Book Review: Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

Robo Reads

Title: Robopocalypse
Author: Daniel H. Wilson
Published: 2011

Quotation: “I did not realize they communicated this much without words. I note that we machines are not the only species who share information silently, wreathed in codes.”

Scrolling back over my past Robo-Reads reviews I notice that the term “thought-provoking” crops up frequently. Perhaps I just need to expand my vocabulary but it’s certainly true that writing about robots can be an excellent way for authors to grapple with some of life’s biggest questions, both scientific and philosophical. As our artificial progeny, robots hold up a mirror to humanity that helps us ponder the nature of consciousness, the path of progress, the relationship between creator and creation, fears about control and autonomy and many other facets of what it means to be human – or not. Daniel H. Wilson has a PhD in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon University, a prestigious pedigree that might lead you to expect his techno-thriller Robopocalypse to continue this path of intellectual inquiry. But there you would be wrong. Wilson clearly knows his stuff when it comes it comes to robotics and his novel does conjure up some interesting scenarios – particularly when it comes to the prospect of surviving a robot takeover in a technologically-saturated urban setting. But overall this is definitely the big-budget popcorn movie of robo-reads…

Robopocalypse book cover

Robopocalypse book cover

More pounding than pondering, Robopocalypse reads a bit like a draft of a promising novel: a series of engaging scenarios but none, at this stage, quite sufficiently fleshed out.  Or, perhaps more accurately, it reads like one of those hasty post-release novelisations of a big action movie, the sort of cash-in that gets away with its scant character development mostly due to its reader’s pre-existing knowledge of and enthusiasm for the franchise. Fittingly, Robopocalypse has been picked up by Stephen Spielberg. The project seems now to have been put on hold but – if the film version ever does make it to release – it should make a great cinematic experience. Wilson’s is a highly visual work, crafted as a series of set-piece action sequences. Indeed, looking back having finished it, I find I remember the book’s images rather than its words or characters, rather like having scrolled through the Instagram account of someone who leads a much more dramatic life than I do.

Wilson’s tale begins “twenty minutes after the war ends”; the war, of course, being the conflict between the humans and the robots (“Rob”) lead by an intelligence called Archos, or “Big Rob.” Amidst the scorched battlefield debris, the novel’s hero and leader of the human resistance, Cormac Wallace finds a strange device which turns out to be Archos’ back ups of the whole uprising. This, “the goddamn black box on the whole war,” allows Cormac to reassess and retell the conflict, from the build up, through the early days of suffering and survival, right through to the finale, and since Archos was networked to all machines the files cover the experiences of various characters across the world. It’s a handy MacGuffin that is never fully explained but which would feel a lot more convincing if it weren’t for the inexplicable decision to have Cormac relay all these pieced-together stories in the first person. This is the single biggest problem I had with this book. So much of the novel concerns the unpredictability and randomness of human behaviour: this is shown to be a key facet of our species’ survival since it makes it harder for the robots to anticipate our movements and plan of retaliation. Yet the decision to have the alleged narrator voice the inner thoughts and feelings of all those whose stories he replays seems completely to undermine the message that human unpredictability is as a powerful and unique weapon.

I could forgive this inconsistency if each bizarrely-puppeted new voice was convincingly distinct and engaging but unfortunately that isn’t the case. Robopocalypse features a diverse enough cast: in addition to Cormac and his military-hero brother, there’s Paul Blanton, a specialist who worked with military “pacification” bots in Afghanistan; Matilda Perez, a fourteen year old girl who witnesses one of her toys “come to life” before becoming the robots’ prisoner; Takeo Nomura, a Japanese robot repairmen who prefers machines to most humans and refuses to believe they could be inherently evil, even after encountering violence first-hand; and Lonnie Blanton, a member of the Osage Nation of Oklahoma, who are well-placed to survive the initial attack due to their relative isolation and self-sufficiency. Interspersed with these recurring characters are some one-shot accounts such as the fast-food employee who was attacked by one of the very first service androids gone rogue, and the drilling expert hired to undertake an installation that proves increasingly dangerous. I enjoyed the variety of the scenarios but, with the exception perhaps of the gentle Mr Nomura, most of these characters speak with very much the same voice: a “matey” colloquial drawl. Their histories were interesting enough but the manner of delivery simply didn’t convince.

