
Adrienne Martini has been reading or writing about science fiction for decades and has had two non-fiction, non-genre books published by Simon and Schuster. She lives in Upstate New York with one husband, two kids, and one corgi. She also runs a lot.
This review and more like it in the February 2021 issue of Locus.
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