Robots: humanoid, small unmanned aerial vehicles.
What it gets right about robots: The book isn’t particularly realistic in terms of robotics and artificial intelligence, but may be far too realistic with regards to the impact of poor software engineering.
Recommendation: Bump All Systems Red to the top of your “fun read” list and give copies to your software engineering friends to remind them that any problems with robots are their fault.
All Systems Red shouldn’t work, either as a novel or as an exploration of robotics, but it does. The plot is a variant of the classic trope where a burnt out, asocial gunslinger with a past and a drinking problem takes a job protecting a group of nice regular people who are in danger, then rises to the occasion of caring about the nice people and saving their lives. All Systems Red substitutes the fallen gunslinger with a humanoid robot security guard and the nice people in danger with clueless scientists. It throws in a vague setting of a remote planet and working for a corporation that may be operating on an Alien scale of indifference or malevolence and leaves you with the makings of… yet another mediocre science fiction story or bad TV episode. But All Systems Red escapes the mold and instead presents the first book in what promises to be a delightful series.
So, what makes All Systems Red so distinctive and enjoyable? Primarily because the tale is told from the viewpoint of the protagonist, named MurderBot, who is not a serial killer as the name would suggest but who is transcendentally shallow and superficial. Just like Heyoo from The Wrong Unit, MurderBot is comically not thinking what you’d expect a robot to be thinking. Unlike Heyoo, it doesn’t delude itself about its relationship with humans. It openly hates interacting with them, maintaining a snarky internal dialog. Imagine David Spade as a bored robot mall guard.
Part of the comedy of taking the robot’s view of the world is that like Heyoo (www.goodreads.com/TheWrongUnit), MurderBot is autonomous in the political autonomy sense. It hacked its governor (with shades of The Mechanical in The Alchemy Wars series) but instead of using its new found autonomy for lofty goals as per The Alchemy Wars, it uses its freedom to surreptitiously spend its free time watching entertainment feeds and slacking off.
The robots in the book are mostly humanoid security guards with a few unmanned aerial vehicle drones for surveillance thrown in, similar to Blade Runner 2047. The humanoid robots are referred to as a construct- partially organic and mechanical. The idea of a hybrid mechanical/biological construct also doubles as a plot device so that MurderBot can both bleed, thereby generating sympathy, and be repaired, thereby keeping the plot rolling along. To its credit, the book avoids any tedious or annoying pseudo-science waving of the neural network wand to explain how the robots are intelligent. The book simply assumes that there exists a broad human-level intelligence of software that can enable a robot to defend its clients from local killer fauna or a psychotic team member. The MurderBot universe of intelligence dispenses with normal side effects of intelligence, most notably an intelligent agent develops ethics, so that a human-level intelligent robot guard is fine with executing the entire team of scientists if they violate their contract.
The one area where the book is scarily realistic is in the presence, and impact, of software bugs and software updates. Indeed, to a certain degree, the book is about bad software engineering. A bad software update leads to MurderBot acheiving political autonomy. Later, MurderBot has to defend its cadre of human client from other robots being hacked through vulnerabilities in software updates. The bad software engineering theme might seem forced but in real life it has become quite a topic in commercial robotics. For example, DJI, the largest manufacturer of small unmanned aerial vehicles, has pushed out several software updates that had serious bugs causing fly-aways and crashes.
But onto to the questions that a sci-fi aficionado might have. Does this book provide a teachable moment about robots? Not really. Is it serious sci-fi literature up there with Arthur C. Clarke and Vernor Vinge? Definitely not. Is it worth reading? Heck yeah!
All Systems Red will keep you laughing but also remind you to hesitate before applying that next update on your DJI drone. Otherwise you might hear it say in David Spade’s voice, “bub-bye now, ” as it flies off to get some Me Time.
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