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Sci-fi author Martha Wells on writing a series about a robot that calls itself Murderbot

Earlier this year, I read the first installment of Martha Wells’s Murderbot series, All Systems Red, a novella about a dour, cranky security robot that would rather watch soap operas than interact with people. Oh, and it murdered a bunch of people on an earlier assignment. Next year, Wells will be back with a new installment of the series, Artificial Condition.

In All Systems Red, Murderbot is tasked with protecting a group of scientists on a distant planet, and discovers that another mission just had its crew murdered by their security robots. This prompts a desperate race to try and figure out what went wrong, before Murderbot and the people it’s tasked with protecting meet a similar fate.

Wells leaves off on a note that left it clear that there were more installments coming, which is nice, because this short book clocks in at a slim 160 pages. Artificial Condition picks up the story as Murderbot joins a Research Transport vessel named ART, where it’s brought to the place where it went rogue and murdered its original crew.

Tor has provided us with a first look at the cover for the upcoming novella, with art by Jaime Jones. I recently spoke with Wells about the series and what to expect next from Murderbot.


Image: Tor.com

Why go with a part organic / part mechanical robot? Are there any notable influences in its backstory?

I wanted the line between robot and human to be so thin that it was obvious that it was arbitrary, and that it had been established for the convenience of the people who wanted to use them to make money.

There are a lot of influences, but I think one of the early ones was Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover. She’s mostly known for her fantasy, but she did some great SF as well.

The Silver Metal Lover was one of the first books I remember where it was actually about a human-robot relationship, where that was focus of the story. It’s a romance between a young woman and a robot and it never gets into the usual “kill all humans and take over the world” territory.

Where we left off in All Systems Red, MurderBot rejected the people that accepted and welcomed it into their group, and has set off for a new mission. What can we expect next in Artificial Condition?

You’ll find out more about the world of the Corporation Rim, and a little more about Murderbot’s past. In Artificial Condition, Murderbot is going on a journey to find out what exactly happened during the mass murder incident that caused it to hack its governor module, and it makes a friend along the way.

MurderBot’s personality is quite a lot of fun to read. How did you develop its voice, and why do you think that it’s so adverse to forming relationships, especially now that it’s a free being?

Thank you! The character being sarcastic and unimpressed with humans and generally just fed up evolved along with the storyline and the world building. I also wanted the reader to experience the contrast between how Murderbot was perceived by the human characters, as a frightening, faceless machine, and how it was on the inside, as a funny and very engaging personality.

I think it’s adverse to forming relationships with humans, because it can’t trust them, and it has to be wary about forming relationships with bots, who are under human control, or who might not understand why it has to be careful. It’s a very lonely position to be in.

I really appreciated that MurderBot refers to itself as It, rather than he or she. Are there challenges in writing a truly genderless character, like a robot?

I think the challenge comes from how deep in our culture the idea of gender is, and how hard it can be to think outside that box. Even though I was committed to the idea of a character who was not human and did not have a human expression of gender, I still made mistakes and was lucky to have an editor and early readers who helped catch them.

One of the things that intrigued me the most was that this story is a discrete sliver of the world, with a standalone adventure that’s meant to be serialized. What freedom do shorter, serialized works afford you as an author?

It let me build the world in small, hopefully vivid segments, and left a lot of scope for my imagination as well as the reader’s. You can do stories that mostly stand alone and only refer briefly to the overall arc, and explore a lot more of the world.

I know you’ve been contracted to write several other MurderBot stories. Do you foresee that you’ll have a series of installments with an overarching story to them, or do something else with the character?

Right now there are four novellas, counting All Systems Red, and they do have an overarching story, with the fourth one bringing the arc to a conclusion. I just recently finished writing the fourth one, so I’m thinking about what to do next.

With that fourth book, was there anything that surprised you in how MurderBot’s story ended up?

Yes, though I knew how I wanted the story to end, it did develop in unexpected directions. For me, that’s one of the most fun parts of writing, where the characters end up going places that I didn’t originally envision.

Artificial Condition will be released on May 8th, 2018.


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