Surviving the Corporate Galaxy: An interview with Martha Wells

Surviving the Corporate Galaxy: An interview with Martha Wells

An interview with Martha Wells, author of The Murderbot Diaries, about the far future, work in space, the role of sci-fi in empathy-building, and a Murderbot who just wants to watch TV
Martha Wells
Author, The Murderbot Diaries
Diana Rivera
Senior Economist
July 2, 2020
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In her series of novellas, The Murderbot Diaries, Martha Wells offers us a glimpse into the far future; one with accessible space travel across the galaxy, incredible technology, drones, sentient robots, human-AI constructs and, of course, humans. It is an exciting universe, but also one where key aspects of society, such as work, travel, and even justice are largely controlled by interplanetary companies and corporations. Despite its space-age setting, this reality feels as familiar as ours in many ways. 

Wells introduces us to this world from an unexpected perspective: a part-human, part-robot construct who calls itself Murderbot. The Company created Murderbot for a single job: the security of the Company’s clients. It is one of many SecUnits who are rented out for for-profit and non-profit space missions as contracted security providers, governed by company policy, and a governor module that observes and controls its actions. The story opens after our narrator has hacked its governor model, gaining free will and the ability to use its own judgement, especially when its clients refuse to use theirs.  With this newfound freedom, it is mostly minding its own business and downloading its favourite TV dramas. 

At the Brookfield Institute, our research and foresight work has identified some of the present-day signals explored in this fictional far-future, including AI rights, human augmentation, and technological fear. In this interview, we talked to Martha Wells about how we got to this version of the future, the nature of work in an era of drones and embodied AI, and the role of capitalism in creating it. We also touch on personhood, responsibility, and the potential for sci-fi to be a vehicle for empathy and perspective, especially for policymakers.

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"[In our world] we are seeing fast food places now suddenly stop paying people in actual currency and start paying them with gift cards that basically give the company back half their salary in fees, and companies further eroding workers’ rights. Trying to think of things that can happen to people that have not already happened now, in our world, is hard."

Martha Wells

Diana: A lot of the world that you’ve created for The Murderbot Diaries is a very familiar space. Even though it operates in an intergalactic and much more technologically advanced society, a lot feels familiar from data mining, to dependence on feeds for entertainment, finding work, or security. Could you tell our readers more about Murderbot’s story? And whether this story is happening in our future? 

Martha: The story is basically about a person who is a partially human, partially a machine construct. These people are created by corporations, primarily for security purposes and they’re rented out, and classified as equipment. They have restrictions on their behaviour; they cannot go more than 100 meters from the clients they are rented to, and their governor modules can kill them if they do not obey orders. So it’s slavery. The way of getting around the idea of enslaving humans is by claiming that they are not human, when actually they may not be human, but they are people. The story is that Murderbot, who is a Security Unit (SecUnit) has managed to hack its governor module and no longer has to obey orders. But it really doesn’t know what else to do, so it has been downloading media and entertainment feeds, and just kind of doing its job and trying not to get caught. In the first story, All System’s Red, it has come to like the group of scientists that it’s protecting on a planetary survey. And it has ended up having to reveal that it is free [from its governor module and company oversight] in order to save them. 

I do imagine it being our very far future. It is far enough that people have forgotten Earth, or it is just a note in the history books. Our future in space has been co-opted by corporations for their own purposes and this has gotten worse and worse over time. You have an entire sector of the inhabited galaxy now controlled by different corporations. 

Diana: In several cases, these corporations have adopted the role of governments from justice to accountability. They also broadly control the terms of work, where people can find jobs, where they can’t. You mentioned slavery, but there’s also indentured work in this world.  How does Murderbot’s world reflect on our own world’s issues regarding the corporate control and nature of work?

Martha: It was me being afraid of what I saw coming, which is unions becoming less and less powerful and less and less able to protect people, and corporations becoming more powerful and more able to do whatever they wanted, and gaining status. The idea of a corporation that has the same rights to the person when it is so much more powerful than an individual person.

In the story, it is very much like right now where you have people who manage to stay independent, and are able to negotiate for contracts on their own and able to work like consultants but also people that, through whatever misfortune end up having to take really bad deals and end up basically as indentured slavery on in really terrible jobs that are very dangerous or are set for for certain time limits. There’s a section in the third story in the series in which a group of people have had to sell themselves for contract labour and are not really sure what that means yet but they know it is going to be really bad. 

[In our world] we are seeing fast food places now suddenly stop paying people in actual currency and start paying them with gift cards that basically give the company back half their salary in fees, and companies further eroding workers’ rights. Trying to think of things that can happen to people that have not already happened now, in our world, is hard.

"That kind of unrestrained capitalism that dehumanizes people and uses them as objects is really the only kind of world that could produce this character."

Martha Wells

Diana: In the case of one of the characters, Dr Mensah, and her team, they come from Preservation, a free planet, and they are not as beholden to corporate rule and corporate rules, even though they do have to interact with them. How did they get there? And how could we maybe shift towards that future in our world? 

