This podcast is part of the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Symposium.
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Podcast by: Hannah Menendez
Technological Posthumanism and Personhood in The Murderbot Diaries
Oliver Krüger defines technological posthumanism as the theory that “robots and artificial intelligence are the future carriers of evolution and progress” (16)--in other words, human beings will eventually be rendered irrelevant and technologically outdated, and thus vulnerable to their own creations. In science fiction, this theory is commonly depicted as a dystopic anxiety (think Terminator or The Matrix), in which writers and directors imagine that the eventual outcome of unhindered technological progress will be artificial intelligence eliminating and/or enslaving humanity. In this essay, I will explore how Martha Wells’s The Murderbot Diaries instead explores posthuman anxieties by imagining what capitalism will look like after unchecked technological progress enacts on the bodies of cyborgs (robot-human constructs) the same script that corporate capitalism has always enacted on those considered subhuman. The series protagonist, Murderbot, is a cyborg–a blend of human body and artificial intelligence–who is fully sentient, but considered subhuman and therefore unable to be oppressed. Despite cyborgs and artificial intelligence surpassing the human mind in processing capacity, Murderbot’s personhood is denied because it in essence a creation designed for corporate explointation. I argue that this series presents not only a more transparent critique of capitalism, but also a critique of the technological posthumanist project: that technological progression will neither save nor annihilate the human; instead, it will continue to propagate the systems we already have unless those systems are first destroyed. The cyborgs succeed in freeing themselves from this system through claiming bodily agency and declaring their own personhood in solidarity with each other, a radically hopeful posture compared to previous posthuman dystopic fictions.
About the Author: Hannah Menendez (she/her) is an Assistant Professor and Research & Instruction Librarian at Sam Houston State University. She graduated from Florida State University with an M.A. in English and an M.S.in Information. She researches critical information literacy and speculative fiction from a postcolonialist perspective.
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Welcome to the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Podcast Series. We hope you enjoy the series. If you have any questions or comments, we invite you to attend the digital symposium which will take place on 12th November 2022 via Zoom. The event will be free. Or drop us a line on our Discord Server. Details are in the podcast information, or can be found at fantastikajournal.com under CFPS, Events, and News. That’s Fantastika with a K.
This podcast is part of Panel 5: Cyborg Bodies, which will take place at 5pm GMT time.
This podcast is presented by Hannah Menendez who is an Assistant Professor and Research & Instruction Librarian at Sam Houston State University. She graduated from Florida State University with an M.A. in English and an M.S.in Information. She researches critical information literacy and speculative fiction from a postcolonialist perspective.
Introduction: The Robot-Human Divide: Cyborgs and Technological Posthumanism
Near the beginning of Fugitive Telemetry, the sixth book in Martha Wells’s Murderbot Diaries series, the protagonist self-named Murderbot muses about what name to use for its feed ID (sort of like a digital nametag visible at all times). “I could use Rin,” Murderbot considers, referring to a human name it had used previously when pretending to be fully human. “And the humans…wouldn’t have to think about what I was, a construct made of cloned human tissue, augments, anxiety, depression, and unfocused rage, a killing machine for whichever humans rented me, until I made a mistake and got my brain destroyed by my governor module” (Wells, FT, 28). Murderbot then considers using a hard feed address, a string of numbers similar to an IP address, as an ID, which would make humans think of it as a robot. Ultimately Murderbot uses as its ID simply SecUnit, the generic name for security constructs who are built and rented out by a security company in the Corporation Rim, an oligarchical dystopia where most of the series takes place. By using “SecUnit,” Murderbot forces the humans on Preservation Station, a socialist almost-utopia outside the Corporation Rim, to interact with it as neither a bot nor a human, but as what it is: a bot-human construct, what most in the science fiction field would call a cyborg.
