The Murderbucky Diaries
Murderbot is the protagonist of Martha Wells’ bestselling and prizewinning series of novels and stories [four novella-length episodes: All Systems Red (2017), Artificial Condition (2018), Rogue Protocol (2018) and Exit Strategy (2018) as well as various short stories. There is also a recent full-length novel, Network Effect (2020)]. Many people absolutely love the Murderbot stories, and I can see why. Me, I enjoyed them (I haven’t read Network Effect) though I found the tone of the writing, which is that mixture of jaunty and sour, that mildly-sweary Whedonesque self-conscious flip-ness that seems everywhere in SF these days, a bit grating. Your mileage may, and given the great popularity of the series probably will, vary.
Murderbot is an intelligent cyborg, a ‘SecUnit’ or security agent. It (Wells avoids gendered pronouns for Murderbot, though I tend to think of it as a ‘she’] has various assignments, usually protecting explorers or scientists on various space-operatic adventures. Two things make Murderbot stand out from a regular SecUnit, though. One is that it has hacked the ‘governor module’ that enables humans to control it, and so spends as much time as it can avoiding the beck-and-call of humanity and instead watching soap operas, a pastime that has helped develop its nascent affective subjectivity. Much of the appeal of these novellas, it has to be said, resides less in its plotting, mystery or SFnal worldbuilding — though those things are perfectly efficiently handled — than in the characterisation of the Murderbot itself. Many fans (and especially perhaps those on the more introverted side of the spectrum, those with a perhaps more conflicted relationship to the rest of the world) identify with this bot’s rather sarcastic small-scale misanthropic aversion to human interaction, although at the same time Murderbot puts a lot of effort and often suffers serious injury protecting its human charges.
But there’s another salient here, part of the bot’s backstory: once upon a time Murderbot malfunctioned and killed 57 people. Hence its name.
The point is that this crime happened before Murderbot hacked its governor module, happened that is to say when it was effectively under the control of a malign outside force (unpicking the mystery of who and why is a large part of the overarching narrative of the four novellas). Murderbot does, in its slightly flattened way, feels guilty, and responsible for these deaths, but it also doesn’t. And his brings me to Bucky.
Bucky Barnes is a Marvel Comics Universe character — you know him: Captain America’s sidekick, the former ‘Winter Soldier’, the geezer with the metal arm. He is played by Sebastian Stan in the movies and spin-off TV series, and whilst Stan is undeniably a good-looking guy, the depth and intensity of Bucky fandom baffles me, somewhat. After all, Bucky is a character who, having been injected with a serum that gave him prodigious strength and resilience, worked for the Nazi-analogue Hydra organisation as an assassin for many decades, killing who knows how many people (surely as many and doubtless more than Murderbot’s 57). Call me old-fashioned, but a Nazi mass-murderer seems to me not the kind of person one should adore.
Ah, but there’s a get out of jail free card for fans. The conceit of the MCU storytelling here is that Bucky was ‘brainwashed’ by Hydra. A sequence of unusual words puts him into a trance state in which he becomes a mere mindless tool in the hands of evil people. So although Bucky, rehabilitated by the good guys, is shown (in the recent ‘Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ TV series for instance) experiencing remorse for all the bad things he did, the MCU does not blame Bucky for what he did, and so invites us as fans not to blame him either. Instead we are encouraged to stan him — to stan Seb Stan, and cheer Bucky as he gets on with his super-strength life of international travel and elegantly choreographed fights, enjoying exciting adventures with his pal. Like Murderbot Bucky’s social skills are gruff and rudimentary, but like the ’bot he has a heart of gold.
It would be jejune to pick out two data points and extrapolate to anything larger, but the appeal of these two figures to contemporary fandom interests me. It’s almost as if there is a larger appetite for story-figures who tell people: yes, you’ve done bad stuff, but it’s OK because you have a good heart and you’re not doing the bad stuff any more. This is, perhaps, simply an index of the success of recent challenges to the hegemonies of patriarchy and whiteness. Sure (say dudes) we get it’s wrong to objectify and harass women now — systematic racism has all manner of malign consequences, yes now we understand that. But we’re good people! If we ever made a girl feel uncomfortable, or jumped to conclusions about a person of colour, we’re sorry. We’re better now! But embedded within that, focalised by the extremity, the enormity of Murderbot and Bucky’s former transgressions — mass murder is about as bad as it gets, obviously — is the half-formed understanding that ‘we’ did these things because at the time we thought they were no big deal, even if we now we understand that, actually, they were. The sheer hypertrophy of this popular-cultural fabulation suggests that something else is going on here.
So: it strikes me that the emphasis with both Murderbot and Murderbucky is massively on the characters’ current stan-ability, not on their past transgressions. And this, perhaps, is the nub of the matter. When it comes to things like sexism and racism, the ‘official’ line (if I can put it like that) construes an always already belated state of affairs. It used to be the case that women were effectively and people of colour literally the property of men, that their lives were constrained and blighted and so on; but sexism and racism are purely historical problems now. ‘We’ are good now. Sorry for what happened, sure. Sure. Of course! But not sorry in a way that really acknowledges anything ongoing about the problems for which we are, it appears, sorry. See also: fandom’s bottomless love for Loki. See also: Jason Bourne. The recent spate of Disney villain origin-story movies (Maleficent, Cruella de Ville etc) may have something to do with this.
The thing is: we are not robots and there’s no such thing as brainwashing. ‘The robot’ can be an interesting and useful way of thinking about ourselves, the more machinic, less empathetically organic aspects to our personality, but we are not actually robots, wholly at the mercy of the person who has programmed us. We possess free will. ‘Brainwashing’ can be a way of thinking about how persuasive and dominating certain ideologies, or certain people, can be over us; but we are never literally brainwashed. We possess free will. Surrendering our sense of self, our core of self-determination, entirely to these fictions is a lie. We lie to ourselves in order to try to ease ourselves, but it’s very much not a good idea to lie, to others and especially to yourself. You are not a badass. You are not even a badass with a heart of gold. You did not kill 57 people — I mean, if you did, you should turn yourselves in to the authorities immediately and dedicate the rest of your life from prison to trying to make such amends as you can, something you cannot do if you keep telling yourself ‘yes I did this bad thing, but it wasn’t really my fault …’ But we can be honest: you didn’t kill 57 people. You did bad things, sure, because we all do. You were selfish and thoughtless, you lied and you cheated, you hurt people’s feelings and neglected your friends. But the hyperbolic reframing of those things in your self-narrative as ‘as bad as mass-murder!!’ is a piece of melodramatic self-aggrandization that veils the truth, the truth being: neither you nor I are that grand. Doing so is liable to collapse you into despair or blind you into armoured selfishness, and will certainly occlude the liveable, forgiveable intersubjectivities that are (almost) always available to us. So, my advice would be: don’t do that.