Martha: The story is told from Murderbot’s perspective, so the only thing it really knows at the beginning is the Corporation Rim, plus what it has seen on entertainment shows. There are a bunch of other governments that actually function as governments, by the people and for the people, but they are much less powerful than the Corporation Rim and most of them are scattered around outside it. Preservation is one of those independent government systems. How they got there is explained a bit more in the later novel Network Effect. They were basically an abandoned colony that was rescued [and relocated] to a planet that they could settle that would be viable for them. They grew out of a culture that had been under corporate authority and did not want to go back to that, that wanted independence.

How we get there is by controlling our interaction with corporations and not letting them get a foothold on the resources and other things we need to be independent. There’s nothing wrong with a small company that makes food or other things we need. We potentially need those for our society to work but it is not the only way to live. You can have a more egalitarian society, where these interactions are controlled,  where the individual rights of each person are more  important than corporate rights.

Diana: The Murderbot Diaries can be read as a criticism of capitalism. Preservation is the only society in the book that doesn’t seem fully dysfunctional, where justice is possible and there is no contractual slavery. Do you see the books as a criticism of capitalism and did you set out to explore this or did it emerge from the signals we’re seeing now?

Martha: I did not set out to explore it, but in creating the kind of world and the situation Murderbot is in, that is what came out of it. That kind of unrestrained capitalism that dehumanizes people and uses them as objects is really the only kind of world that could produce this character.

"The things that they are not outsourcing (to bots) is scientific research; the development of their media, storytelling, acting, music, writing, all the artistic work involved in entertainment, anything involving creativity."

Martha Wells

Diana: We were talking before about basic rights and humanity and I wanted to explore those themes a little bit more. Particularly in Corporation Rim, humans seemed to have outsourced violence, security, justice, and safety, but they still need humans for certain jobs. One of my favorite quotes, and I’m paraphrasing, but the main character says “I like the humans in the (entertainment) feeds much better, but we can’t have one without the other.” What do you think about the things that they, in the Murderbot world, and we, in our world, put value on what humans can or should do?

Martha: A lot of the work they outsource to bots would be almost impossible for humans to do. The big cargo bots and the haulers move things a lot more efficiently than humans could and they can also work outside the space station to move cargo from ship to ship. You can have a human operator inside but it would be incredibly dangerous and not very productive. The things that they are not outsourcing (to bots) is scientific research;  the development of their media, storytelling, acting, music, writing, all the artistic work involved in entertainment, anything involving creativity. Murderbot makes this point, which you mentioned, that it is humans who create the entertainment feeds, and humans who invented the cubicles that SecUnits use to repair themselves. The bots in the story are not at the level where they could duplicate that creativity or the ability  to take the information gathered by the bots during research and use it to inform theories about what is going on and what it means.

Diana: Related to that. I think science fiction is a really good tool, particularly when it’s in a world where there’s space travel and planetary settlements, to heighten our awareness as readers of the human dependence, current and future, on technology, particularly when that technology is sentient.I was wondering what do you think our biggest blind spots and opportunities are when it comes to technology as we are now. What do we get wrong about AI?

Martha: Currently, we’re a world away from developing and sentient AI, if that’s even possible I wouldn’t want to say it’s not possible because so many things we have now we wouldn’t have thought possible. I think we are having trouble right now with how the technology is misused and how it can be potentially misused. I think [we are] very behind in legislation and forming rules and laws about how it cannot be used, like to take in this information and basically tailor it to influence people on a large scale. I’m not particularly an AI expert, so I’m looking at it as a layman but that’s my primary concern.

There is a show called Better Off Ted that came out several years ago about a big evil corporation and there’s a bit where they have the elevator designed to operate without buttons. So it recognizes people and takes you where you need to to go. But it doesn’t recognize Black people, the Black executives and scientists who work there. So they can’t get anywhere in the elevator. And it’s a metaphor but it’s also a way that shows how AI right now is not any better than the people who program it and the people who feed the information in. 

Diana: A lot of Murderbot’s transformation does deal with discovering what guilt is and responsibility is, so I was very curious about that kind of distinction, the responsibility of being human versus not. As a human you have certain responsibilities, you have certain accountabilities, and as a bot, or as a piece of equipment, you’re not  accountable, the company that owns you is. The line between the times when Muderbot was responsible for certain acts and the times when it wasn’t is invisible to most of the world, much like the fact that it is or isn’t a human. How do you envision that conflict of responsibility for actions of a technology that makes decisions. In the case of our real world, they’re not sentient, But I think it’s an interesting parallel: when do you assign that responsibility?

