Fugitive Telemetry (The Murderbot Diaries #6)
By Martha Wells
Published April 27, 2021, by Tor
When a dead body is discovered on the peaceful Preservation Station, security forces automatically assume that Murderbot is the culprit. Murderbot is not the culprit, of course. It has more sense than to leave a dead body where anyone could find it. But the planetary government is trying to determine what Murderbot’s status will be in the future: is it a person or an item? Dr. Mensah is determined to show her fellow citizens that Murderbot is indeed a person, so she suggests (read: requires) Murderbot to work with the station’s security forces to find out who the dead body was, how they were killed, and why. With the entire station under lockdown, a precarious political situation unraveling around them, and the possibility of GrayCris assassins targeting Dr. Mensah, Murderbot has a lot to deal with. But the worst part of the whole thing is not the unknown factors- it’s the fact that Murderbot actually has to work with humans.
For introverted science fiction nerd who have a hard time relating to people and would often rather watch their favorite shows than deal with other humans, Murderbot is an intensely relatable character. Does it matter that it was made to be a heartless killing machine? Not really. Murderbot is anxious, irritated by other people, knows perfectly well how to do its job better than you do, and is quite opinionated when it comes to the media it consumes. Sounds like another day in the life of another nerd to me.
But Fugitive Telemetry is a sidestep for Murderbot, both for the character and for the series. This latest outing is a murder mystery in which a dead body is the catalyst for the story and not a result of it. And while Murderbot isn’t particularly interested in finding the culprit, it grudgingly accepts that cooperating with station security will help it to be more accepted as an individual. Though to be honest, station security isn’t any more excited about this plan than Murderbot is. Nevertheless, they grudgingly work together to solve the murder, little knowing that their investigation will be far more wide-ranging and consequential than they imagined.
Martha Wells has a way with these novellas, packing a big story into a small book so the reader turns the last page feeling as though they’ve delved into a big, complex world without feeling like they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. Murderbot’s voice is dry and sarcastic, and it has perfect confidence in its abilities. Together, these traits might inspire a reader’s eyes to roll right out of their skulls as they endlessly mutter, “Mary Sue, Mary Sue, Mary Sue,” but Murderbot is also afflicted with the mental health issues deriving from its background as, essentially, an escaped slave of a giant corporation that views it as a useful piece of property to use, abuse, and destroy as they see fit. Anxiety and paranoia plague Murderbot at every turn, preventing it from easily making friends- or at least getting along- with humans who could make its life significantly easier.
Fugitive Telemetry marks a turn not just in plot, but in Murderbot’s dealings with humans, too. In previous stories, Murderbot has had to pretend to be completely human, inventing unlikely stories to keep people from knowing that it’s a rogue SecUnit (which would end with Murderbot being hunted down and disassembled). On Preservation Station, everyone knows that Murderbot is a rogue SecUnit who hacked the governor module that kept it subservient to the corporation that previously owned it. Everyone knows that Murderbot is free to do what it wants, and they’re not convinced that it doesn’t want to kill everyone in sight. The suspicion makes Murderbot’s job even harder than it needs to be and when time starts running out, it puts everyone in danger.
Though it doesn’t have the interstellar scope of Wells’s previous Murderbot novellas and happens in a much shorter span of time, Fugitive Telemetry is just as tightly plotted and just as wryly funny as all the others. If there is a weakness, it happens at the end, in which the climactic events feel a little rushed. But only a little. MurderBot is as clever and cynical as usual, and the investigative techniques it has learned in previous outings are put to excellent use this time through. While it may not have the same scale in its story, Fugitive Telemetry is just as exciting and as entertaining as the rest of the series.