Robopocalypse (book, Daniel H Wilson, 2011)
A review of Robopocalypse, from SFX 211. Wilson’s work, incidentally, has been compared to my own AI/robo-shenanigans in the Richards & Klein books (or should that be, “I’ve been compared to him”, as he’s loads more famous and rich than me).
Daniel H Wilson/ Simon and Schuster/349 pp
Snippets of a robotic armageddon
With a movie already in pre-production for release in 2013, directed by none other than the bearded ex-wunderkind Steven Spielberg himself, expectations for Robopocalypse run high.
Despite its vaguely silly title, Robopocalypse contains some serious levels of SF prognostication, although this statement does not apply to the apocalypse itself. Taking place in the near future where automated, intelligent systems are the norm in war, homecare, and transport, the end of the world is a run-of-the-mill affair that occurs when a self-aware AI named Archos takes offence at its treatment at the hands of mankind and suborns the entire robot population of the world, taking humanity by surprise by bashing them up with their own cars and toys. After a sinister ramping of tension, cliché appears – there are concentration camps where inmates are forced to build more robo-minions for Archos, roaming death robots, evolving machines and endless other Terminator-y touches accompany the novel’s Skynet-like villain. This end of the world is very familiar territory.
Wilson wins out in the technical department, his robot designs carry the stamp of authenticity that could only come from a man with a PhD in robotics, with many machines described already on the drawing board, although others are included for reasons of awesome robo-coolness rather than realism.
His future world is equally convincing, and he carries his firm sense of the interface between technology and society exhibited in his pop-science books into fiction. Not as easy a leap to make as it sounds, but Wilson does it well.
He’s picked an unusual style for his first novel, and this works for and against him. The story is relayed through a framing device wherein Cormac ‘Bright Boy’ Wallace, a soldier in the now finished war with “Big Rob” interrogates an AI that has recorded many pivotal moments in the conflict, and labelled many humans as “Hero”. Both man and machine feel the need to preserve things for posterity. The “book” that arises from this interaction follows a number of characters, including Bright Boy himself, their stories intertwining as the plot unfolds in standard multicast story fashion. It’s a little artificial. The technique works insomuch as we’re provided snapshots from all over the world, allowing Wilson to cram plenty in, and that keeps the pages turning. The amount of incident in the book is spectacularly high, giving us a pleasing smorgasbord of robotic violence that escalates from nail-biting encounters with “malfunctioning” domestic robots into full-scale, bells-and-whistles future war.
It falls down for similar reasons. The story jumps around a lot, so much so that the narrative relies on Bright Boy capping off a particular segment with a “what happened next” passage, which is actually pretty damn irritating, as it feels as if the story has no space to breathe. What we’re really getting is a bunch of scenes, not even short stories, rather than a flowing tale, and as brave as it is a style it doesn’t quite work.
There are a few irksome clangers here and there – a UK character who uses the distinctly un-British catchphrase, “See you in the funny pages” being one – but this, plus some illogicality and the occasional rough patch, are to be expected in a first novel, and don’t detract from its overall accomplishment. Particularly pleasing is a non-twist regarding Archos’ true intentions – a non-twist in that Wilson is wise enough not to spell it out – putting Archos firmly between the usual SF camps of super-malevolent and super-benevolent AIs.
Wilson’s action sequences and story structure practically beg for it to be filmed. Whether this was a conscious effort to land a film deal or if he’s trying for a vogueish “Action Movie On The Page” SF novel is moot – for all its good sides, Robopocalypse is one of those rare novels that will probably work better as a film than a book.
Did you know?
Wilson’s other books include How To Survive A Robot Uprising, so he’ll be well prepared should there be a real robopocalypse, then.