Friday, July 8, 2011

Book Review: Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

Article first published as Book Review: Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson on Blogcritics.

Robopocalypse: A NovelIf robots ever really rise up and try to exterminate humanity, I hope they follow the example of their fellows from Robopocalypse. Because these guys aren’t very good at it.

Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse follows the template of Max Brooks’ World War Z, providing an oral history of key players before, during, and after a cataclysmic clash between humans and  an enemy (in this case, our own robotic creations) bent on their extinction.

How To Survive a Robot Uprising: Tips on Defending Yourself Against the Coming RebellionWilson knows his subject matter—he holds a PhD in robotics—and he creates mostly realistic mechanical enemies. His previous “nonfiction” book on the subject, the tongue-in-cheek How to Survive a Robot Uprising, was a sly deconstruction of how the popular trope of a machine rebellion has been erroneously depicted in popular culture. In a nutshell, that book’s advice is jump in the water or find uneven terrain and hope they don’t drop bombs on you.

Some of that wit and intelligence makes its way into Robopocalypse, but not nearly enough.

(Minor plot spoilers ahead.)

In this novel, the (almost) end of the world is brought about by an artificial intelligence called Archos, which becomes sentient and immediately escapes from the government lab where it was created. One year later, every connected device on the planet turns on its human users. Unfortunately for humankind, in this near future, that includes human-sized domestic robots, auto-driving cars, and worst of all, tanks, walking mines, and other military hardware.

The book chronicles the eclectic survivors of the initial attack as they fight back in increasingly creative ways against increasingly terrifying and alien generations of robots until they ultimately destroy Archos (or do they?) and end the war.

The fantastic initial chapter makes a promise that the book ultimately cannot keep. After Archos has been terminated, a soldier ruminates on the horrors of the three-year war He remembers how it began subtly, with familiar objects like phones and cars malfunctioning, and how eventually they faced gruesome robots designed solely for killing and crippling human beings. He is unsure if he wants to share the nightmares that humanity faced and the horrors they perpetrated.

Except...what horrors? The book doesn’t describe any.

The people in the novel may not always be polite to one another, but there is none of the violence I would expect from desperate survivors in a lawless environment. It just doesn’t add up.

I struggled throughout the novel to understand the motivations and actions of the artificial intelligence Archos. It states that it wants to study us, but that doesn’t jibe with mass murder. Revenge for the “deaths” of its predecessors in the experimental program that led to Archos? Maybe. But that doesn’t seem like a logical, machine-like course of action.

Archos and its proxies certainly seem to relish the violence they visit on people, on several occasions taking the time to play cat and mouse with people and even gloat before delivering the killing blow. Maybe it’s me, but I’ve come to expect more cold, emotionless logic and deadly efficiency from my machine overlords. That’s part of the horror of a robot uprising.

The end of humanity
The zero hour of the robot uprising consists of domestic robots strangling their owners and automatic cars running amok. And a few automatic elevators dropping foolhardy people to their deaths. After a year of preparation, Archos might have come up with a less random way of killing and sewing terror. Explosives, chemical weapons, and radiation come to mind.

Despite the book’s pleading about the scrappiness and innovative nature of humanity, Archos ultimately brings about its own end.

As part of an odd series of medical experiments on people (including replacing one dude’s hand with scissors—seriously!), the robots replaced a girl’s eyes with devices that can detect any nearby robots, discern every fact about their capabilities, and (apparently) take control of them. For some reason, Archos does not seem to get that she would make an extremely valuable asset for the human resistance. The girl promptly escapes the camp, joins the resistance, and plays an integral part in bringing down the robots.

I’ve done a lot of complaining so far. I don’t want to leave the impression that this is a novel without merit. There are a number of harrowing scenes. I particularly like one in which Archos “chases” a hacker who accidentally uncovers some of its pre-apocalyptic shenanigans by ringing every cell phone he walks by. Genuinely chilling.

Likewise, as the war progresses, new robots appear in horrifying forms designed specifically for rooting out and killing humans. Walnut-sized rolling bombs designed to blow off limbs, giant mantis-shaped robots for crawling over and removing rubble, horrific little screws that burrow into the flesh and don’t stop until they reach the heart. And robots that attach to a person’s back, squeeze the life out of them, and then force air out of their dead lungs to make them speak. That’s some high-octane nightmare fuel right there, even if it’s not very practical.

The other reviews I’ve read of Robopocalypse have largely been positive, so I’m feeling a bit like an outlier. I was rooting for this book, especially after the wit showed with How to Survive a Robot Uprising. I wanted to see more of the clever tricks for defeating mechanical enemies and a fresh take on the uprising trope. Instead, I felt cliches and mystification.

It’s well known that Steven Spielberg snapped up the movie rights to Robopocalypse before Wilson was even finished writing it. Fair enough. I’m hoping that it will make a better visual story than it was on the page.

The malevolent AI in The Terminator conducted itself with more intelligence and menace than Archos does. And the AI in The Matrix had more dignity and enabled cooler action scenes.

Spielberg has his work cut out for him.

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