the Little Red Reviewer

Not-A-Review of Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

Posted on: May 30, 2018

Artificial Condition, a Murderbot Diaries book, by Martha Wells

published May 8th 2018

where I got it: Purchased new

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If you’re not on the Murderbot bandwagon, start here. You’re welcome.

 

Also, I fucking love novellas. Running 80 – 200 pages, I can read the whole thing in a day or two, magically feeling like the world’s fastest reader. Recently, I’ve been needing to read a book twice before writing the review. So anyway.

 

I finished a reread of Martha Wells’ Artificial Condition same day my husband brought the video game Detroit: Become Human home.  Both stories deal with ‘bots who are designed to look human, sound human, move like a human, and sorta kinda act like a human.  Both stories deal with ‘bots who must obey human commands. Even when the commands are stupid. Going against your programming (responding to something in a human way) requires you to hack your own software, break yourself, doom yourself to being reprogrammed, or all of the above.

 

My experience with Detroit: Become Human consists of watching my husband play it for an hour or two, it’s a super high tech choose your own adventure story – to obey your asshole human owner but endanger the little girl, turn to page 8. To punch your asshole human owner and save the little girl, turn to page 12.  Every choice you make as you are playing the ‘bot immediately and directly affects the story, and you can replay scenes over and over again to see how your different choices will affect your character’s future. It’s way cool!

 

In Artificial Condition, Murderbot  is afraid of just about everything. Afraid of being caught and having a human tell it all the awful things it did. Afraid of being near humans and hurting them. Afraid of someone else figuring out it’s afraid.  All Murderbot wants is to be left alone, where it can’t hurt anyone, and where no one can hurt it. Murderbot has vague, half memories of murdering a bunch of idiot humans. But only half memories. Did everything happen in the order it remembers? Did it happen at all? Is Murderbot maybe not the vicious killing machine it thinks it is?  Murderbot needs to know what really happened.

 

Murderbot teams up with ART (ok, so maybe “teaming up” isn’t exactly how that goes? If I was more specific it would wreck everything) to get back to where it all began. I did get a chuckle out of Murderbot’s and ART’s conversations – these are both fancy pants AIs, so they aren’t exactly speaking out loud, it’s a silent room full of conversation. We’re actually nearly there in real life.

But Murderbot needs a way onto the industrial station where it became a killing machine, and the easiest quickest way to do that is to get an employment contract.  To do that, Murderbot will need to talk to. . . people. And act like a . . . real person.

Awkwardness, violence, sarcasm, idiotic humans, and Murderbot awesomeness ensues.

 

Ok, so the plot is fucking awesome.  You’ll love it, I promise.

 

But wait.

 

What if I told you the timing of this book, and the stuff happening completely off the page – the “what I got out of it, and what you might get out of it, and what the author most likely never intended because she was busy writing the year’s best character and a fucking excellent plot” is even better?

 

Time to unpack and go off script.  This is no longer a review of Artificial Condition.  This is the intersection of Murderbot, why bots do the things they do, “programming”, fear, and a whole buncha stream of consciousness stuff about “choice”.

 

There is a line near the end of Artificial Condition that goes something like this –

 

“Help us, please”.

 

Murderbot realizes that it has a choice.  At that moment, it can say “see you losers”, and walk away from the idiot humans and never have to deal with them again. Or it can say something like “ok, I’ll help you out”.

 

The important thing is that it has a choice.  Murderbot has never had a choice before. Murderbot’s “programming” has just become “choose your own adventure”.

 

In Detroit: Become Human, there is a scene near beginning where you play Markus, an android who is a house servant / nurse to the aging artist Carl.  In a scene in Carl’s art studio, Carl offers Markus the opportunity to paint something on a blank canvas, Carl says something like “Paint anything you want”.   The player is given a few choices of what to paint. Markus closes his eyes, and paints something. As his eyes are closed, and he thinking his own thoughts that have nothing to do with the needs or wants of his human owner, the light on his head starts blinking yellow.  Blue means OK, red means deviant – yellow is the first step to deviance. Markus has never had a choice about anything before, he has always done what he was told. Someone gave him a choice, gave him agency over 5 seconds of his life. And his blinky light turned yellow. By thinking his own thoughts, by choosing what he, himself, desires, he is becoming a deviant ‘bot and a danger to humans everywhere.

 

If we fear beings who choose and think for themselves, how much must we fear ourselves and each other?

 

I have previously had two careers in which , I had an “important customer facing role”. Meant I went to work sites and talked with customers, clients, sometimes the general public, and since I wore my employer’s name badge, I needed to smile and be polite/professional all the time.  I was “representing the company”. Because anyone, at anytime, could call the 800 number on any of our products and say “you got some redheaded bitch working for you, she’s a terrible representative of your company!”. Every manager had some urban legend/cautionary tale about some employee who lost their shit while on the clock, and got fired for it.

