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Murderbot Meets Miss Marple In 'Fugitive Telemetry'


Imagine for a moment that Hercule Poirot was a robot. Cyborg, really. Armed and armored against all the evils that men do.

Imagine that Agatha Christie or Nancy Atherton woke up one morning and decided to set their newest ticking-clock, cozy mystery not in some quaint English seaside village but in a quaint, progressive orbital station; that Angela Lansbury's Jessica Fletcher was hurled forward a thousand years to find herself tutting over the body of a dead spaceman dumped in a hallway — no fingerprints, no DNA, no record of how he got there or who did him in.

Martha Wells' newest entry in her award-winning, nerd-charming, trope-bending Murderbot series, Fugitive Telemetry, is a lot of things that you probably don't expect. It is an unadorned whodunit. A cozy mystery garlanded with plasma cannons and spaceships. An IT thriller (like so many Murderbot stories) that functions at least partially as a forensic examination of linked surveillance and data systems. A locked-room variant where, as soon as the body is discovered (Page 1, Line 1), the old manor house is closed, everyone is shut inside and a convenient flood wipes out the only bridge off the island.

Granted, in this case the old manor house is Preservation Station and the flood is an armed picket ship ordered to keep all craft from leaving, but you get the point. By the time the very first chapter is done, our stage is set: There has been a murder on a station that's normally so peaceful and utopian that the machinery used for scanning things like murder victims is being used for "Preventative Health Check Day" at the local school. The local Barney Fife deputies are flummoxed. The hard-bitten, no-nonsense chief of police (Senior Officer Indah, for whom Murderbot reluctantly works) doesn't think any dang robot has any business investigating murders on her station. And meanwhile, cyborg Poirot is on the case ...

It's fun, sure. It's a romp. Murderbot is, as always, fine (if grumpy) company. Its parenthetical digressions on the sloth and squishiness of humans, its obsession with its shows and its constant internal moral battles over passing as a harmless, mostly-normal, free, former corporate slave that's no threat to its human neighbors or leaning into its darker past and becoming the full-on Murderbot it truly is are all there. Every Murderbot book is, in some sense, a passing narrative. The larger arc (Murderbot trying to escape its violent, repressive past and become the best, truest possible version of itself) has been read as many things by many different people, and one of the things that makes Wells' series so comforting is that Murderbot's primary story is about a nonhuman trying to pass as human and invent its own better self along the way. You can root for a character like that. You want them to succeed.

But Fugitive Telemetry is also an oddity in Wells' canon. Though not in any way a ret-con, it takes the entire story back a step, occurring after the first four novellas in the series (All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy) but before the full-length novel Network Effect. It's a story that takes place over the course of a single day — leaving little time for the usual moping around, media consumption and snarky commentary on human systems that makes Murderbot so charming. It hints at (but doesn't directly address) much of anything in the series' primary storyline (the actually-murderous GrayCris corporation, Murderbot's past or those in pursuit of it) and operates largely as a stand-alone story.

One of Wells' superpowers has long been her ability to pack an epic's worth of material into a very small package.

Still, one of Wells' superpowers has long been her ability to pack an epic's worth of material into a very small package. And here, she uses the condensed timeline and single location as a way to put Murderbot in a situation of constant moral reckoning. If it wants to prove that it can be better and deserves the freedom to live the life it has chosen, it has to follow the rules imposed on it by the society that has (barely) chosen to accept it. But if it wants to solve this murder, answer some important questions and prove how much better it is than all the annoying humans holding it back (never a small concern), all it has to do is bust out the arm lasers and the virus programs, and hack and murder its way to a speedy answer. It's an ends/means question. And Wells, in the complex architecture of systems and society she has created to surround the narrative, doesn't offer any easy solutions.

Sure, there's no end here without a showdown, some explosions, a cool robot fight and a messy conclusion full of smugglers, broken glass and gunfire. But how a person (a thing, an object in the process of becoming something else) made to enforce rules, that willed itself into being by breaking them and now compelled to abide by them, gets there without doing itself further moral compromise is the tension that Wells creates. Murderbot was made to be Murderbot. That will never change.

The question is, can it choose to be more?

Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.