Wednesday 13 April 2022

Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

"Murderbot" is once again in hiding after its last escapade, but lingering guilt over how it resolved an earlier adventure leads it to investigate, taking it to a remote, secretive station and an abandoned terraforming project. Murderbot allies with a local droid to protect a bunch of humans who are, once again, in over their heads.

Rogue Protocol is the third volume in Martha Wells's Murderbot Diaries, the multi-Nebula and Hugo Award-winning series about a former security android which has broken free of its programming and become an independent entity, passing for human and addicted to TV shows between security jobs.

Once again, Murderbot is on a mission it didn't really want to do, aided by an allied artificial intelligence, this time a non-combat droid called Miki. The story here ties in with the first novella, All Systems Red, and Murderbot's decision to escape from the well-meaning humans who discovered its status. However, watching the fallout from that story on the news, it becomes clear that this may have been a mistake and it now decides to help out by tracking one line of evidence to a new location, with mayhem resulting.

Rogue Protocol is great because it exemplifies the best qualities of the first two novellas: a knowing sense of humour, some great characterisation and a gift for both knotty plotting and chunky action. If it has a problem, it's that in terms of structure we are getting the same thing we've seen before. Mystery, explosions and a semi-resolution which leads into the next novella in the series, Exit Strategy. It's hard to complain because Martha Wells does this stuff so well, but it's also hard to be too surprised or blown away because this is very much More of the Same (including the full novel cover price for a story that's just 150 pages long), with a few twists. For example, the relationship between Murderbot and another AI was exemplified by the starship AI called ART in the previous story, with Murderbot as the junior partner, but here Murderbot allies with Miki, a servitor droid treated like a pet by its owners, with Murderbot as the senior partner. This leads to some interesting characterisation and ideas, but it does feel like we've been here before.

The finale of the novella is a very effective, extended action sequence as Murderbot takes on a hugely superior force and has to pull out every trick in the book to survive (hopefully that's not a spoiler for Book 3 of a six-book series so far, with more planned), which is great fun.

Rogue Protocol (****) is short, fun, pacy, witty and engaging, overcoming some repetition of structure with sheer readability and a nice line in crunchy SF action. It is available now in the US and on import in most other territories.

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