Artificial Condition

by Martha Wells

Cover image

Series: Murderbot Diaries #2
Publisher: Tor.com
Copyright: May 2018
ISBN: 1-250-18693-5
Format: Kindle
Pages: 160

Buy at Powell's Books

Artificial Condition is the second in the Murderbot Diaries series of novellas. There's enough context here that you could probably read it out of order, but since All Systems Red has the "get you hooked" low starter price, I'm not sure why you would.

There's no way to talk about this novella without partly spoiling the end of All Systems Red. That's a spoiler that I had before starting to read this series, so I don't think it's too significant, but you should stop reading here (and go read the first one!) if you haven't read the first novella and want to go into it without any information about the ending.

Artificial Condition picks up very shortly after All Systems Red leaves off: Murderbot has made it to a new station undiscovered, and although the events of the first story have made the news, including some of Murderbot's role, it has been relegated to human interest story so far. Just as it would prefer. It wants to slip away unnoticed to the site of a previous contract to do a bit of personal research.

Did it hack its own governor module before or after it went rogue and killed a large number of people? The precise order of events seems rather important.

Getting there requires another transit hop, and when Murderbot's first choice of an automated transport on which to hitch a ride is surrounded by unwanted attention due to a hauler accident, it decides on the second choice and an earlier departure from the station. That is how Murderbot ends up aboard a long-range research vessel with a rather more powerful AI than Murderbot had expected. Even worse from Murderbot's perspective: that AI takes a rather personal interest in Murderbot, its entertainment vids, and its intentions, and has the computing power to draw some rather accurate and unwelcome conclusions.

I think a reader's opinion of this entry in the series will depend on what you think of the role of the research vessel (or, as Murderbot calls it, ART, the Asshole Research Transport). I'm not sure it counts as a deus ex machina if the machina is introduced at the start of the story, but ART has a lot of plot-convenient capabilities. Murderbot largely solved its own problems in All Systems Red, but Artificial Condition would have gone far more poorly if ART weren't willing to throw around its rather considerable weight and political connections.

What makes this feel a bit strange is that ART's motives are murky. The surface-level curiosity is easy to accept, but ART takes what seem to be some significant risks on Murderbot's part for no entirely understandable reason. I'm hoping that this is a sign of mysteries that will be revealed later in the series.

I think some readers will find this forced and a bit too convenient for the plot. I raised an eyebrow several times. But for me this was a minor point compared to my joy at having an intelligent, protective starship as a major character in a series whose characters were already a delight. This is one of my favorite tropes in science fiction; I was far too busy being delighted by ART's interactions with Murderbot to quibble about its unexpected capabilities.

Murderbot itself is the same wonderful mix of shyness, cynicism, and grumpy introversion that it was in All Systems Red. It ends up with a doomed security contract as a way of getting onto the station it is trying to get to, and of course cannot help but do a rather more competent job at that contract than it strictly needed to. Its personal investigations are left still somewhat unresolved, and doubtless will continue to be a plot point in later novellas in this series, but it's starting to ask, and answer, some harder questions about what kind of intelligent being it wants to be and how that fits into the world in which it lives.

I'm thoroughly enjoying this series of novellas (and have now bought all of them published to date). The short length keeps the stories tight and fast-moving and makes them feel approachable, and I'm still getting as much enjoyment out of each as I get out of many novels. If you liked All Systems Red, keep reading.

Followed by Rogue Protocol

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2019-02-24

Last modified and spun 2019-02-25