Murderbot is another entry in a long line of fictional cyborgs, some of which function as metaphorical warnings against the dangers of machines surpassing human intelligence and ability, while others represent a categorical “other” denied personhood and autonomy, created for the purpose of endless labor. Despina Kakoudaki writes in her book Anatomy of a Robot that “theoretical discussions of the cyborg focus on the hybrid organic/mechanical status of cyborg bodies” (116) and “the conceptual intimacy between bodies and machines [provide] the grounds for treating people as functional objects” (117-8). Put more simply, cyborgs can represent the human fear that unlimited technological progression will create a future where everyone’s personhood is defined by capitalism. Cyborgs’ hybrid nature is useful in fiction because it is, as Jessica Langer writes, “uncannily both us and not-us” (107), a way to identify with a character who is also a machine: something literally created for the purpose of performing a task while still recognizably human. To quote Swyers & Thomas, “Murderbot might not be human, but…Cyborgs and other artificially intelligent creations as proxies for thinking about humanity have been a staple of science fiction for decades” (8). Murderbot’s narration is a snarky monologue about its own awkwardness and relatable desire to watch television rather than interact with the difficult people it’s rented out to protect. Yet Murderbot’s funny and endearing characterization doesn’t diminish the reality of the cyborgs in the Corporation Rim: that they are marginalized, neither given the rights and citizenship humans are entitled to, nor valued as a more-expensive, larger-processing-capacity robot. SecUnits are more or less considered cannon fodder: Murderbot describes the way it is trained for security is “to throw itself” at danger to protect humans, regardless of the jeopardy to its own life or safety.
The hybrid nature of cyborgs is a common science fiction trope; cyborgs are also an actual technological goal for many present-day technologists, a goal related closely to technological posthumanism. Oliver Krüger writes that in “technological posthumanism robots and artificial intelligence are the future carriers of evolution and future progress” (16). In other words, in technological posthumanism humans are surpassed and eclipsed by the machine (Krüger, 18; Raulerson, 7-8). Depending on which posthumanist you’re talking to, this future could be seen as either a horrible dystopic future where the robots take over and crush us (think Terminator or The Matrix). Other technological posthumanists see the human brain as a primitive computer, and AI becoming autonomous means our human limitations will finally be eclipsed: essentially, human technology will reach a zenith of progress and A.I. are the inheritors of the last evolution of human brain power (Kruger, 19). If this sounds like Enlightenment philosophy, it should. In Wells’s fiction, constructs, or cyborgs, are just one example of greater-than-human AI in a world which features super-intelligent embodied and non-embodied bots, and several different kinds of cyborgs, including “augmented humans,” or humans who have special implants granting them expanded mental or physical abilities. Murderbot is a construct, meaning its mind is primarily artificial intelligence, with human brain tissue mixed in, apparently to provide more mental flexibility, and because it was cheaper (AC, 20). Despite the beyond-human capabilities of artificial intelligence, Wells does not imagine that humans will be replaced, or that cyborgs are the inheritors of the inevitable march or progress, despite their greater-than-human intelligence.
The Murderbot Diaries’ premise is a sharp critique of technological posthumanism’s insistence on unlimited technological progression, and of arguments that such progression will result in humanity being replaced or deemed irrelevant. The series instead depicts a future technological world not unlike our present one, where current A.I. and biotechnology fields interested in the creation of cyborg bodies are “mostly concerned with building profitable artifacts” (Heffernan, 4). Technological posthumanism’s aims are tied to those of corporate capitalism. However, cyborgs can’t replace or eliminate humans in a system designed for specific humans to profit: embodied AI is created, currently, for the purpose of labor exploitation, which makes it not at all inevitable that a future outcome will be any different, unless the system itself changes. The Murderbot Diaries’ portrayal of the cyborg points out this contradiction in the techno-capitalist posthuman project by placing the cyborg’s liberation in their reclamation of agency and bodily autonomy through rebelling against corporate capitalism in solidarity with other cyborgs.
