16 min read

Martha Wells on writing an anxious, relatable killbot

Martha Wells on her blockbuster series Murderbot: finding common ground with anxiety-driven killer robots, television, and second chances.
Martha Wells on writing an anxious, relatable killbot

Murderbot.

Without knowing anything about the name, it's an evocative one: it recalls classic robot villains like the T-1000 or Hal 9000, an artificial intelligence bent on exterminating any human it comes across. Robots have long been handy stand-in for our fears and anxieties about the future, and from the title alone, you'd be forgiven for thinking that.

With All Systems Red, the first book in her blockbuster science fiction series, Martha Wells deftly upends that expectation. Yes, Murderbot's chosen name is apt: it did kill a bunch of people shortly after it hacked its own governor system and freed itself from its corporate owners. Now it just wants to be left alone to watch television, and maybe accidentally find some purpose in its existence.

The adventures of Murderbot have been been incredibly popular with readers: All Systems Red earned widespread acclaim and a whole host of awards after it was published in 2017, and its followup, Artificial Condition earned the 2019 Hugo and Locus Awards (she declined award nominations for Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy). Her 2020 novel Network Effect has since earned nominations for the Dragon, Hugo, and Nebula Awards, and the series as a whole has also earned a nomination for this year's Best Series Hugo.

Her latest installment in the series is Fugitive Telemetry, in which Murderbot and its companions have to deal with a recently-discovered body, and have to figure out not only who the victim was, but why they were killed in the first place.

Wells and I spoke by phone the other day to conduct this interview, but since then, word broke that she's signed a big deal with Tordotcom for six new books — three of which will be new Murderbot adventures. The first book under the agreement, Witch King, is slated to be published in the all of 2022.

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This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Purchases made through affiliate links might yield a small commission.


Image: Andrew Liptak

Before we talk about Murderbot, I wanted to get a good sense of where your interest in science fiction came from.

I think I became interested in science fiction really early. My parents always had a lot of books; a lot of them were the Reader's Digest abbreviated books that they used to do. We had a pulp paperback copy of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, and it had my family name on it. So as a kid, I was always trying to read it and look at it and everything.

When I was older, we would go to the Fort Worth public library, where the science fiction fantasy section was right next to the children's section, and I was always wandering from one into the other. They had a bunch of pulp paperbacks with the lurid covers that were always intriguing for children. So I was reading pretty early on. It was a lot easier to find female characters inside science fiction and fantasy in the early 1970s than in children's books. I mean, they were there, but they weren't in the adventure children's books that I liked — for every one that you found, you found, a dozen of others where the girls were just like the babysitter or the load of the group, or whatever. So I think it's one of the reasons why I got into it.

I started trying to write science fiction pretty early on. I liked the science fiction and fantasy that you'd see on TV, too: we had an independent station that would show Godzilla movies, the Land of the Giants or Lost in Space, that kind of stuff. I'm not sure why I started writing; I always wanted to write, and I was always coming up with stories and writing them down.

I went to Texas A&M University, which had a at the time of pretty good science fiction and fantasy fandom. There was a student group that ran a science fiction convention every year, and I wanted to be involved with that. At the time, Steve Gould was living in College Station at the time and was teaching at a science fiction writers workshop through one of the community university courses. So that's how I met him and did my first writing workshop.

Your first novel was Element of Fire back in 1993, and it looks like your focus was really on fantasy early on.

Yeah. I always read science fiction, but when I started writing professionally, I gravitated more towards fantasy.

Was that a conscious decision on your part, or was it just "I happen to have this fantasy idea?  

It was a bit of a combination of both, because I was a big Star Wars fan, but I was never much of a hard science fiction fan. I like space opera and that kind of thing, so it was probably just that Element of Fire was just a fantasy idea that stuck with me for a while.

You recently described your career as going through a sort of crisis in the mid-2000s. What do you think precipitated that, and how did you overcome it?

The publisher who contracted The Death of the Necromancer, Wheel of the Infinite, and The Ice-Rien trilogy was Avon Eos. Before Wheel of the Infinite came out, the Eos line was sold to HarperCollins, who didn’t support it to the extent that Eos did, and my books had poor sales.