Robopocalypse is divided into five parts, the content of which is fairly self-evident: “Isolated Incidents, Zero Hour, Survival, Awakening” and “Retaliation.” Of these I actually found the first three the most compelling. Although the novel’s framing device assures us that humans will win the war, the early sections of the book establish a genuine sense of mounting dread as instances of “malfunction” increase in frequency and intensity. My single favourite chapter and one of the novel’s most successfully atmospheric incidents was “Roughneck,” which tells the story of Dwight Bowie, head of the North Star Drilling Company. Wilson begins Part One with a quote from that master of eerie atmosphere, H.P. Lovecraft:

The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

But in this book only Dwight’s story even begins to echo the trademark of sinister tone of Cthulhu’s creator.  Dwight has been hired to oversee a job at a mysterious and isolated Alaskan location that quickly begins to seem cursed. As his workers fall around him, so too do the pieces fall into place of where they are and what they have actually been hired to do. This chapter almost stands alone as a decently spine-tingling horror story so it’s a shame that the rest of the book favours action over this kind of atmosphere.

Another intriguing but underdeveloped aspect of the plot that was Wilson’s too-brief focus on urban survival. Most “prepper” advice for surviving any kind of epoch-ending disaster is to get out of town and find somewhere you can be isolated and self-sufficient. The Osage Nation sections of the book largely confirm this traditional wisdom, so it’s actually really interesting to follow the few chapters in Robopocalypse that deal with characters who opt to stay in New York. Having come to realise that the smoothness and regularity of the city streets give “Rob” the advantage, Marcus and Dawn Johnson formulate a plan that would make Michael Bay proud: “blow some stuff up,” introduce chaos, and make it harder for the bots to get around. It’s a popcorn friendly idea, that however simple and potentially over-sensational, could actually be really interesting if it only it were developed. Sadly Marcus and Dawn are introduced, do some demolition and then simply fade, resurfacing only once later on to recruit the novel’s other most interesting character before all three of them vanish almost entirely.

Futurama's Bender remains the most beloved poster-child for the "kill all the humans" cause.

Futurama’s Bender remains the most beloved poster-child for the “kill all the humans” cause.

Robopocalypse isn’t exactly short on faults, but in fairness, the main concern I’d had prior to reading it is one that didn’t play out at all. The title and notoriously action-heavy plot line had led me to suspect that the treatment of the robots themselves might be of the frustratingly one-dimensional “they were always going to turn evil kill us” variety. Pleasingly, this isn’t the case. The Nomura chapters offer a different perspective on the robots’ actions; the Japanese man’s gentler routes to resistance a welcome balance to the all-American action-hero Antics of Cormac and his brother.  Thankfully, Archos, itself – who features in Ana Matronic’s brilliant coffee-table read 100 Iconic Robots of Popular Culture and Real Life – is also a rather more nuanced creation (more nuanced indeed, than some of Wilson’s rather one-dimensional human characters) with plans and motivations that are shown to be a little more complex than simply “kill all the humans.” While much of Archos’ army seem pretty generic fare for fighting robots, a few other artificially intelligent characters in the story do achieve more delineation. Although, in a book where almost nobody receives the complex development their various high-octane experiences ought to inspire, it should come as no surprise that one particular robot character who, in other circumstances, would have stolen the show, is simply introduced too late and in too much of a deus ex machina endgame rush to achieve the levels of interest and affection he would otherwise deserve.

In summary, Robopocalypse is a fast and fast-paced read, brimful of characters and situations who could be fascinating but who, largely due to some odd narrative choices, rarely fulfil their potential. Yet there is food for thought here. Perhaps precisely because so much is left in sketch form I found the novel left me dwelling a lot on its undeveloped themes of cybernetic enhancement and urban apocalypse survival. Likewise, the generally brisk and slangy tone of the writing makes the novel’s few lines of true power and beauty really shine out. I was particularly moved by the simple melancholy of Nomura’s post-Zero Hour reflection “pollution used to make the sunsets so beautiful.” So, you know what? Despite everything that frustrated and disappointed me about this book, I suspect I might at some point read the sequel, Robogenesis. Partly, I guess that’s out of Robo-Read completionism. Partly it’s in the hope that underused characters like Matilda Perez might achieve the further development they deserve. But partly also it’s because sometimes a bit of wham-bam popcorn action can be a guilty pleasure.


Robo Reads

Next time on Robo Reads:  R reviews Beautiful Intelligence by Stephen Palmer.

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