 

Anyway.

 

I’d be at some work site, minding my own business and trying to do my job, and some clown would ask me to smile. Or tell me to smile for them. Or follow me around. Or get into my personal space while I was unloading my car. Or ask if they could touch my hair, or refer to me by some cutesy nickname, knowing that since I had a name badge on, that I was on the clock and therefore wouldn’t lose my shit. They were gambling that I was raised to be polite and not cause a fuss or be bitchy.  It was pretty obvious I was petite and working by myself. So, what’s the difference between “I was raised” and “I was programmed”?

 

Those people who thought I’d respond they way they wanted? They were gambling the day they approached me wasn’t the day I’d break my programming and realize I had a choice of how to respond.

 

It took years,  but I learned how to be observant of my surroundings and overly cautious. To never, ever make eye contact. I became the fucking Jedi Master of Resting Bitch Face.  Actually, the resting bitch face was the easiest part. The hardest part was ignoring “Hi, How are you?” because everyone knows the correct response is “I’m good, how are you?”

 

Good news! I am now in a non-customer-facing career. Sure, I talk to people on the phone plenty and I’m constantly chit chatting with co-workers in the office, but if you’re not supposed to be in our office building you’re not getting in. Good luck finding the parking lot and the front door, actually.  I smile a lot more these days. I’m an oddly happy person. Is it terrible that one of my favorite things about this job is random strangers don’t approach me in the parking lot and “hey baby” me? I don’t remember the last time I was this happy.

 

Took me ten or more years to realize I had a choice of how I react to people.  That I can choose to smile at someone (or not), that I can choose who I interact with and when, who sees me and who doesn’t. That being raised to be polite and to be “nice” doesn’t mean jack shit.

Not a spoiler, also near the end of Artificial Condition, someone is talking about fear, that fear is an artificial condition. What I got out of the conversation is that since fear is artificial, the conditions can be altered.  Now I need to see more of Detroit: Being Human, to see what Markus does when he is afraid and to see how humans respond to him when he does something that makes them afraid.

 

Murderbot chooses. Markus chooses.  I chose. The difference between me and Murderbot is I didn’t even realize I had a governor module until after I broke it.

 

Also? Sorry “Fear is the mindkiller . . .”,  I love you but you’ve been replaced.

 

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6 Responses to "Not-A-Review of Artificial Condition by Martha Wells"

I am loving this series so much! I just finished Artificial Condition as well, and I’m still chuckling at some of the more brilliant moments.

Liked by 1 person

OK. 1 – I need to get my arse in gear and read these books immediately.
2 – I am currently in a job where I get that “smile” shit every day and it frustrates me beyond belief. I like a lot of the aspects of my job, but not that. I’m not really a ‘people person’. So it made me feel happy to think that you are in a job where you are happier because you don’t get that shit any more … because maybe that means I could move onto something else too.

Thank you. Awesome review. 😀

Liked by 1 person

yes! read these!

I guess i know that i’m not a “people person” because just hearing that phrase makes my teeth curl. It’s not the being-around-tons-of-people that bugs me, it’s the “you should smile more” shit that makes me so angry I can’t even. Being able to choose who you smile for, and who you don’t smile for is empowering as fuck. having someone assume they can make that choice for you is the opposite of empowering.

start looking for a new job. seriously. that was the only thing that worked for me. I didn’t realize how miserable I was in a public-facing role until i landed in an office job and felt so safe I cried. when I was looking for work, I didn’t care what the job was, what my tasks would be, what the business was, how far I had to drive, what the salary was. All I cared about was that I wouldn’t have a “public facing role”. Sure, our clients call all day long, but I know these people, I know their accounts, I know how to answer their questions, they are people I *want* to talk to. they ask me normal business questions. they do not suggest that I smile.

Liked by 1 person

Thank you. I appreciate what you’ve said. 🙂 🙂

Liked by 2 people

Ahh, I love this. It makes me want to read this series for sure. We are definitely conditioned aren’t we – politeness deeply ingrained. I’ve worked in public services (not necessarily or always public facing) for a long time now and abusive phone calls (basically telling me how crap we all are whist having to be polite) is just one of the perks of the job! I think one of my least favourite phrases in the world is possibly ‘smile, it might not happen’ – it just did. You shouldn’t really have to smile on demand or else face a complaint. Glad you’re much happier in your new role.
I read the Larsson, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series and your review made me think of something that was pointed out in one of the books. I won’t give away spoilers here but basically there’s a serial killer and he uses peoples’ deeply ingrained manners to help him – basically he asks for help and people are too polite to refuse which ultimately catches them in his traps. Pretty awful but also quite insightful because it hits the nail on the head.
Lynn 😀

Liked by 1 person

Really interesting review!! Thanks for including so much of your own life in there!
The theme of choice in this one was so cool indeed!

Liked by 1 person

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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