Review: System Collapse by Martha Wells


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Martha Wells has been an SF/F writer since her first fantasy novel was published in 1993, and her work includes The Books of the Raksura series, the Ile-Rien series, The Murderbot Diaries series, and other fantasy novels, most recently Witch King (Tordotcom, 2023). She has also written media tie-in fiction for Star Wars, Stargate: Atlantis, and Magic: the Gathering, as well as short fiction, YA novels, and non-fiction. She has won Nebula Awards, Hugo Awards, Locus Awards, and a Dragon Award, and her work has appeared on the Philip K. Dick Award ballot, the BSFA Award ballot, the USA Today Bestseller List, the Sunday Times Bestseller List, and the New York Times Bestseller List. She is a member of the Texas Literary Hall of Fame, and her books have been published in twenty-five languages. 
FORMAT/INFO: System Collapse was published by Tordotcom on November 14th, 2023. It is 245 pages and is told in first person from Murderbot’s POV. It is available in hardcover and ebook formats.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: It’s been a handful of days since Murderbot and friends helped contain the spread of an alien contamination at a forgotten colony. Unfortunately, saving the lives of the colonists was only half the battle as the Barish-Estranza corporation has sent ships into the sector to try and muscle in on the colony. Even if Murderbot’s allies can legally prove the colony is independent, that won’t stop Barish-Estranza from pretending it’s there to rescue the planet’s inhabitants, when really they just want to sign everyone up for a lifetime of indentured servitude. And of course, there’s always the worry that Barish-Estranza could pivot to violence, which isn’t what Murderbot needs in its life as its systems have been a bit on the fritz lately…

System Collapse is another solid Murderbot adventure, full of the sarcasm and unique viewpoint we all love. One of my favorite parts of the author’s writing is how she conveys how Murderbot processes the world differently simply by virtue of its many different inputs. Scenes jump quickly between different locations in real time as Murderbot receives feeds from different drones or cameras; it carries on different conversations verbally and in chat feeds or with various AI systems, all somewhat simultaneously. It never gets to the point of being confusing, but certainly conveys how much information Murderbot is juggling at any given moment, and that’s without factoring those stupid emotions it gets from its organic parts.

The Murderbot we meet in this book is a little less sure of itself than in previous installments. To be sure, Murderbot is always uncertain about its own emotions and how to process them, but after a traumatic encounter in Network Effect, it has a new set of emotions its trying to unpack. Personally, I think the exploration of that trauma is a little rushed; while the book acknowledges recovering from such trauma is an ongoing process, it takes a bit for Murderbot to acknowledge what the problem is to begin with (which makes sense in the context of how Murderbot likes to handle emotions, which is to ignore them until it can’t.)

The solution of how to solve the problem of convincing the colonists that the corporation was lying through its teeth also slightly strained my credulity. While I think the approach Murderbot and its humans took was a valid one, the whirlwind timeframe in which they pulled it off was a bit overly optimistic. Essentially, I wouldn’t have minded if this book had had a little more time to breathe. As it is, System Collapse exists in the middle space of “short novel”: longer than the typical Murderbot novellas, but shorter than the full-length novel Network Effect.

CONCLUSION: But this was still a fun outing with Murderbot, full of returning friends and new team members. If you’ve been a fan of this series so far, you’ll find plenty to enjoy here as Murderbot saves the day once again (even if it would much rather be watching The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon).

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