Point of view. Perspective character. The main protagonist. This is something that is very important to me in fiction. The way the primary character of a story drives it forward with their thoughts, their perspective, their own unique voice. For me, it’s often that element that makes a good story, a great story. Now, if you’ve been reading these essays for a little while, then the importance I place on POV characters probably doesn’t surprise you.
“Point of view? Perspective character? The main protagonist?” I hear you say. “Michael, you’ve been banging on about nothing but since you started these essays.”
That’s true! I do like to analyse the main character and their voice in most of my essays. But there are a couple of essays in particular where I dive more deeply into POV characters as a concept.
In September of 2021, right back when I first launched my website, I wrote an essay on this blog titled, ‘Giving Sci Fi, Fantasy and Horror More Unique POVs Using ‘Room’ as a Style Model,’ in which I argued that speculative fiction has a unique opportunity to craft perspective characters that feel very different.
Later in that same month, I wrote a semi-sequel to that essay titled, ‘Why We Need More Disability Representation in Books,’ in which I argued that representing disability might allow books to become inherently more creative.
If you haven’t read either of those essays, there will be a link at the bottom of this one.
I knew even then that I wasn’t done talking about perspective characters in fiction, and have continued exploring the impact of the protagonist ever since.
Voice, and perspective, simply matters in a story that much to me.
And that’s one of the reasons I am once again more directly visiting the topic of perspective characters – this time in science fiction.
The other reason, is because I have made a discovery. The discovery is, in fact, a book.
No, I haven’t found religion. Rather, it’s a book that does basically everything I asked for in those previous two essays. Not fully, not perfectly. This is the first book in a series and I have not read the rest of said series just yet. But right now, even at the beginning. This book has something special. It functions, to me at least, as a part of an answer to my previous two essays on perspective characters.
So, uh, ready for Part Three?
Let’s talk about ‘The Murderbot Diaries.’
In fact, that title might be a good place to begin. Since this first book, ‘All Systems Red,’ is a diary in the best sense of the medium. Plot and worldbuilding details, compelling enough though they may be, are also scarce, and mostly irrelevant to the core of the story. What really matters to the author and the story itself, and thus to us readers too, is the unique character work.
Like I pointed out in my first POV essay, if your genre features advanced AI and sentient robots, not presenting their own point of view within the book at any point, is a huge missed opportunity.
‘Murderbot,’ you might have guessed, features a murderbot.
And in a similar way to the classic Gothic horror novels I love so much, there’s a kind of intermedium awareness here. The book doesn’t ever forget where its narration is coming from, like other books often do. It doesn’t speak to the reader, because in the context of the book, there is no reader. Instead, we’re getting essentially an unfiltered brainstream from Murderbot’s perspective.
How, then, do we know this is Murderbot’s perspective?
I don’t mean in the obvious ways, like the series title or the character’s reference to their nickname. I mean in specifically character-oriented ways.
The first thing that I think is important, is the author’s choice in perspective. Through a first person, personal narration using contemporary, informal prose, this book feels very much like a diary. On top of this though, a first person perspective more fully immerses the reader in Murderbot’s narration, its thoughts, and its feelings.
Essentially, Martha Wells is writing somebody else’s diary, and has fully immersed herself in this character, to understand it, and to relay that depth of understanding onto us.
Therefore, it feels like a diary written by an AI.
One example of this is from a more physical point of view, the character’s body. Murderbot uses light jargon, for instance requiring a charging cubicle to repair damage. But as a diary, it doesn’t offer explanation for any of the technical and technological terms it uses. This is important because Murderbot is writing about pieces of its body in the same way we would about ours. They’re simply normal to the POV character – and that’s what matters.
The writing goes further with this element though because Murderbot is not an emotionless robot, but a true AI. Thus, the charging cubicles are not only there for repairing damage. Murderbot also hides out in its charging cubicle to watch serials on the entertainment feed, as it experiences anxiety and fears around organic people, struggling to speak with them and struggling more with concealing its identity. This element of the story I will return to in a moment.
Importantly, these elements of robotics and artificial intelligence come through from word choice, but that first person perspective is also used in interesting ways to hammer home the unique nature of the AI character. For instance, since this diary is in its head, sometimes physiological reactions are represented through text. There are some ‘human’ ways this manifests, such as the act of falling unconscious being ‘cut’ from the novel in between the character hitting its head, and waking again. But there are some brilliant, distinctly AI ways this manifests as well – with software messages bleeding into the main text. Paragraphs are sometimes interrupted with lines such as:
performance reliability at 39% stasis initiated for emergency repair sequence
I want to return to those aforementioned anxieties so I can discuss the other important element of this perspective character. You see, this doesn’t just genuinely feel like an AI character. Murderbot also genuinely feels like a neurodivergent character. Sometimes for much the same reasons.
