Review: Artificial Condition

Posted: July 16, 2019 by in Books We Don't Like (2/5 single_star) Meta: Martha Wells, Science Fiction, Short Fiction

If you read my previous review, you’ll know that I recently ran through a few novellas. This is the second of those shorties that I read. I was actually pretty excited to get to it. Although out of the bunch, it definitely sat near the bottom. I mean, the competition was Robert Jackson Bennett (EBR Archive) and Alastair Reynolds (EBR Archive), which both sit pretty high on my scale of READ-THESE-AUTHORS-NOW. I had recently read the first in the Murderbot series (Vanessa’s EBR Review) and liked it quite a bit. So this step was kind of the next natural one to take, yeah?

ARTIFICIAL CONDITION (Amazon) is the second of the Murderbot Diaries novellas put out by Martha Wells. She was a new author to me, but has been around for quite some time. These days it’s a bit out of the ordinary for a novella to get the hardback treatment, and this series has four of them. Someone really liked these. Obviously. The first, ALL SYSTEMS RED, won a Hugo in 2018 (and a whole plethora of other awards as well), and this follow up novella was nominated for the Hugo in 2019 and became a finalist. Not too shabby.

Murderbot is on the run. After removing itself from a condition of self-imposed confinement, due in large part to its desire to help the humans it was assigned to protect, its running away from all but very few of those things that are familiar to it. The only part of ALL SYSTEMS RED that I didn’t really understand was Murderbot’s choice to run away from the humans it had aligned itself with. Probably would have been my only critique of the story. So when I realized where the plot was headed, I was totally strapped in and ready for launch.

But it didn’t start anywhere near where it should have — way too early — and that’s quite nearly an unforgivable sin for a novella

The blurb for the book on Amazon talks about how Murderbot “heads to the mining facility where it went rogue” and that “What it discovers will forever change the way it thinks…” The reason I think this story starts in the wrong place is because the whole first half of the story is Murderbot finding a ship that’s headed toward the mining facility and then hanging out on said ship while watching its favorite soap opera. Yes, it meets up with the ART intelligence that the blurb talks about. Little happens with it though. Well, Murderbot talks it into watching the soap opera as well. So there’s that.

Although mildly perturbed by the time that Murderbot reaches the planet it’s heading toward, I was still willing to forge onward when it found out that it needed to hire itself out to a human company in order to reach its final goal. I think if this has been a stand-alone story that was released as an ebook, I might have given it a Mediocre rating. Maybe. If I was in a forgiving mood. The issue is that this book just broke so many of my rules for a novella that I’m still kind of flummoxed it was even nominated for a Hugo. On the strength of the previous story in the series, maybe? Just not on it’s own. No way. And being worth a hardback treatment? Someone on the production team got a bit lost, I would say.

If anything, this felt like a section of a novel that was setting up the next scene. And can I mention the egregious amount of “hacking” that goes on? Yeesh. Turn this story into Fantasy by replacing the words “hacked” with “magically forced” and you’d have people rolling their eyes and reaching for their torches and pitchforks in no time. But the coup de gras of the whole thing was that the events portrayed in ARTIFICIAL CONDITION result in completely undoing what I thought was by far the best part of ALL SYSTEMS RED. That point, more than any of the others, absolutely killed this story for me.

A continuation of the Murderbot story that is decently told but accomplishes little, repeats much, and unravels more than I thought any novella should

If anything, this section of the Murderbot Diaries is more akin to the weak second section of a 4-part story that I’m no longer sold on. Nowhere near what I expect a novella to be: a self-contained story that never allows the interest of the reader to lag. There just isn’t time for anything else in a novella. At least, there shouldn’t be. In this case though, time was made, and the story suffered because of it.

I was feeling pretty ambivalent about picking up any of the other books in this series after reading this, and so I took a peek at the wiki entry for the series. Realized that there’s nothing in the rest of the series that I’m even remotely excited to read about. So, the opinion of this reviewer is that you read the first in the series, enjoy it to the fullest extent, and then forget about all the rest. Definitely not worth the price of the ticket.

  • Recommended Age: 13+
  • Language: Infrequent but singular and strong
  • Violence: Some blood and killing, but impersonal
  • Sex: Several references to sex and sexbots


  • Joe says:

    Sad to read you did not like this story – it was quite the opposite for me. Admittedly, I read this one and the next two in quick sequence. Probably the reason I enjoyed them so much.

    • Writer Dan says:

      That might be the case. The two I’ve read so far definitely felt like they would have benefitted from being read one after another. Interesting how choices in publication can affect the reading experience. Thanks for the comment, Joe. Hope to see you around.

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