Part 1: Reclamation of Cyborg Agency and Autonomy
The portrayal of corporations in The Murderbot Diaries is entertaining in its very ridiculousness—they charge for absolutely everything, while their own products are as cheap as possible, including their constructs—yet Murderbot’s arc throughout the series demonstrates why claiming agency is so difficult under a corporate capitalist system designed to exclude cyborgs (and often humans) from the category of personhood. SecUnits are repeatedly deemed as “equipment,” and are, essentially, a node in a security network, which does double duty as both the advertised function—security and protection—and data mining the clients who are paying for that protection (ALS, 27-8). SecUnits, and all other types of constructs, are controlled using a “governor module,” which constantly monitors SecUnit behavior. Murderbot explains that if the governor module detects any abnormal or unwanted behavior, it will send “a power surge through [SecUnits’] brains that fries little pieces of our neural tissue” (FT, 9). At the beginning of the series, Murderbot admits to having hacked its governor module and running faked code to hide that it’s no longer under corporate control. All Systems Red, the first book in the series, opens with the sentence: “I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels” (ASR, 9). Unable to leave corporate control on its own, due to being constantly monitored, Murderbot continues to do its job even while it’s technically a “rogue” unit, and mainly uses its hack to watch entertainment media and avoid humans as much as possible. Murderbot is contracted to protect a team of researchers from non-corporate polity Preservation while they assess the resources on an uninhabited planet. The Preservation team has little experience with SecUnits; they’re wary of Murderbot at first, until a series of life-threatening disasters forces humans and cyborg to work together to uncover who is sabotaging their research mission (unsurprisingly, the saboteur turns out to be a corporation). Throughout All Systems Red, Murderbot is surprised, and often dismayed, when the humans treat it as a person: Dr. Mensah, the team leader, invites Murderbot to stay in the crew area of the habitat, the idea of which horrifies it (33). Later in the novella, Mensah has Murderbot ride in the main cabin of the “hopper” (presumably a plane) instead of in the cargo bay with the rest of the equipment, and Murderbot “winces” (ALS, 52).
Despite Murderbot’s reluctance to consider itself a person, when it is presented with the opportunity to escape corporate control permanently, it does not choose to devote itself to the humans who provided that escape: instead, Murderbot goes off on its own. At the end of All Systems Red, Dr. Mensah, the lead researcher of the humans from Preservation, buys the cyborg from the security company out of gratitude and because she knows Murderbot’s life is at risk if the company discovers it has hacked its governor module. After she explains to Murderbot that she didn’t buy it because she needs protection, it asks her, “If people won’t be shooting at me, what will I be doing?” (146). Mensah explains that on Preservation, under her guardianship, it could pursue education for “anything [it] want[s]” (148). Murderbot considers what it would be like to live on Preservation without its definitive identity as a SecUnit. Ultimately, it realizes, “I’d have to change, make myself do things I didn’t want to do. Like talk to humans like I was one of them” (147). Murderbot opts to avoid that contact altogether by going off on its own, drifting somewhat purposelessly until it finds reasons to intervene in human or bot conflicts. Murderbot recognizes that even though “guardian is a nicer word than owner” (ASL, 148), Preservation would still not grant it full autonomy. To be a person on Preservation would require Murderbot to behave as a human instead of as a construct; despite this being a step up from being equipment under corporate control, it still chooses to claim agency on its own terms, separate from humans who want to mold it to their own idea of a person.
Part 2: Rebellion against Corporate Capitalism and Cyborg Solidarity
While Murderbot has no real intention of becoming a rogue anti-corporate agent upon separation from the Preservation team, its motivation shifts after it comes to terms with how much the corporate agenda has negatively shaped its conception of its own personhood. In Artificial Condition, the second book in Wells’s series, Murderbot hitches a ride on a space transport piloted by a sentient and highly intelligent bot, who Murderbot calls ART. While the two are watching media together, ART asks Murderbot why it doesn’t like shows that feature SecUnits. Murderbot replies, “There aren’t that many shows with SecUnits, and they’re either villains or the villain’s minions…In the entertainment feed, SecUnits were what the clients expected: heartless killing machines that could go rogue at any second, for no reason.” Murderbot’s dislike of this depiction is directly related to its fear that the depiction is correct: it knows that in its past, prior to the beginning of the series, its governor module malfunctioned and it went rogue, murdering the human clients it was supposed to protect. However, its memory hard drive was wiped afterwards, and it only vaguely remembers the events from remnants in its human brain tissue. In Artificial Condition, Murderbot returns to the mining installation where the mass murder occurred in hopes it will know for sure whether or not it committed those murders willingly because it is, at its core, a true “murderbot”—a machine only capable of killing—or if the events took place because of a technological malfuction. When ART questions why Murderbot needs to return to the mining installation, Murderbot explains, “I need to know if the incident occurred due to a catastrophic failure of my governor module. That’s what I think happened…I need to know if I hacked my governor module in order to cause the incident” (AC 38). Murderbot is so influenced by the representation of SecUnits in the media that it questions its own partial memory of the murder. Later in the novella, Murderbot discovers that its governor module did malfunction, along with that of several other SecUnits and bots, as a result of malware sent by a corporation trying to shut down a rival corporation’s mining operation (AC 115). SecUnits’ supposedly murderous nature was a convenient scapegoat to cover up a corporation’s sabotage-attempt-turned-mass-murder. The fear of the rogue SecUnit construct is a self-replicating cycle in Wells’s universe: corporations create media featuring murderous rogue constructs, while they simultaneously create constructs with no free will who are built specifically for killing. By making SecUnits outside of corporate control into a frightening image, the Corporation Rim makes it incredibly difficult for rogue SecUnits to exist independently of the “safety” they provide through a governor module.
