The truth is that all I really want to read is fantasy. Stories set in other worlds, other solar systems, other versions of reality that don’t entirely resemble this one. I used to read a much wider range of fiction and every so often I still pick up something more realistic, but my heart isn’t really in it. I get enough of reality with the news, my own life, and the lives of the people around me, so when I’m reading fiction I want to go somewhere else. I know some people who see this as purely escapist, but the thing about fantasy and sci-fi is that removing the bonds of what is realistic or possible in our everyday worlds makes space for difference.
Sometimes it’s still a world like ours, where difference from the identity of the people who have the power to discriminate is often not accepted and may be punishable by death. Books like the Incryptid series by Seanan McGuire or the Greta Helsing trilogy by Vivian Shaw, which are both a lot of fun, are set in a version of our world with mummies, vampires, gorgons and various other humanoid creatures who have to stay hidden or pass as human to survive. (I’m assuming this is not true about our reality, but then again, would we actually know if it was?) As a liminal creature myself, I have always identified with the monsters so this appeals to me, but the storyline where certain special people are able to get past the basic xenophobia and speciesism of the human race is less interesting to me than the possibility of writing a world where what is accepted is actually different.
The Murderbot Diaries series by Martha Wells does both things. Murderbot (self-named) is a cyborg designed as a Security Unit (called SecUnit by everyone else) to be hired out by the company that owns it as protection. Unlike other SecUnits, Murderbot has hacked its own governor module so it can technically do whatever it wants, which is mostly streaming endless hours of space operas. It can’t actually do anything it wants, though, because pretty much everyone is terrified of SecUnits on account of them being built to kill things, and everyone is especially terrified of rogue SecUnits based on the assumption that if they could do anything they wanted then, naturally, all they would do is kill things. Clearly everyone is wrong, but SecUnits are not considered people and they are not allowed to walk around making their own decisions.
All of this is further complicated by the fact that Murderbot actually did go rogue and kill a whole lot of people, which, incidentally, it has no idea why and feels really terrible about. Murderbot does care about people. It cares why it killed people and goes looking for answers, makes friends with a super-intelligent ship AI, and takes huge risks and massive damage to keep the people it cares about safe. But Murderbot is not human and does not want to be. It just wants to stay in its cubicle and watch its shows. It wants to stay inside its armor where it doesn’t have to figure out what to do with its face or make eye contact with people. It does not know how people expect it to react to their emotions and it does not want to be hugged. Murderbot is neurodivergent.
Murderbot is actually the second main character I’ve come across in a book recently who read to me as neurodivergent. The other was Artemesia in Margaret Rogerson’s YA novel, Vespertine, a novice nun in an order of Gray Sisters who perform rites on the dead to keep them from rising as spirits that hunger for the living. Without giving too much away, she ends up linked with a spirit who initially thinks that she is trying to sabotage herself but eventually realizes that she simply does not notice when her body is hungry or tired or in pain, and that she has no idea what expression is on her face or what reaction people are expecting from her. Artemesia is never specifically identified as autistic, but her experience resembles what the autistic folks in my life have described to me closely enough that she seems very much coded that way to me. In terms of Murderbot, Martha Wells has said that she is neurodivergent and the series is informed by her experience, but of course Murderbot doesn’t think of itself as human so I guess it’s sort of at the far end of the cyborg spectrum.
Murderbot also does not have a gender and has no interest in sex. One of the literary advantages of science fiction is having a whole universe of planets and imaginary species to draw from, and in the Murderbot Diaries, non-binary genders and pansexual group marriages are part of the intergalactic norm. Many of the people Murderbot encounters have multiple marriage partners of varying genders, and since Murderbot is both non-binary and asexual, it perceives all of the sexual preferences and gender identifications it sees around it as equally alien, which effectively equalizes them in the narrative as well. Of course there are still people who want to try to gender a cyborg, but it’s more because they feel weird about using the pronoun “it”.
I am not neurodivergent, but I am very much an introvert and I sure can relate to a lot of Murderbot’s feelings about interacting with the humans. I, too, choose paths where I will not run into any other people and often turn around to go a different way if I see someone I might have to talk to. I prefer to stay in my home and watch my shows. I care about people but I do not understand what they are doing a bunch of the time and I often can’t think of anything to say to them. I wish we could just stop assigning gender to anything and let everyone be whatever they want to be. And I do what I have to for the people I care about, even if it means I have to go to a party.
alex MacFadyen added both “neurodivergent” and “murderbot” to his spellcheck dictionary while writing this article, one because it was important and the other because it was hilarious.