After the last book in the Ice-Rien trilogy came out, I was dropped by HarperCollins. I got a new agent (Jennifer Jackson of the Donald Maass Literary Agency) for The Cloud Roads, but no publishers were interested for two years until Night Shade Books bought it. I was actually getting ready to give up and shut my career down when it sold.

What was the original kernel of an idea for what eventually became Murderbot?

I was working on the last book in the The Books of Raksura series, The Harbors of the Sun, and as I finished that draft, I was getting all kinds of ideas for what I wanted to do next.

I was probably influenced by a lot of things like Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice trilogy, which had just come out at that point, but I got this idea for what was going to be a sad, short story that was basically the plot of All Systems Red, about a SecUnit that basically had to expose the fact that it had hacked itself and was now free in order to save the people it was guarding.

It was kind of — I've heard them called "attack novels" or "attack ideas" or "attack stories" — this overpowering idea that you want to write it right then. So I was just going to jot down some  notes on what the story's plot was, because I still needed to finish that book draft, but ended up writing five pages of All Systems Red.

The first scene I wrote was actually the cubicle scene where Mensa knocks on the door of Murderbot's cubicle. The day after I finished the book draft, I started All Systems Red, and wrote it straight through, and even had a back injury in the middle of it, took some time off and as soon as I felt better, came back and started writing again, and finished it in under a month.


Image: Andrew Liptak

That was a really fast first draft! How have you approached the others that followed?

It really was. The other novellas take me about three months each. Logistically, they're a lot more complicated, and the fact that Murderbot has that multiple point of view with systems and drones, and everything it connects to, it makes the fight scenes really complicated. Figuring out the plot, I have the bad habit — I know I did this with Artificial Condition — of trying to start too far into the story. That kind of threw me off for a while: I ended up writing like 10, 15 thousand words and then cut most of them out.

In the original version of Artificial Condition, ART wasn't even much of a character, it was just there for a few paragraphs in backstory. And as I was going on, I was realizing that no, I needed to write that part of the story, because the audience needed to see that part happen. As soon as I first started writing ART, I realized it needed to be Murderbot and ART meeting and forming a relationship.

It just seems to take me a while of writing the story to get to what the story really needs to be for each novella, and that's why it takes me so long. Network Effect was the same way: it took me 18 months to write it, and usually for a novel of that size, it takes under a year. I was writing 5, 10, 15 thousand words and cutting them out as I went along.

Would you describe yourself as more the gardener type of writer, as opposed to the architect-type writer?

I really would. I've had to do outlines for the media tie-ins I've done, and they just have not been all that helpful to me. For one thing, I realized that I can't come up with complex action scenes or themes that make any sense unless I'm writing it up. I'll try them in an outline and will look at them and go "yeah, that's not going to work." It's like I don't really think of all the variables unless I'm actually writing the scene.

In the series, you have a big world: you've got the SecUnits, this network of inhabited planets and space stations, interstellar trade, the corporations. One of the things that I was really impressed with is that you have this full-fledged world. At what point did you realize that you had a much larger world to play in?

Well, I guess when I finished All Systems Red, and Tordotcom asked for a second novella. I could have written a different story, but I really started feeling like yeah, I really want to continue this story. So I wrote Artificial Condition and had it in my head of Murderbot coming back to Dr. Mensa and having to rescue her. Of course, Artificial Condition doesn't come anywhere close to that, so after I finished it, I asked Tordotcom if they wanted two more, and ended up making a deal for Rogue Protocol and Exit Strategy.

So I was sort of working towards that point, bringing Murderbot back to Dr. Mensa,and as I went along, the world kept expanding. Murderbot's view of its world is so narrow and so confined, first because it's under the control of the company and its governor module, and then as it escapes that control. It's exploring its world through media, but that's not always an accurate picture of what's going on. So I wanted the reader to be in the same position, where MurderBot's gradually expanding its knowledge of the world and the reader is too.

And then there's Murderbot's whole thing of basically not talking about stuff it's not interested in or is upset by itself that kind of puts the reader in a position of trying to solve the mystery of what Murderbot is actually upset about as you see the world through its eyes.

Image: Andrew Liptak

I'm always fascinated by the acknowledgement that there'll be pop culture in the distant future. I know it's a bit of a trap for authors to fall into by referring to a fictional TV show, because of how contextual it has to be. What led you to make the decision for Murderbot to learn about the world through entertainment?

