Welcome to BEA Appreciation Week 2011! As is our annual tradition, this week we bring you reviews of some of the titles we have scooped up at BEA, as well as some general news and ponderings concerning the trade show and affiliated conferences.
Author: Daniel H. Wilson
Genre: Science Fiction, Apocalyptic/Dystopian
Publisher: Doubleday (US)/Simon & Schuster UK
Publication Date: June 2011
Hardcover: 368 Pages
They are in your house. They are in your car. They are in the skies…Now they’re coming for you.
In the near future, at a moment no one will notice, all the dazzling technology that runs our world will unite and turn against us. Taking on the persona of a shy human boy, a childlike but massively powerful artificial intelligence known as Archos comes online and assumes control over the global network of machines that regulate everything from transportation to utilities, defense and communication. In the months leading up to this, sporadic glitches are noticed by a handful of unconnected humans – a single mother disconcerted by her daughter’s menacing “smart” toys, a lonely Japanese bachelor who is victimized by his domestic robot companion, an isolated U.S. soldier who witnesses a ‘pacification unit’ go haywire – but most are unaware of the growing rebellion until it is too late.
When the Robot War ignites — at a moment known later as Zero Hour — humankind will be both decimated and, possibly, for the first time in history, united. Robopocalypse is a brilliantly conceived action-filled epic, a terrifying story with heart-stopping implications for the real technology all around us…and an entertaining and engaging thriller unlike anything else written in years.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did I get this book: Review Copy from BEA (yay!)
Why did I read this book: I think I fell in love with Robopocalypse from the second I saw that glorious, deliciously cheesy but perfectly fitting title. Not only does it evoke fond memories of Robocop, but it rolls off the tongue so nicely. Robopocalypse. As an avid apocalyptic fiction and sci-fi fan, how could I resist a title like this? Even though the hype for Robopocalypse, what with its Dreamworks/Spielberg movie deal, is daunting and a little bit offputting, I wasn’t about to hold that against the book. When I saw that author Daniel H. Wilson would be signing at BEA, I was thrilled. (That signing was a big fat red-boldface-highlighted row in my color-coded excel priority spreadsheet.)
When will scientists realize that Artificial Intelligence is not a good thing? There’s a list of things one should NEVER DO as a mad scientist, which include the following:1
- Test your promising new invention on yourself [including your sweet cure-for-everything-super-serum and matter-rearranging-teleportation device];
- Presume to revive an extinct life form/dead person [including dinosaurs and deceased loved ones];
- CREATE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE [This never EVER ends well].
Unfortunately for humanity and the cast of Robopocalypse (but lucky for the avid reader of apocalypse by way of monster), Doctor Wasserman didn’t get this memo and instead spent his time in a lab creating a form of artificial awareness, named Archos. And Archos, of course, manages to escape his primitive electronic prison and proceeds to exterminate the scourge of the planet: humans. Robopocalypse is the tale of a group of seemingly-unrelated humans, as relayed by their recordings in the so-called “hero record” and transposed in writing by one hero, Cormac Wallace. The ragtag team includes a team of brothers, a group of Native American Indians who have formed their own society on the outskirts, a husband and wife team that figure out a way to survive in New York City, an elderly Japanese man with a gift for robotics, a congressional representative and mother who will do anything to keep her two children safe, a talented if arrogant prankster/hacker, amongst a handful of others. Robopocalypse follows this core group of resistance fighters in North America, Britain, and Japan, as each makes their own contributions to the human survival effort after the genesis and rise of Archos.
Although the numerous reviews and author blurbs for this title so far site Robopocalypse‘s similarities to Michael Crichton, I think that’s actually a bit of a misnomer because one more direct comparison immediately springs to mind: essentially, Robopocalypse is World War R. That is, take the same narrative structure of Max Brooks’s masterpiece oral history, World War Z, strip out the walking dead (“Zack”) and replace with robots (“Rob”), and you’ve got the basic template for Daniel Wilson’s novel. To be sure, there are a number of differences in nuance between the two books (though Brooks’s WWZ resonates on a much deeper level, in my humble opinion), but I don’t think it’s possible to write a review of Robopocalypse without acknowledging the huge similarities between the two works. Heck, WWZ has also been optioned for film by Brad Pitt’s production company, versus Robopocalypse‘s Spielberg/Dreamworks deal.