Both involve struggles with anxiety, introvertedness, awkwardness. Murderbot likes to keep its helmet on to hide its human-looking face, but then forgets it has to control its facial expressions when it’s no longer masked so it can hide its inner thoughts. Other aspects relate to Murderbot’s affinity for television. For instance, the way it skips through sex scenes, or gets disappointed sometimes in the ways real people differ from those televised characters.
Despite the specifically science fiction otherness and difference of the main protagonist, the character is relatable to most readers, as evident by ‘All Systems Red’ reviews. It’s especially relatable for those of us who also have anxiety and fear around other people, or those of us who equally struggle with socialising.
In this way, not only does Murderbot feel like a uniquely sci fi character, it also feels like a great piece of representation for neurodiversity, both disability and mental health. This gives the AI character distinctly human traits that are simultaneously unique to this character, and also relatable for a great number of other people.
Of course, it also helps that Murderbot’s unique voice (even aside from being a neurodivergent AI) makes it inherently likable and entertaining through natural humour.
The other important element of this character is once again uniquely sci fi.
As I’ve mentioned in the past, science fiction is not just a genre about technology and futuristic advancements. Crucially, the genre is about the way those things affect humanity, or a small group of human characters. And in this case, the genre can also be about the way technology and human characters affects said technology, which also happens to be a ‘human’ character.
I mentioned earlier that ‘All Systems Red’ is plot light. However, around the second half of the book that changes slightly. I won’t go into spoilers because I think it’s important to go into this book with everything Murderbot says being totally fresh.
What I will mention is one of the main things that affects the plot in this book, which is still inherently tied to our POV character. It’s time to return to that identity concealment I mentioned.
See, Murderbot doesn’t just want to hide its human-like face in favour of making its crew think of it as purely a piece of equipment. It also wants to hide the fact that, before the start of the book, it hacked into its governor module.
It is a robot with free will, and it gave that free will to itself.
This is a fantastic and original idea for a science fiction perspective character, and the way this trait bleeds into the prose and character work is really important to that other element of a great sci fi story.
Because it’s a uniquely character focused way of addressing that ‘way technology affects characters’ element of the genre. It adds another level of depth and complexity to this being, who for all intents and purposes is a manifestation of what sci fi as a genre needs to be.
And this leads well into the social elements of the book, which are related to the character as AI, and character as a representation of disability, since there are prevalent themes of anti-murderbot prejudice from the human characters, as well as a lack of trust between the two groups. Some of this is understandable, some not – for both sides.
All of this is what makes Murderbot such a compelling perspective character, and ‘All Systems Red’ such an interesting read. But I also said that this book answers the calls I made in those last two POV-focused essays from back in September of 2021. How does it do that?
Well, there are three main elements to Murderbot as a character that places it as an ‘answer’ to those other essays:
By casting an AI with free will as the perspective character, Martha Wells provides a uniquely science fiction perspective character that only this genre, and this author, could have produced.
In typical science fiction fashion, the technological elements lead to a social element, not only in a general, plot sense, but also by casting the POV as an example of disability representation. In this instance, neurodiversity and anxiety.
Using a diary as the format for all of this leads to a first person perspective, with a personal account of Murderbot's work day. In this way, the reader is fully immersed in both the disability representation and the uniquely sci fi POV.
The title of this essay is ‘How ‘Murderbot’ Delivers a Uniquely Sci Fi POV,’ and I think this is true. But just as importantly to the book answering my call in that first POV-focused essay I wrote, it also answered my call from the second. I did not expect that to be the case, either when writing those two essays, or when later picking up ‘All Systems Red.’ Either way, I think its ability to solve the issue of disability representation is also an argument in favour of it being uniquely science fiction, since that genre is so heavily influenced by and interested in social and cultural change. In other words, both of those original POV essays I wrote feed into each other, and now also into this third part.
The other really important thing in my discovery of this book?
Well, for me, it at least partly proves that the hypothesis I had in those two essays was correct. Doing these two things led to a really creative, original, and compelling perspective character.
I look forward to reading more about Murderbot!
Links to my other ‘POV’ focused essays for those who want them:
Speculative Fiction: https://www.michaelfsimpson.com/post/room-povs