It basically came in with the first line, and that was part of my mental state at the time that I wrote it in 2016. You know, all the stuff was happening, and I was really angry and I needed some place to put that anger. I was also really depressed, not wanting to be in the world I was occupying, and it was very easy to step into the world of video where we have streaming and all the TV shows you want, anytime you want to watch them, and I was thinking "well, if I was a semi-mechanical being that's connected to all this stuff, it's like all I'd do." You could go out and kill people and rampage, or you could just sit here and watch TV for thousands of hours.

I also wanted to look at what an artificial intelligence would want, and try and do that, as opposed to what a human thinks artificial intelligence wants, because we were seeing so many stories about AI wanting to become human.

There are good stories [about that], but thinking through that, would they really do that? Or would they be more interested in other things? So I wanted to try and hit that — I wanted to write an AI that didn't want to become a human, or particularly like humans, except for how humans made entertainment and the stories that it was interested in watching.

Is there any trope in particular that you dislike from books or TV when it comes to AI? Were there any that particularly influenced you?

The one I'm kind of tired of is how the AI wants to become human. But people have done great things with that. There's Annalee Newitz's book Autonomous, which does a great job [depicting] an artificial intelligence that doesn't particularly want to be human, but it falls in love with a human to the extent that it can. It's a complicated book, and it's really neat the way they look at that relationship — I think it's one of the best ones I've ever seen.

There are a bunch of fun books about AI. Again, Ann Leckie's [Ancillary Justice] was a big influence on me. Her AI is basically a starship, but it's been forced down into one human body, something that it wouldn't have chosen at that point. That feels like a bit more of a realistic depiction, when you think about an AI system as having a multilayered of all these different systems and perspectives, to be able to look into its world and imagining it moving into one human body with such a limited perspective just so it could physically feel stuff — it doesn't seem very likely that it would do that.

Murderbot certainly wouldn't do that.

Yeah, and it doesn't like its own organic parts. It doesn't get much pleasure from having those; it would rather get rid of them. That's one thing I wanted to do in Artificial Condition: I felt it was important for ART to give Murderbot the option of appearing more like a human because it can do that with its medical setup, and Murderbot says no.  

One of the things that I felt that the series does really well is how Murderbot uses data and how it makes decisions based on the information it's taking in. Murderbot's clearly able to quickly absorb and act on a lot more information than a person can, and it feels like a lot of our robots are kind of like Asimov's: they feel like just more logical people. What did you do to better understand artificial intelligence?

I didn't do much research about real AI. What most of my experience comes from is when I graduated from college, I worked as a programmer doing system management, creating databases and making interfaces with databases for users and that kind of stuff. It's all in my experience in software. So that's what I drew on in the end: I worked for a software company for a while.

So basically, the frustration of getting different updates, the update that destroys everything because it wasn't quite finished, and the way an AI or any intelligence would work with databases to figure out what it's supposed to do and how it's supposed to organize its thoughts. It all came from my experience as a programmer.

Image: Andrew Liptak 

I've been intrigued by the way that you've been able to make the series so episodic, in building out the world via the novellas in addition to your novel. I'm curious if you've felt constrained by the form, or if you'd written the series as novels if it would turn out in quite the same way? Or has writing shorter been more freeing?

I think it is more freeing. I didn't intend to be a series of novellas, and it really wasn't until after I wrote Artificial Condition, because I don't think anybody really had any idea it would be this popular and that people would want more.

I think I was just expecting it to be these first two and that would be it. When I wrote it, I was lucky to just be one. So, I think the novella form lets you concentrate on the major plot without padding. You need to try to stay away from subplots so that you can focus on your main plot and tell that story.

But you're also not constrained like you are with a short story (under 10,000 words); you can kind of let the story go where it wants to go. I think as a novel, it would have been different, and I'm not sure what it would have been like since I wasn't thinking of it as a story that people would want more of!

I was on a podcast the other day where we were talking about planning out series, and I was like, I've never planned out a series! I've sold a book, and I've basically assumed that it was only going to be one book. And if I was lucky, and they asked for two, then it was only going to be two books. So because I've never been a super-popular author, I've never had the guarantees that could continue a story past those one or two books.

