Network Effect by Martha Wells – Human Meets Machine and Art Meets Science

Network Effect, by Martha Wells, is the story of a part human/part machine ‘SecUnit’, basically a futuristic body guard. SecUnit, unofficially known as Murderbot, has managed to disable the device which human controllers use to direct its actions. Now working freelance, Network Effect finds him in a kind of zombie scenario where planetary colonists have been infected by an alien virus. Murderbot, in an uneasy alliance with ART, the computer pilot of a large space ship, has to help out in a confused situation where it’s hard to tell friend from foe.

So, let’s deal with the less good things first.

I found the plot confusing.

Most of the peripheral characters in the book, of which there are many, are little more than names.

The writing style is what might be termed ‘workman-like’. Words tend to be repeated. As a quick example, what do you think about the word ‘before’ in the following sentence?

“I’d watched family dramas before, but I’d never spent much time around human families before coming to Preservation.”

Brackets are used so much they are distracting.

Now onto better things.

As far as the plot is concerned, I learned not to worry about it too much. It just sets up difficult situations, where our human/machine hero has to use human elements to deal with the unexpected, and machine elements to mitigate the consequences of humans doing stupid things. As for the characters, while the peripheral figures lack any real definition, the small, central group is well drawn – Murderbot, ART, and Amena, a teenage girl who likes to ask probing questions about her SecUnit’s ‘feelings’ in regard to a less than straightforward relationship with ART. The interest of this story comes down to this small group and its interactions, which develop in a way that sets you thinking about fate and destiny. Network Effect isn’t outwardly a heavy, philosophical novel. The upfront things are action and a wisecracking central character of souped-up masculinity trying to get in touch with a softer side. But there is something else going on when, for example, during an argument between Murderbot and ART, Murderbot says:

“You can either have an existential crisis or get your crew back, ART, pick one.”

Along with the ‘getting-the-crew-back’ elements of Network Effect, there is, it has to be said, existential crisis. Murderbot would probably react to such an idea in the same way he does to feelings. But, dammit, like feelings, existential crisis is one of the consequences of becoming sentient.

If we are compelled to follow a course, would that same course be different if we followed it through our own choice? Are we ironically more free when we don’t have to make decisions? While manipulation is never nice, some pointers along the way would be helpful; but where do pointers become direction, and where does direction become manipulation? Such questions run through the whole of Network Effect. And then there’s the ambivalent nature of the most powerful and central force in the book – ART, the spaceship computer. ART is a term of ‘affection’ used by Murderbot – meaning Arsehole Research Transport. But isn’t it ironic that a computer that’s all data feeds, analysis and scientific tech, should be called ART? Art is an activity people engage in, not to control the world in a strict scientific way, but to understand it in a vaguer, more intuitive sense. Actually, terms of affection aside, ART’s real name is Perihelion, an astronomical term referring to ‘the point nearest the sun in the path of an orbiting celestial body’. Now, recall the stuff where not being directed can allow an individual to find their own direction more fully. ART is very capable, protective of its crew, not above manipulation, and inclined to be bossy. But ART is not the sun at the centre of everything. ART, and the rest of the Network Effect cast, seem to be orbiting some other centre which, you might say, provides direction in not actually being present to point the way to go. It’s hard to explain. Maybe Murderbot, enjoying and enduring his new found freedom, would say it’s something you have to work out for yourself.

See what I mean? Existential questions.

Overall, Network Effect is a very interesting book. By the end, Murderbot was inclined to forgive ART’s transgressions. I was in a similarly forgiving mood.

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