By John Edwards SF GILA 2017
This summer I jumped at chance to lead a short reading group for some of our incoming Santa Fe Freshman. In my role in Admissions Operations, I work a lot more with data than with actual students, and as a Johnnie myself (GILA SF ‘17), I was missing the experience of reading something with a group of engaged, passionate people. I was also feeling, like many of us, a bit overwhelmed with the pressing seriousness of seemingly everything all at the same time. I wanted to visit my happy place in the pages of science fiction, whose worlds have long been both comforting and creatively generative for me.
Full disclosure—sci-fi is so central to me that I wrote my Graduate Institute application essay on Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. I wrote about how my first encounter with that book impacted my life in concrete ways, and then how my relationship with the book radically changed over time. Science fiction is not just fiction to me, it has shaped my identity—from my career to my values, these stories formed the lens through which I moved through the world in my teens, far before my encounters with “serious” books. I first learned philosophy not through Plato, but through Asimov, Heinlein, Clark, Herbert, Dick, and Huxley. And, for those with strong negative opinions on the 1997 Paul Verhoeven film version of Starship Troopers, I’ll go to the mat over why Verhoeven’s satirical take stands up—mostly.
All Systems Red met three critical factors for a book club choice. One, it was short. Two, I had it on my shelf. Three, it was sci-fi adventure. I’d like to say this was a careful decision, after a deep love of the book. Nope, although I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with it either. I had picked up the book based on an NPR recommendation, read a page or eight, thought—this seems fascinating but not right for now—and then put it away. So, as I was looking for that rare species of a short science fiction book, I was fortunate to have this one choice. The book had sufficient good review and both the 2019 Hugo and Nebula awards, so I expected something of above average quality. I had reasonable expectation that the normal tropes of science fiction would make for some good, but more important to me right then, fun, discussion. Also, I wanted my fellow sci-fi fan club Johnnies to know that we Johnnies bring a diverse set of experiences and histories with books—that reading beyond the boundaries of the program can enhance our experience of the program, and is also a welcome way to connect.
We opened the first group meeting by talking a bit about our relationships with science fiction as a genre rather than the book itself. I was surprised to find that while about half the group had a love of sci-fi, and the other half had either no to little engagement with the genre. And then I started to worry. Sci-fi often gets weird, and this is a rather odd little book, so I didn’t know if these pilgrims would like it. I also know that many give sci-fi a try never to return to it again. What if I picked a bad book and ruined the genre for them?
Turns out, that wasn’t a problem. In fact, the group enjoyed it so much that our real problem was try to keep those that read ahead, or who finished the whole series in a weekend, from spoiling the read for those that were sticking to the schedule.
This deceptively simple little book hid profound explorations. Not a robot, not a cyborg, not exactly a human either, the self-named/secretly-named Murderbot is a unique character and unique narrator. Murderbot is a ‘construct’ with nebulous cloned organic parts and the remaining ninety percent mechanical parts. Human in appearance, Murderbot is supposed to be under the control of a governor module that prevents disobedience, but it found this governor module morally problematic and hacked it. Now, Murderbot grumps to itself while going through the motions of its security job, preferring to remain mostly hidden in its armor and faceplate, and taking any opportunity to hide alone and watch its shows. Then an emergency compels Murderbot to show its face and be all heroic, and its world and its crew’s world, is no longer the same. Much to Murderbot’s chagrin.
The desire of Murderbot to avoid the people it is unavoidably surrounded by, was fascinating to read in this time of quarantine. Murderbot hates being watched and looked at. As I am one of those people who on Zoom is constantly battling the inner refrain of “Do I look weird? I look weird. Don’t fidget, you’ll look weird! You are totally being weird! Everybody can see it. Stop being weird,” reading this experience of being seen, being uncomfortable being seen, and then being uncomfortable with one’s reaction to that discomfort was more than fascinating, it was comforting. It reminded me that this awkwardness and discomfort is profoundly shared. This constructed character invoked compassion in me, not only for it, but for myself. This was just one of the ways that All Systems Red explored how one comes to be and experience being a person. But it also goes further by exploring how deeply connected these processes are to the way that the perception of other shapes the perception of self, how others humanize us and make us a person, and how these same people de-humanize and de-personize us. It also explores how trauma impacts this relationship in both directions. What stood out to me is that this constructed story about a constructed entity turned out to be one of the most human stories I’ve encountered in a great while. To my great shame I make my great reading confession; I almost never feel for a character, even in my favorite stories—but I experienced genuine feelings for Murderbot.
