Friday, October 5, 2018

Exit Strategy, by Martha Wells

[Tor Novella]
★★★★☆ Great characters, Good Conclusion to a Great Series

(SF Thriller; Murderbot Diaries) Muderbot’s recent exploits targeting GrayCris have hurt the company enough that it has kidnapped Murderbot’s friend, Mensah, thinking she was behind it all. It has to rescue her, even though this may be a trap. (35,829 words; Time: 1h:59m)

Although some effort has been made to make this story stand alone, it is fourth in a series, and readers are strongly advised to start with “Condition Red.” See related articles on

"Exit Strategy," by (edited by Lee Harris), published on by .

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Review: 2018.551 (A Word for Authors)

Pro: As with the previous stories, the best thing about this story is Muderbot itself. Although it complains about the foolishness and irrationality of human beings, it’s clear that it cares deeply about us. For all its rough exterior, Murderbot has so much empathy that it even extends it to things like the barely sentient ship AI that takes it to HaveRatton: “Ship might be unresponsive but it was doing its best and I didn’t want it hurt.”

The contrast between the empathetic Muderbot we know and the “Rogue SecUnit” everyone fears is a constant source of amusement. “Mensah finished glaring at me and turned around. The crew who had just watched her face down a rogue SecUnit . . . stared wide-eyed.”

Mensah only turns up toward the end, but she’s a nice, solid character. She’s earned Muderbot’s respect (as few humans have), so it’s entirely believable that Murderbot listens to her when the chips are down.

The mutual dislike between Murderbot and Gurathin is sort of a running gag, but despite what Murderbot says, they seem to develop a lot of mutual respect during this mission, and that’s a pleasure to see.

This is Muderbot, so of course there’s plenty of thrills, chills, and excitement.

Favorite action scene: when they’ve barely escaped the Combat SecUnit, their shuttle is barely away from the station, and the hired muscle (Palisade) are coming after them. Murderbot manages to get the Company gunship (which has been hanging there useless all this time) to respond. Then it sends, “Active, hazardous retrieval in progress, bonded clients, go go go go.” The response is extremely satisfying.

This story wraps up the series nicely, with Murderbot getting a legitimate identity and a job offer from the nice people from GoodNightander Independent, whom we met in the previous novella. Murderbot may have more adventures in the future, but this particular story comes to a natural close.

Con: The all-powerful companies were always hard to believe, but in this story it was more difficult than usual. If there is no government they have to answer to, then who enforces their contracts? And why is GrayCris worried about a lawsuit? The conversation with Serrat is a particular low point. “I don’t have time to teach you the facts of corporate relations.”

At a couple of points Muderbot’s hacking ability pushes the edges of suspension of disbelief. I was glad that there were a few scenes where we learned it did have limits.

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7 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. I’m not reading the companies as all-powerful nor I think there’s no government they answer to. We’re not given any details on how the government system is structured in “Corporation Rim” but I keep thinking of it as structured very much like the East India Company, so you have a big corporation (ultimately answerable to governments outside the Corporation Rim) acting as the government, with smaller companies operating within its territory. GoodNightLander is specifically stated as being based outside Corporation Rim and thus subject to different laws while Preservation looks more like a NGO operating within the Corporation Rim.

    1. I was thinking of it as more like the Italian city-states in the Medici period. That was a time when you could hire a private army.

      What got me was that GrayCris didn't worry about being held accountable for kidnapping Mensah (a head of government!), but it worried a lot about her suing them for loss of property. That just didn't add up.

    2. Yes, the Medici’s Italy was my other reference point when thinking of the setting.

      What I think may be misleading you is comparing Corporate versus Government power from a US perspective, where the government is way more powerful than any corporation.

      If you think of the setting as happening in the space equivalent of the colonial third world and Preservation as being something analogous to a Caribbean or Central American state, then you’ll find a situation like Dr. Mensah’s not without precedent.

    3. I realize I didn’t address your concerns about the kidnapping. The reason for that is given within the story: with the issue of the alien remains on the spotlight, GrayCris can’t sell them, and dealing in them seems to be their actual business plan.
      With no money to settle Murderbot’s company litigation, kidnapping Mensah is a high risk gamble that they may extort enough money from Preservation to pay the company off. By being based on a friendly spaceport I think they may be able to delay any reaction for enough time for the plan to be successful. I don’t think it’s a great idea, just a desperate move by a cornered corporation counting on the general corruption and incompetence to have a hope of being successful .

      Again, nothing too surprising from a third world perspective.

    4. I would be great with the third-world comparison if there were a first-world somewhere in the story. The companies do act, as you say, the way first-world companies in our world sometimes do when they find themselves more powerful than third-world governments. But they couldn't exist at all without the first-world societies they're based in.

      The companies act as if there were a first-world government somewhere that they feared just as much as big companies do in our world, but the text strongly implies that no such government exists.

  2. An excellent end to a series of 4 novellas.

    I hope the author will express a preference for what she wants on the Hugo ballot. All 3 are worthy.

    Regarding the comments, the corporations do appear very powerful, but there must be a government or enforceable legal system to make them so worried about law suits. We don't see it in the story, but it is a valid point. I have come across genre stories where business corporations have taken over as the government.