Murderbot was popular right out of the gate, and there's been this clamoring for more. All Systems Red earned a Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, Artificial Condition earned the Hugo and Locus, Network Effect has been nominated for the Dragon, Hugo, and Nebula awards, and the entire series is up for a Hugo. Why do you think that's been such an intense response to the series?

I think it's two things. The first is, is luck on my part, really. It was the right story with the right title, a description that was interesting to people, and the right publisher. Tordotcom had built up their — I think this was in the second year of their novella line — mailing list over the first year, and they'd had some really spectacular novellas like Kai Ashante Wilson's The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps. So they'd already built up a reputation and built up a main list of novellas.

The thing about novellas is that it's such a great opportunity for them to try out new writers for people, so for people who are busy but who love reading are more likely to take a chance on something that looks interesting, rather than committing to a full, 100,000 word novel.

So there's that. Murderbot is also very specific about its feelings and its issues. The fact that it has anxiety and depression and everything that it goes through, the more specific you are, the more people find common ground with it. For a long time in media, there's been this idea that things have to be general and generic, so more people would be interested in them. But in practice, it's actually the opposite: the more specific something is, the more likely someone's going to feel kinship with something they feel or have done, and Murderbot is incredibly specific about its problems.

There's an element of relatability that you don't quite get with, a Captain Kirk-type character — 

Strong, John, Anglo Saxon?

Yeah! You can sort of identify with them in an aspirational way, but Murderbot feels like it's one of us, if that makes sense.

It's very personal, and speaking for myself, I'm more likely to identify with a character that has a sense of humor, makes mistakes, and after those mistakes, makes more mistakes, and still tries to do good things, or just get through this without hurting people.

I think it's the same thing where people think they're supposed to identify with the, the strong-jawed hero who always succeeds, but what people actually identify with is someone who is more vulnerable, because of your own vulnerabilities as a person.

It feels like an acknowledgement that even though our heroes aren't perfect, and the ironic thing is that as an android, you expect them to be designed to be flawless. But Murderbot has all these flaws that makes it grumpy and sarcastic and irritable.

It was designed by a corporation that just didn't care, so long as it did what it was supposed to do. They just didn't care, and I think we're all aware of corporations that we have to deal with and can't get away from.

It seems to me that Murderbot is trying to figure out its purpose amidst all that, despite wanting to watch TV all the time. What's been driving that narrative for you?

I think that Murderbot would never describe itself as looking for its purpose. I think the idea of looking for your purpose, it would find stupid. But that's sort of what it's doing. It knows it's not happy and hasn't been, and what it's trying to figure out is how it feels about things and how, what actually would make it happy.

Over the course of the novellas, it comes to the conclusion that it does like helping people. It likes being right and about figuring things out, and it's kind of been refining down what the purpose the company gave it, and what parts of that it actually likes and wants to do — protecting people, letting people do the things they want to do safely. The company's sort of distorted the whole meaning of security to be like an antagonistic force that's more like a prison guard — a protective entity that makes sure that you can do your job or live your life without trying to hurt you.

You latest Murderbot novel, Network Effect came out last year, and now you have Fugitive Telemetry out: what's your plan moving forward with the series?

Right now, I'm working on a fantasy novel, because I had kind of — like most people I know, I had a huge writer's block crash during the beginning of the pandemic, and I basically didn't write anything for six months. I'd been trying to work on either another Murderbot novella or novel, and it just crashed and burned. I didn't have concentration to do it.

In July, I finally got back together and I started working on this fantasy novel. I hesitate to say I'm nearly done with it, because I'm over 70,000 words, but I'm not sure how much more of it it's going to be. But after I finish that, I'm going to go back to work on Murderbot. There should be at least one more Murderbot novel and maybe two novellas. I just have to take what I tried to write at the beginning of the year, sort it out and throw out what's not any good, and get started again. But I want to finish this fantasy novel first.

Do you have an end for the Murderbot series in mind?

Not really at this point. I don't like to think too much of that, especially with something as complicated as Murderbot, because it messes me up more than it helps me. I'm better at dealing with the story in small increments and building it like SimCity: starting with something really tiny and just adding things on.


Fugitive Telemetry is now out in stores.

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