Martha: If they’re not sentient, like in our world, then it’s the people who programmed it that have the responsibility. They should be checking to see that the program or AI was learning, like the case of the driverless car that hit someone because it didn’t know that a bicycle wasn’t something you could hit. It’s a big simplification of what happened, but it was the responsibility of  the programmers who should have been looking at a range of things for it to react to and to make sure it could be accurate, there should have been more testing to be sure that there was no gap in these reactions. I don’t understand why a driverless car wouldn’t stop at any motion in front of it. When a human is driving, you’re looking for movement. My foot is going to the brake before my brain even fully processes that. When it is not sentient it is definitely the fault of the person who programmed it. And if it’s a sentient being that has to be programmed with information, I’m still inclined to think it’s the person who programmed it who is responsible, who told it it didn’t have to stop for bicycles.

At some point, there was somebody who decided it was okay to hit bicycles or decided that it was okay not to fully test. It always comes back to a person or a corporation. It’s that old adage: garbage in, garbage out. 

"When you’re reading [these possibilities], you experience them through the point of view of the characters. That’s a more real experience for our brain than just thinking what might or might not happen. You’re getting all these different viewpoints from different people, and different types of people, that let you see the problem from different angles."

Martha Wells

Diana: On the idea of responsibility and intelligence, I listened to one of your previous interviews with the Modern War Institute podcast. You touched on the situation from Star Trek that really struck me about how a low,  high, or different intelligence doesn’t make anyone less human or less of a person. From the story, it’s fairly obvious that Murderbot is a person in almost all the usual senses. I wondered if you could elaborate a bit more on this sense of personhood and the different intelligences that you explore.

Martha: It’s a really complex question. The Star Trek episode I  referenced is about animals and what we’re dealing with now is that it is in our best interest to treat animals like things. But when you’re talking about something that has a very complex decision-making process…. I think the thing that Star Trek is also talking about is the idea that they keep setting a bar, e.g, “an animal can’t do this therefore it is not like a person”. And then they’ll find animals that can do that and suddenly the bar will be raised. The case is always decided in our favor, no matter what the evidence is.

I could see that happening with actually burgeoning sentient machine intelligence. “A machine can’t do this, therefore it is not a person.” As long as something benefits us, we’ll always try to make it keep making it a thing and not something whose feelings and wants and agenda need to be taken into consideration.

Diana:  I want to take a bit of a step back and jump into our last and most open-ended question. In the series, you tackle various issues that we’re confronting now with respect to workforces, companies, humanity, etc. What do you think the role of science fiction could be or should be in policymaking and in preparing for a potential wide shift of societal norms as we look into the far future?

Martha: I think it lets us look at these possibilities. When you’re reading them, you experience them through the point of view of the characters. That’s a more real experience for our brain than just thinking what might or might not happen. You’re getting all these different viewpoints from different people, and different  types of people, that let you see the problem from different angles.  It’s kind of like any fiction, it’s what we do when we read storybooks when we’re children, and why we read dystopias. It’s looking at worst case scenarios and seeing how people survived them and building empathy and stretching that to scenarios that we wouldn’t see in contemporary literary fiction but we might actually be coming toward in the future. What does a  planet-wide disaster look like? How do people deal with it? Those kinds of questions.

Diana: I think what you mentioned about seeing something and almost living something through a character’s point  of view makes a lot more sense to our brain. In a lot of ways, we have empathy as we step into the shoes of those characters. In addition to that, a lot of your work has interesting world-building. I read the Cloud Roads series, as well as the Murderbot series. And just as Murderbot feels familiar, the world also feels familiar. How do you think that world-building exercises could also help policymaking? 

Martha: I guess it’s just constructing these different places and looking at how everything fits together. The Cloud Roads series is fantasy, and a kind of science fantasy where they are using biological technology and magical technology but it all kind  of fits together into these systems. I think  world-building makes you realize, even if you’re using magic, everything has to fit together. There has to be a reason why this happens or a purpose for it. Or it’s a thing that happens and people use it for a purpose and you have to look at how the world functions and get one that doesn’t have  to feel super realistic, but it should feel like a complete functioning system. I think that’s where the sense of verisimilitude comes in.

Diana: That’s all of the  questions I have, but I wanted to see if you have anything you wanted to add or any other books or any inspiration you used in building this world that you might recommend to our readers, other than Network Effect of course [the latest book in the Murderbots series].

Martha: For exploring different worlds, I really love Ann Leckie. NK Jemisin for looking  at a system that became corrupted or was intentionally corrupted and all the terrible ways it spiraled out. I didn’t have a lot of non-fiction that inspired the Murderbot Series. It came from reading science fiction all my life and from my experience in programming and working in computer software and writing database software and dealing with people. A lot of  people who have social anxiety or autism have related to Murderbot. The way it relates to the world feels really familiar to them. 

This interview has been edited and shortened for publication.

Through the Policymaker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Brookfield Institute’s team interviews leading science fiction authors, both Canadian, and international. Join us as we examine the future of work and the economy, on Earth and in space!

For media enquiries, please contact Coralie D’Souza, Director of Communications, Events + Community Relations at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship.

Martha Wells
Author, The Murderbot Diaries
Diana Rivera
Senior Economist
July 2, 2020
Print Page

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