Exclusive Interview: “All Systems Red” Author Martha Wells
Though she’s previously written books in both the Stargate Atlantis and Star Wars universes, Martha Wells’ original novels have all been in the fantasy realm. She even has calls her website, marthawells.com, “Martha Wells Worlds Of Fantasy.” But in her new novella, All Systems Red (paperback, digital), she’s returning to science fiction, and — as she explains below — for good reason.
So, let’s start with the basics: What is All Systems Red about?
It’s about a SecUnit, an android that’s partially organic, that is rented out to provide security to the clients of what is basically an insurance company. It’s supposed to be controlled by a governor module that will punish it if it doesn’t obey orders, but it’s been able to secretly hack its own module, so it has free will. The expectation is that a SecUnit with free will would immediately go on a mass murder binge. Instead, it’s been downloading and watching entertainment media. Then, during a contract on an isolated planet, it’s put in the position where protecting its human clients might mean revealing that it isn’t under their control anymore.
Where did the original idea for All Systems Red come from, and how different, if at all, is the finish novella?
I’m not sure where the idea came from. I was finishing up the first draft of The Harbors Of The Sun, and I got what I thought was a great idea for a short story. I opened a file to write it down so I wouldn’t forget it, and ended up writing the first five pages. I was still thinking of it as a short story, but as I was working on it, I realized it needed to be longer. It evolved a bit while I was writing it, but not really that much. The finished novella is pretty close to the original idea as I imagined it.
What authors, and which of their books, do you consider to be the biggest influences on All Systems Red, both in terms of what you wrote and how you wrote it?
I’m not really sure which books are the biggest influence on me. I’ve read a lot of sci-fi, from Andre Norton, F.M. Busby, and John Varley when I was growing up, to such recent works as Ancillary Justice, [Yoon Ha Lee’s] Ninefox Gambit, and Aliette de Bodard’s Xuya novellas. The voice might owe some influence to Tanith Lee’s Don’t Bite The Sun and Drinking Sapphire Wine, which I first read back in high school, and had a big effect on me. The voice and the story in those two books were both very different for the time.
This might be a moot question, then, but what about non-literary influences, such as movies, TV shows, or video games?
Again, I’m not sure. I’ve always watched a ton of sci-fi TV and movies, and my favorites include Stargate, Star Wars, Star Trek, The Expanse, and Doctor Who.
In the press materials, there’s line about how safety isn’t a primary concern when contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder. Did you set out to write a story with a political bent, and just felt sci-fi was the best way to get this across, or did you start out to write a sci-fi story and, as you wrote it, it became political?
I set out to write a story, the way I always do. I think all fiction writing is political. The heart of this story is about who gets to be a person and who doesn’t, and it takes place in a society where profits are more important than people.
Also, I’m a woman and I’m over 50, and for a lot of people it’s still a political issue that I’m even allowed to be a writer at all.
Along the same lines, you primarily wrote fantasy prior to All Systems Red, save for some Star Wars and Stargate Atlantis novels. Why did you decide to tell this story as a sci-fi one, as opposed to a fantasy?
I just always conceived it as a sci-fi story. Some of the key elements — such as the corporate control of the society, and the idea of entertainment media as comfort — could only work in a story with modern technology. I could have done a fantasy version of the concept, but it would probably have turned into a very different story.
Speaking of fantasy, the book you mentioned earlier, The Harbors Of The Sun, is coming out this July. What is it about? I understand it’s the last book in your Books Of The Raksura series.
Yes, it picks up where The Edge Of Worlds, the previous book, leaves off, and finishes the story arc that’s been leading to an open war between the Raksura and the Fell. The series starts with The Cloud Roads, and is about a race of dragon-ish shape shifters living in the Three Worlds, which is filled with all sorts of different races, none of them human.
Going back to All Systems Red, you’ve said it’s the first in a series of novellas you’re calling The Murderbot Diaries, with a second installment, Artificial Condition, slated for next year. How much of this series do you have figured out? Like, do you know how many books it will be, how it ends?
Right now, Tor.com has only bought the first two novellas. I’d like to do at least four, to complete a story arc. I’m not sure exactly how it ends, but I know the main plot points.
When in the process of writing All Systems Red did you decide to make it as series, and what led to it?
I think once I got to the end, I knew there could be other novellas. When I first started writing the story, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen to the character in the end. There were a few potential possible endings, and most of them wouldn’t have led to further stories.
As I mentioned, you previously wrote two books based on the TV show Stargate Atlantis [Reliquary and Entanglement] as well as the Star Wars novel Razor’s Edge. Have you been approached about writing a new novel in either series?
No, I haven’t been approached. And at this point, I don’t know if I’d want to. I’m still a big fan of both, so it would depend on whether I had time, and if I had a good idea for a book. Right now, I have a lot of my other stories I’d rather be writing, so probably not.
In that same vein, has there been any interest in turning All Systems Red into a movie or TV show?
No, there’s been no interest that I know of. I’m not sure what would work best, though a movie or TV show would have to have a lot of voiceover, since so much of the story is internal to the main character.
If this did happen, who would you like to see play the main characters and why them?
I’m not sure who would play Murderbot. I was always kind of imagining Viola Davis [Suicide Squad] for Dr. Mensah. In the story, Murderbot’s favorite show, The Rise And Fall Of Sanctuary Moon, is meant to be a far future version of How To Get Away With Murder.
Finally, if some enjoys All Systems Red, which of your other books would you suggest they read while waiting for Artificial Condition to come out?
I’d suggest The Cloud Roads, the first book in The Books Of The Raksura series, or City Of Bones, one of my older books that’s still available in eBook. Both are fantasy, but have a more sci-fi-like approach.
Click here to read my interview with Martha Wells about Artificial Condition, the second book in The Murderbot Diaries.
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