Network Effect

by Martha Wells

Cover image

Series: Murderbot Diaries #5
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: May 2020
ISBN: 1-250-22984-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 351

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Network Effect is the first Murderbot novel, although the fifth story of the series. The previous stories, beginning with All Systems Red, were novellas. Under no circumstances should you start reading the series here. Network Effect builds significantly on the story arc that ended with Exit Strategy and resolves some important loose ends from Artificial Condition. It's meant to be read in series order.

I believe this is the first time in my life that I've started reading a book on the night of its release. I was looking forward to this novel that much, and it does not disappoint.

I'll try not to spoil the previous books too much in this review, but at this point it's a challenge. Just go read them. They're great.

The big question I had about the first Murderbot novel was how would it change the plot dynamic of the series. All of the novellas followed roughly the same plot structure: Murderbot would encounter some humans who need help, somewhat grudgingly help them while pursuing its own agenda, snark heavily about human behavior in the process, once again prove its competence, and do a little bit of processing of its feelings and a lot of avoiding them. This formula works great at short length. Would Wells change it at novel length, or if not, would it get tedious or strained?

The answer is that Wells added in quite a bit more emotional processing and relationship management to flesh out the core of the book and created a plot with more layers and complexity than the novella plots, and the whole construction works wonderfully. This is exactly the book I was hoping for when I heard there would be a Murderbot novel. If you like the series, you'll like this, and should feel free to read it now without reading the rest of the review.

Overse added, "Just remember you're not alone here."

I never know what to say to that. I am actually alone in my head, and that's where 90 plus percent of my problems are.

Many of the loose ends in the novellas were tied up in the final one, Exit Strategy. The biggest one that wasn't, at least in my opinion, was ART, the research transport who helped Murderbot considerably in Artificial Condition and clearly was more than it appeared to be. That is exactly the loose end that Wells resolves here, to great effect. I liked the dynamic between ART and Murderbot before, but it's so much better with an audience to riff off of (and yet better still when there are two audiences, one who already knew Murderbot and one who already knew ART). I like ART almost as much as Murderbot, and that's saying a lot.

The emotional loose end of the whole series has been how Murderbot will decide to interact with other humans. I think that's not quite resolved by the end of the novel, but we and Murderbot have both learned considerably more. The novellas, except for the first, are mostly solo missions even when Murderbot is protecting clients. This is something more complicated; the interpersonal dynamics hearken back to the first novella and then go much deeper, particularly in the story-justified flashbacks. Wells uses Murderbot's irritated avoidance to keep some emotional dynamics underplayed and indirect, letting the reader discover them at opportune moments, and this worked beautifully for me. And Murderbot's dynamic with Amena is just wonderful, mostly because of how smart, matter-of-fact, trusting, and perceptive Amena is.

That's one place where the novel length helps: Wells has more room to expand the characterization of characters other than Murderbot, something that's usually limited in the novellas to a character or two. And these characters are great. Murderbot is clearly the center of the story, but the other characters aren't just furniture for it to react to. They have their own story arcs, they're thoughtful, they learn, and it's a delight to watch them slot Murderbot into various roles, change their minds, adjust, and occasionally surprise it in quite touching ways, all through Murderbot's eyes.

Thiago had said he felt like he should apologize and talk to me more about it. Ratthi had said, "I think you should let it go for a while, at least until we get ourselves out of this situation. SecUnit is a very private person, it doesn't like to discuss its feelings."

This is why Ratthi is my friend.

I have some minor quibbles. The targetSomething naming convention Murderbot comes up with and then is stuck with because it develops too much momentum is entertaining but confusing. A few of the action sequences were just a little on the long side; I find the emotional processing much more interesting. There's also a subplot with a character with memory holes and confusion that I thought dragged on too long, mostly because I found the character intensely irritating for some reason. But these are just quibbles. Network Effect is on par with the best of the novellas that precede it, and that's a high bar indeed.

In this series, Wells has merged the long-running science fiction thread of artificial intelligences and the humanity of robots with the sarcastic and introspective first-person narration of urban fantasy, gotten the internal sensation of emotional avoidance note-perfect without making it irritating (that's some deep magic right there), and added in some top-tier negotiation of friendship and relationships without losing the action and excitement of a great action movie. It's a truly impressive feat and the novel is the best installment so far. I will be stunned if Network Effect doesn't make most of the award lists next year.

Followed by Fugitive Telemetry, due out in April of 2021. You can believe that I have already preordered it.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-06-16

Last modified and spun 2020-06-17