On Friday Oct 16th we met for our first ever Cyberpunk Research Network book club and discussed Martha Wells’ All Systems Red via Discord. It was a lively discussion and a great start for our little group and we, of course, hope to expand on it for the future. For those of you not present, here is a little summary and teaser of what you missed. It is subjective and just a few notes, but it might give you an idea and convince you to participate in our next session. 

We started off with a general round of commentary on the feel of novella and its general tone of lighthearted commentary. Many felt, the novella did not quite fit what they expected but surprised them positively with its quirky but loveable character. The suggestion came up that if one was so inclined, the audiobook actually was really well done. We also discussed what made Murderbot so relatable and, kind of, all agreed that their Netflix-love was probably it: don’t we all just want to hunker down and watch media all the time instead of having to deal with the messy human stuff?

We discussed possible comparisons of the novella and its themes of human/machine relations and the idea of how cyberpunk normally approaches issues of free will and a machine consciousness. In terms of its very lighthearted approach only Rudy Rucker’s stories came to mind, whereas Annalee Newitz’ Autonomous deals with same issues but in quite a different matter.

Our conceptions of what makes “human-ness” are being challenged in the novella and Murderbot’s wish to “not become human” and refrain from emotions is actually challenging to some central concepts of humanism. It makes us think of that we consider as universally human characteristics. We felt the novella (and its sequels) makes us rather consider human-ness as a sliding scale by emphasizing the different interactions of Murderbot with bots, composites, augmented and biological humans. In all, we felt the novella strongly emphasizes that technology has shifted the categories of what human means beyond our current definitions. 

We also discussed the importance of the feed(s) and its function for Murderbot but also for the humans. It seemed to us to represent a form of extended cognition and externalized memory, which allows for social interactions on very different levels and degrees of intimacy. It is at the same time very private and “close” and very public and open, depending on its different functional layers. When Murderbot is cut-off from SecHub, for example, they feel alone and isolated, almost as if the connections are part of their cognition – channels can become so dependent that they form a hive mind. Further, it is a secondary reality that simultaneously mediates the environment for every user. The experience is all encompassing, as we see when the team experiences a technologically created blindspot in their environment. We also commented on the idea that it is somewhat like Discord, with its specific themed channels and multi-communications. 

We further discussed the idea of politics and the role of corporations, what they do and how they act? It seems like a commentary on global finance capitalism with a very fuzzy agenda and even fuzzier description of their actual rules of engagement. One comment was, that the company feels as threatening and opaque as Weyland does in the Alien-series. Some commenters felt that the ending of the novella was a bit of a let-down because there is very little closure to the corporate story and the motives that the GrayChris team has. We agreed that the focus is on Murderbot and very little is revealed about the general political entities involved. Later books in the series will pick this up, but still not to the extent of delivering much world-building. 

A rather controversial issue we discussed was gender, both the idea which gender we (as readers) assumed Murderbot to have or how we imaged them and also the very important point as to why we think about/speculate on their gender in the first place. In all we agreed that Murderbot is non-binary and their gender is not the topic of the novellas. Nonetheless, we discussed how different language-versions (such as Italian or German) do, in fact, gender Murderbot or how the audio version is spoken by a young man. It seemed a relevant question why certain choices in perception were existent. Also, we agreed that in the novella the revelation of the SecUnit’s human facial features is more prominent than their gender. The group was undecided on the importance of gender in the context of the story.

This led us into an exchange on the distinctly human/non-human features and for example Murderbot’s repulsion from human emotions and their complications. It also dealt with the issue of identity and how Murderbot felt uneasy with “impersonation” of another SecUnit or (in later novellas) augmented humans. And we discussed issues of empathy (which Murderbot) feels but sarcastically comments on – is it programmed behavior or its own cultural imprint? Is there a “non-human” nature to it? The novella does seem to negotiate this boundary of how empathy is a marker for human-ness. In terms of cyberpunk, this is of course a strong reminder of the empathy test in Blade Runner. It is especially interesting as Murderbot is not only empathetic of humans, but especially of other machines. 

Lastly, we spent some time debating the “governor module” and its specific terminology. Why “governor” and not “command”? Is this an issue that redirects military language into more “school” language? Since the novella feels like a coming-of-age story, is Murderbot here depicted as a teenager? Is there a specific protection involved in “governing” a SecUnit? Or is it rather that governing decides a set of rules as guidelines for behavior vs. commanding as fixed directions that need to be followed? We were undecided.

In all, we had a great 90 min discussion of the first Murderbot novella and all enjoyed the book and the exchange about it very much. Thank you to all participants, see you soon. 

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