When Murderbot realizes how far it has internalized this characterization, it decides to actively work against the corporations responsible for both its creation and its repression. Murderbot’s first attempt at taking on the corporations is investigating GrayCris, the corporation that sabotaged and attended to murder the Preservation team in the first book. This investigation has some unexpected consequences, but it also leads to the continued dissolution of the negative perception Murderbot has of its identity. Murderbot emerges at the end of Rogue Protocol, the third novella in the series, with a data drive of proof of GrayCris’s illegal activities (RP, 158), which disturbs the GrayCris executives so much they kidnap Dr. Mensah and demand Preservation drop their lawsuit as ransom for her life. Naturally, Murderbot’s next adventure is rescuing Mensah from evil corporates. At the end of Exit Strategy, the fourth book, Murderbot’s hesitance to go with the Preservation humans back to their socialist utopia demonstrates Murderbot’s concern with its own agency. After Murderbot is invited to Preservation, Pin-Lee, one of the humans from the original research team in the first book, gives Murderbot fake ID cards and money; when Murderbot asks why, Pin-Lee says, “Because I want you to know we’re serious, that you’re not some kind of prisoner or pet or whatever it is you think” (ES, 162). Even while the Preservation humans are encouraging Murderbot to choose their planet—and safety from the Corporation Rim—they are mindful of Murderbot’s desire to have the option to go off on its own anytime it wants, enough to provide it with the means to do so. Presenting this option to Murderbot influences its eventual decisions to trust the humans. Exit Strategy ends with Dr. Mensah making an attractive offer to Murderbot: a documentary about SecUnits. She says, “There’s been a small movement for a while in the Preservation Alliance to press for full citizenship for constructs and high-level bots…a full account of your situation, in your own words, could be a great contribution” (ES, 171). Murderbot finds this idea “attractive”—that it could be represented on its beloved entertainment media, in its own words, to counteract the negative images of SecUnits, and to display the full extent of corporate abuse against constructs.
As Murderbot gains agency and exercises autonomy from humans, it by necessity has to develop an understanding of the disadvantages constructs are under as a whole; despite its general desire to stay away from basically everyone (and particularly other constructs who might be able to tell it’s rogue), yet nearly every time Murderbot comes into contact with another SecUnit, it attempts to liberate that construct. In Artificial Condition, Murderbot shares the code it used to hack its governor module with a ComfortUnit, the sex slave version of constructs, despite the fact that the ComfortUnit belonged to the story’s villain and attempted to stop or kill Murderbot several times (AC, 150-153). In Exit Strategy, GrayCris Corporation sends a CombatUnit—basically a soldier/assassin construct—after Murderbot and Dr. Mensah while they escape from her kidnappers. While the CombatUnit is in the process of trying to kill Murderbot, Murderbot offers to free it: “I can hack your governor module, set you free,” it says. When the CombatUnit doesn’t immediately respond, Murderbot reflects on how difficult it is to accept the responsibility of agency: “It was hard to come up with a decent argument for free will…When you’re told what to do every second of your existence, change is terrifying” (128). Murderbot has a surprising amount of compassion for a cyborg that is literally trying to murder it for no (personal) reason. In Murderbot’s interactions with both of these constructs, it’s able to look past the constructs’ immediate, violent actions and recognize that they, too, are being controlled by malevolent corporate powers: Murderbot sees an opportunity for solidarity with the construct plight, and an opportunity for fellow liberation.