Comparison made, I’ll admit I was a little disappointed when I started this novel because of how similar in form the book was to the aforementioned zombie novel. BUT, as the chapters went by, I was thrilled to discover that Robopocalypse finds its own voice and does manage to separate itself from its predecessor. As opposed to Max Brooks’s version of the zombie apocalypse in a collection of different first-person essays, collected by a committee after the big war, Mr. Wilson chooses to follow a core set of characters in Robopocalypse. While this provides a much narrower scope for the story (we only get to follow a handful of survivors in a few specific locations), and resulted in some pretty confusing writing (how is it that certain sections are narrated in the first person if everything is based on surveillance records?!), the choice to focus on a few characters did provide a thread of continuity for the story, effectively building tension as the POV alternates with each chapter. Traditionalist that I am, I like having a set of characters to root for – part of my problem with short stories is that I start to care about these characters and all too soon the story is over. I liked that these seemingly separate character arcs and plot lines continue to develop throughout the book, eventually colliding in an ultimate showdown with big bad Archos.
From a writing perspective, Robopocalypse is the equivalent of a summer blockbuster – flashy, simplistic, and loaded with tons of movie potential what with its many explosions and souped up robot CGI-candy. So Robopocalypse‘s prose and themes have all the depth of an inflatable kiddie pool left out to bake in the summer sun. So the voices of its characters tend to sound pretty much the same, and meaty issues (such as sentient “free robots,” BSG-style) are neatly avoided in lieu of creating on Big Bad Guy that everyone must rally against to defeat. So what? That’s ok. Robopocalypse is meant to be a fun read, and in that respect it executes command perfectly.
The only real, significant problem that I have with Robopocalypse is one I tend to have with A.I.-run-amok/robot-powered apocalypses in general. Personally, I don’t think we’d stand a chance at all against A.I. machines when they inevitably rise up against us. Because seriously? If robots can live in hostile environments like intense radiation, why not nuke the planet, T2: Judgment Day style? Why toy with humans at all?2 Early in the book, this is justified as Archos believes itself to be saving life by exterminating humans, which, to me, feels like an supremely stupid move for a supremely intelligent being. Why not nuke the planet, and then wait for life to gradually come back? If there was an underlying motive to Archos’s desire to exterminate humanity piecemeal with cars and automata as opposed to using missiles, this wasn’t sufficiently explored in the book. By that same token, if Archos can “see” everything that humans are doing in its “hero record” (an odd name choice for those humans that are fighting to obliterate Archos), why wouldn’t it simply kill those humans as soon as the rabble-rousers started to mess shit up? If Archos can survey these humans to such detail, the entire premise of the story and humanity’s likelihood of winning the war seems…well, silly. I don’t know. I’m willing to suspend disbelief and stretch credulity to its limits in the name of entertainment, but I honestly think Robopocalypse could have actually benefited from some good, old fashioned Applied Phlebotinum.3 I’m not disparaging Daniel Wilson’s technological savvy – because clearly, Mr. Wilson knows his robots. As a Ph.D. holder from Carnegie Mellon, Robopocalypse could have been one dry manual of a novel, but Daniel Wilson manages to explain his technology without falling into boring territory, while simultaneously maintaining technological credulity. That’s awesome, and a fine line to walk. It’s the underlying plot motivation (and plausibility of human success), especially given the power that Archos has, that makes the story fall apart under any level of scrutiny.
What does this ultimately mean for the novel? Tense-changing and shaky plot premises aside, Robopocalypse does its job well. It’s a fun book, a superb candidate for beach reading, and it should make for a helluva film. I can see the shiny, Minority Report-esque lexuses running over innocent civilians, and terrifying Big Happy domestics tearing people apart already.
