The Murderbot Diaries (1–3) by Martha Wells

I’ve mentioned Murderbot in passing before, but hadn’t got around to reviewing them. I think because I have mixed feelings. The books themselves are fine, really engaging and fun to read, but there’s a bit of a bad taste left by the price you have to pay. I recently complained in similar terms about the (final) Le Carré “novel”, Silverview, which the publishers wanted £20 for in hardback, but which was very, very short.

All Systems Red, the first in the series, is priced at a very reasonable £1.99, which is more or less what you’d expect to pay for something that comes in at 156 print pages. Anything up to a fiver, maybe: fine.

Artificial Condition, the second episode, runs to about 149 print pages, but for this the (Kindle) price is £6.50, to which the only reasonable response is ouch. So, if we’re keeping tabs, we’ve paid £8.49 for a novel of around 300 pages. Still reasonable, if you look at it that way.

I just finished the third episode, Rogue Protocol; another £6.50 for another 150 print pages; so now I’ve paid £14.99 for 450 pages. If I were paying this for a hardback book, then okay. But this is for the e-book, which carries minimal distribution/production costs. If you had gone for print editions, by the way, you’d be looking at the best part of thirty quid for a an average length novel with three parts.

It all seems a bit much. And I know it’s wrong to price things by the metre, as it were (never mind the width, feel the quality etc.), but I can’t help feeling ripped off. I mean, I’m paying £8 a month for Disney+ and I just watched nearly eight hours worth of Beatles, which was pure joy. These slim volumes are such an easy read, you get through them in a couple of hours.

All of which is me reviewing the price and not the actual contents. The point being, and I’m sorry to Martha Wells and everything, but if the publishers don’t want people to review the price, don’t rip them off.

The entertaining premise of these stories is that Murderbot is a part-organic security cyborg who has somehow overridden its governor module, so it is free to act independently and doesn’t have to obey humans. It calls itself murderbot because it always seems to end up in situations where it kills a lot of humans. Its physical capabilities are such that it is hard to stop; and being as much software as hardware, it can out-think most humans too. The kicker is that what it really wants to do is download soap operas. The personality (in the form of the first-person narrator) comes across as a somewhat neurodivergent human, an extreme introvert perhaps, who wants to avoid human interaction as much as possible and blend into the background.

Murderbot is able to hack into most computers, so it can interact with other artificial intelligences in order to make its way around between star systems. The beauty of the world building is that the reader slowly learns about this particular fictional universe without ever feeling like exposition has been dumped wholesale. While the murderbot wants to watch its stories, it inevitably finds itself drawn into situations as it investigates the company it thinks is responsible for several deadly incidents, and also reluctantly takes on allies and even clients.

There are six “books” in total. I called them episodes above because they feel more like episodes of a television series, much like those the murderbot loves to watch. And much like the murderbot, I would rather read these than get on with my work. Each instalment feels just like that: there’s no resolution to the overall narrative arc, so you need to read the next one to see how it continues.

But: Exit Strategy (£6.50, 153 pages); Network Effect (£6.50, 348 pages); Fugitive Telemetry (£7.01, 172 pages). Another £20 for admittedly a more generous 673 pages. Call it two further parts of a trilogy for £10 each, fine. Again, if I was buying a physical book with a physical cover that would sit on a physical shelf, £10 is all right. But this is what they want for the Kindle editions, so it’s taking the piss. Also, it would be misleading to consider it a series of six. The first four volumes (a 600-page novel, basically) reach a conclusion. Network Effect is a standalone novel; and Fugitive Telemetry fits somewhere in between.

I’ll inevitably cave and buy them, but I can hear the publisher laughing in the distance. “It’s almost pure profit!”

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