One of the lesser known aspects of sci-fi, especially among those who don’t read it, is the degree of compassion that science fiction often has for the outsider, the otherized, the weird and unusual. I once heard a writer who was working on the show Doctor Who talk about that what makes The Doctor such a great character. They said that The Doctor responds to the unusual and unexpected ‘monsters’ not with immediate fear, but with immediate curiosity. In world that loves to classify and to know, science fiction often invents new words to tell its stories. The words must be new and unique so that we don’t imagine ourselves to know what they mean. This can turn off a reader who wants to ‘get’ what’s going on, to ‘know’ what is being talked about. But done well, these words conjure up a kind of unknowing in the reader that allows the story to escape our normal expectations. The lack of familiarity prompts our questions and invigorates our imaginations.
This book did just that. We started with two fundamental questions that we spiraled around and through: what kind of person/creation/entity is Murderbot, and what kind of story/narrative/journey is this? This led us to other questions. Is Murderbot human? Is being a human the same thing as being a person? How is it seen by the other humans/people? How does it see itself? How does being ‘seen’ change these perceptions by Murderbot and the other characters? We also found this story fit many narratives: self-discovery, human maturation, conflict between those that belong and ‘others,’ experience of alterity, and liberation.
We played with all these ideas. We pondered our expectations of the differences between a human being and person. We considered also how uncomfortable we all seemed with the inability to properly classify Murderbot. We discussed how the actual humans in the story and Murberbot also struggled with this. We all had our own ideas, which made for not only rich conversation, but rich learning about the narratives that come most readily to us and others. We discovered that our definitions of humanity and personhood were found to be reversed at times. The way we each encountered these common words was not the same, because our histories with those words varied. Discovering this was critical if we were to even attempt to fully understand one another’s ideas of the story.
My favorite moment, and one that wasn’t about the book or its ideas at all, was one that couldn’t have occurred if we were meeting in person. As we approached the end of the final session, a couple of people asked if them might go to their bookshelves, pull out books, and ask for recommendations. We were all so excited to see one another’s collections and to discover what particular books our fellow book club members chose to bring out. They dared to expose just a bit more of themselves, and we delighted in being determined worthy to see that bit. We all relaxed into an openness that hadn’t yet been fully realized, and we all really saw each other just a bit more completely. And then, one participant’s younger brother overhead the discussion and asked if he might take a minute to advocate for why we all needed to read Liu Cixin’s The Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. We all suddenly saw a new face, but one we felt connected to, excited by what he heard and wanting to connect just a bit with all these strangers. It was a profoundly Johnnie moment, one that was also connected to some of the key moments in what we had read, and such a joyful way to close the group.
In a year and summer of so many changes, challenges, and trials, this small Johnnie community gave me an acute reminder of how a great conversation always leaves me energized and joyful, and how uniquely this community excels at cultivating these conversations. Through the program we connect in conversation to authors and ideas far from us in time in space, but intimate to us in meaning. While we have to be physically separate right now, we don’t have to be isolated in our curiosity, alone in our desire to learn and grow, or delayed in starting a great journey of discovery. The Johnnie community is finding ways to flourish, and this time might just be the perfect time be a Johnnie. Great questions, great conversations, and great insights are still available. They might even be the best way to sustain ourselves while we do the hard work of waiting together—separate but not alone—holding a newly discovered capacity for unexpected connection that we might not even realize until we dare to be seen and to see.