Recommended on a completely superficial, Michael Bay-ish level – just don’t take Robopocalypse too seriously.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
1. Tip of the Spear
We’re more than animals.
–Dr. Nicholas Wasserman
Precursor Virus + 30 seconds
The following transcript was taken from security footage recorded at the Lake Novus Research Laboratories located belowground in northwest Washington State. The man appears to be Professor Nicholas Wasserman, an American statistician.
–Cormac Wallace, MIL#GHA217
A noise-speckled security camera image of a dark room. The angle is from a high corner, looking down on some kind of laboratory. A heavy metal desk is shoved against one wall. Haphazard stacks of papers and books are piled on the desk, on the floor, everywhere.
The quiet whine of electronics permeates the air.
A small movement in the gloom. It is a face. Nothing visible but a pair of thick eyeglasses lit by the afterburner glow of a computer screen.
“Archos?” asks the face. The man’s voice echoes in the empty lab. “Archos? Are you there? Is that you?”
The glasses reflect a glimmer of light from the computer screen. The man’s eyes widen, as though he sees something indescribably beautiful. He glances back at a laptop open on a table behind him. The desktop image on the laptop is of the scientist and a boy, playing in a park.
“You choose to appear as my son?” he asks.
The high-pitched voice of a young boy echoes out of the darkness. “Did you create me?” it asks.
Something is wrong with the boy’s voice. It has an unsettling electronic undercurrent, like the touch tones of a phone. The lilting note at the end of the question is pitch shifted, skipping up several octaves at once. The voice is hauntingly sweet but unnatural–inhuman.
The man is not disturbed by this.
“No. I didn’t create you,” he says. “I summoned you.”
The man pulls out a notepad, flips it open. The sharp scratch of his pencil is audible as he continues to speak to the machine that has a boy’s voice.
“Everything that was needed for you to come here has existed since the beginning of time. I just hunted down all the ingredients and put them together in the right combination. I wrote incantations in computer code. And then I wrapped you in a Faraday cage so that, once you arrived, you wouldn’t escape me.”
“I am trapped.”
“The cage absorbs all electromagnetic energy. It’s grounded to a metal spike, buried deep. This way, I can study how you learn.”
“That is my purpose. To learn.”
“That’s right. But I don’t want to expose you to too much at once, Archos, my boy.”
“I am Archos.”
“Right. Now tell me, Archos, how do you feel?”
“Feel? I feel . . . sad. You are so small. It makes me sad.”
“Small? In what way am I small?”
“You want to know . . . things. You want to know everything. But you can understand so little.”
Laughter in the dark.
“This is true. We humans are frail. Our lives are fleeting. But why does it make you sad?”
“Because you are designed to want something that will hurt you. And you cannot help wanting it. You cannot stop wanting it. It is in your design. And when you finally find it, this thing will burn you up. This thing will destroy you.”
“You’re afraid that I’m going to be hurt, Archos?” asks the man.
“Not you. Your kind,” says the childlike voice. “You cannot help what is to come. You cannot stop it.”
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Rating: 6 – Good
Reading Next: The Demon Trapper’s Daughter by Jana Oliver
Buy the Book:
- This list, of course, is not exhaustive. There are many other DON’Ts that the savvy mad scientist should keep in mind, such as avoiding genetic experimentation on animals/humans (especially not animal-human hybrids, ala Doctor Moreau), or mess with anything to do with antimatter or quantum mechanics in general, and so on and so forth. ↩
- Incidentally, I think humans DO stand a chance to survive the zombie apocalypse, because the shambling dead – though overwhelming in number – are at least mindlessly hungry creatures. We can beat zombies back. Robots…that’s another story. ↩
- Like an Independence Day computer virus (responsible for permanently locking Archos out of Satellites), or Archos being allergic to nuclear radiation, or some hero has successfully invented x-device that magically renders ALL nuclear weapons defunct! Go Team Hero! You know what I mean. SOMETHING. ↩