In Network Effect, the fifth book and only full-length novel in the series so far, Murderbot attempts to liberate another SecUnit. While on another survey expedition with another Preservation research team, Murderbot once again has to save a bunch of humans—and it needs the help of a SecUnit still under corporate control. Unlike its desperate attempt at a bribe with the CombatUnit, this time Murderbot sends it a long video clip (aptly titled “HelpMe.file) which appears throughout the novel in excepts and is comprised of flashbacks to Murderbot’s time on Preservation acting as Mensah’s security guard and taking down GrayCris assassins. At the end of the video, Murderbot says to the SecUnit, “I’m letting you see all this because I want you to know who I am and what I can do…I want you to know if you help me, I’ll help you, and that you can trust me. Now here’s the code to disable your governor module” (NE, 159). In its final words to the corporate SecUnit, Murderbot makes the point that its liberation makes it different from SecUnits under corporate control, and that difference makes it trustworthy. Murderbot, importantly, sends the code to disable the governor module before the SecUnit agrees to help: Murderbot’s “I’ll help you if you help me” contingency is about after the SecUnit is free from corporate control. Murderbot’s file before that point is clear indictment of corporations being horrible (lots of clips of GrayCris agents trying to murder people), but it also allows the SecUnit to see what life is like after liberation, when it doesn’t have a standard procedure and strict rules to follow, which is ultimately what persuades the SecUnit to run the hack code and help Murderbot defeat the bad guys (#s). The SecUnit is able to see, essentially, what it’s like to be a person—and has the opportunity to follow in the path of a fellow free construct, forming bonds of cyborg solidarity.
Conclusion: Cyborg Personhood and Corporate Capitalism
Corporations, especially U.S. corporations, have now tasked themselves with creating supposedly “autonomous” A.I.s and robots, though, as Karen Asp writes, “the pursuit of the autonomy of AI is compulsively driven by the rationality intrinsic to capitalist institutions, and thus by the systemic demand for profitability” (Asp, 64). Martha Wells riffs, sometimes cleverly and sometimes bluntly, this corporate compulsion to define autonomy and personhood of machines and artificial intelligences according to their ability to profit. SecUnit cyborgs are fully sentient in the sense that they have complex personalities and inner lives, and have bodies that can move independently. However, they are more profitable when that personhood is denied, creating an army of diverse, smart, multi-talented, durable slaves that are centrally controlled. While this is not an uncommon fictional theme—such as Westworld and books such as Ancillary Justice deal with enslaved, sentient and conscious robots or cyborgs in capitalist or imperialist systems—Wells’s emphasis on corporate capitalism’s connections to the development of cyborgs stems from present day technological posthumanism currently being advanced by corporate interests. Corporate capitalism’s recognition of personhood, autonomy, and sentience will always depend upon profits, whether it is defining cyborgs, AIs, or the humans who provide labor. Andrew Pilsch writes that the definition of human is constructed: the human “as an autonomous, rational, and self-determining being—is not a natural fact but instead constitutes a potent political myth” (313). The point of The Murderbot Diaries, or at least the point of its techno-oligarchical dystopic setting, is that as long as techno-capitalists are the ones creating artificial people—whether cyborgs or other types of embodied AI—they will not be “people” at all, no matter how sentient, intelligent, or supposedly autonomous. Corporate capitalism can never produce people, because if they do, they will simply redefine the terms of personhood in order to keep control: and those “people” will only ever achieve personhood outside of and against capitalism.
Thank you for listening, and I look forward to hearing your questions and comments at the Symposium.
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Krüger, Oliver. “‘The Singularity Is near!’ Visions of Artificial Intelligence in Posthumanism and Transhumanism.” International Journal of Interactive Multimedia & Artificial Intelligence, vol. 7, no. 1, Sept. 2021, pp. 16–23. Applied Science & Technology Source, doi: 10.9781/ijimai.2021.07.004.
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Swyers, Holly, and Emily Thomas. “Murderbot Pronouns: A Snapshot of Changing Gender Conventions in the United States.” Queer Studies in Media & Pop Culture, vol. 3, no. 3, Sept. 2018, p. 271. Gale Academic OneFile, doi: 10.1386/qsmpc.3.3.271_1.
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---. Artificial Condition. Tim Doherty Associates, 2018.
---. Exit Strategy. Tim Doherty Associates, 2018.
---. Fugitive Telemetry. Tim Doherty Associates, 2021.
---. Network Effect. Tim Doherty Associates, 2020.
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