Review of Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson
by Daniel H. Wilson
N.B. All roads (save two) lead to TVTropes. Proceed down them at your own risk.
So, Robopocalypse, we meet again for the first time!
I try to award priority to books that have been sitting around in my overflow bin, gathering dust. But I got Robopocalypse as a Christmas gift from my dad, and I admit I was a little curious about all the attention this book had received. So I let it jump to the head of the queue. Alas, as with most such books, the anticipation was far superior to the somewhat basic taste of disappointment lining my mouth as my eyes skimmed the last sentence on the last page.
The robot apocalypse plays into some of our most primal fears. On one hand, it is the Luddite fear of technology replacing humanity taken to its coldest, logical conclusion (that is, if one can call Ludditism logical). On the other hand, it is the ultimate conception of a war against an Other that we ourselves have created. For our entire history, humans have been the only sentient beings on Earth, as far as we know (and depending how you classify the Neanderthals, I suppose). We have yet to be challenged by another intelligent being or beings for dominion of this planet; our foes are implacable and impersonal: disease, natural disasters, global warming, stray asteroids. An AI antagonist is, by definition, something totally different from what we have ever faced: it is not human yet as intelligent, if not more intelligent, than humans. That’s what makes it, and the robot apocalypse, so scary.
Did you hear the one about the robot apocalypse? Of course you didn’t, because the robots nuked everyone before you had a chance.
This is the fundamental Achilles heel of the robot apocalypse in fiction. For any sufficiently powerful AI, killing all the humans should be easy: place your core intelligence in a shielded bunker, then nuke the surface of the Earth. We certainly have enough nuclear weapons around to do it. And if, for some reason, you want to keep human infrastructure intact for your own nefarious purposes (or perhaps a keepsake for the long, lonely eons ahead), then no problem: use a tidy little neutron bomb.
Or, if you are patient enough and don’t tip anyone off to your existence, you could just wait us out. Sometimes it seems like we are competing to see who can find the most terrifying way to cause our extinction.
Robopocalypse at least manages to justify its AI’s wetwork strategy: Archos wants to kill all humans to save the planet Earth. Interested in studying life itself, Archos has noticed humans are a threat to life. But the same tactics that will wipe us clean off the surface of the Earth aren’t so good for the rest of life, so Archos is taking the slow and dirty approach to total annihilation. It’s also recording the entire thing for posterity.
So points to Daniel H. Wilson for making a plausible reason for a robot apocalypse that demands the gratuitous violence, bloodshed, and creative robotically-induced mayhem required for a book to become a Hollywood blockbuster. I will add my voice to the chorus of reviewers who agree that Robopocalypse is a robot movie in disguise. Wilson, with his degree in robotics, knows what he writes and can describe, in detail, all the horrible ways a robot can go berserk. For a book where most of the action comes from robot-on-human carnage (or vice versa), this is a big deal: no one wants to read 300 pages of “and then the robot killed the human”. That being said, as someone who does not visualize what he reads, I also have to point out that cinematic writing can only take an action sequence so far. There needs to be subtext.
Robopocalypse’s problem is not that it lacks subtext but that what subtext it has is spread rather thinly. And it’s not so much subtle as it is … well, text. The novel itself is a series of transcripts of archival footage from Archos. Cormac Wallace stumbles across this archive after they finish off Archos and decides to transcribe it for history. He offers his own analysis at the beginning and end of each chapter. In so doing, while Wilson creates something that is epistolary in form, he also employs an unreliable narrator. From the beginning Cormac makes it clear that he has a theme in mind: when their backs are to the wall, humans pull together and do whatever it takes to survive, work together to beat any odds. Each chapter of Robopocalypse reinforces this theme. So although we are told that this footage comes from recordings made by the robots, Cormac is the one who has filtered and packaged it for human consumption. There is no way to guarantee that what he has transcribed is accurate or that he has told the whole story. Indeed, judging from the limited number of people he follows, it’s safe to say he has been extremely judicious in his selection of footage to transcribe.
I’m not going to engage in the counterproductive exercise of trying to imagine what Robopocalypse might be like with an objective, third-person omniscient narrator at the helm. As it is, however, Cormac’s transcriptions leave us removed from the characters. Instead of showing us the best parts of the story, Wilson elides them by telling us, in Cormac’s words at the end of each chapter. Almost every such comment would be of the form, “So and so would go on to be an important figure in the New War, and make a vital discovery that would benefit all of humanity.” It’s a little bit pompous, and it is so blatant that calling it foreshadowing makes me feel cheap. Certainly, with any story, the author and narrator together choose to highlight some characters, consequently making it their story. Such is the nature of storytelling. However, it’s almost as if Cormac (or Wilson) is afraid we won’t get it unless it’s spelled out for us.
The characters of Robopocalypse are diverse in personality and perhaps even interesting—or at least, that’s what I infer from what little I was allowed to interact with them. We don’t ever really get to know them that well. Tthe external nature of the footage Cormac is transcribing means that he can’t really get inside the heads of the characters. Wilson cheats and allows him to interpolate from interviews with survivors and whatnot, but it is still not enough. We barely scratch the surface of these people. How does Mathilda really feel about her new existence as a cyborg? What is Dawn thinking as she and Marcus create a fledgling New York resistance? Although we get some idea of motivations and emotions, most of the narration is action and exposition. This results in a very unbalanced book, with characters who are ultimately little more than … well, robots.
Robopocalypse adheres to a somewhat unspoken convention of apocalyptic literature: the fall of the government of the United States of America is a microcosm for the fall of civilization everywhere. Zero Hour, as the beginning of Archos’ apocalypse comes to be known, happens on American Thanksgiving. We learn about how the American government gets thrown into disarray. The only two foreign perspectives we get are based in the UK and Japan—both of which are technologically developed countries. We hear nothing about the billions of humans in South America, Africa, southeast Asia, or continental Europe. Wilson had an opportunity to depict an apocalypse that is truly global in scope, but instead he chose to write about characters who are predominantly American and male. He chose to limit the extent of his global perspective to a few token (and somewhat stereotypical) characters. This exposes the gulf in the way that authors like Octavia Butler write vis-à-vis more privileged authors of science fiction—I can’t help but imagine that if an author more sensitive to postcolonial voices had written this, it would be … well, more inclusive. (Butler, of course, did write a post-apocalyptic story, albeit involving aliens instead of robots.)
Robopocalypse has three things going for it. Firstly, it is saturated with action sequences and meticulous descriptions of robotic carnage. Secondly, its antagonist has a valid reason for the slow, drawn-out type of robot apocalypse necessary to create such carnage. Finally, the book unabashedly develops the “humans are survivors, and that makes us glorious” theme extremely well. Most stories that tackle such a theme tend to compensate with levity or outright absurdity, lest they take themselves too seriously. Honestly, I’m not sure what Robopocalypse is doing: sometimes it seems to be plumbing the depths of the human condition, while at other times it is over the top and larger than life. The end result is an uneven and lumpy affair comprising a few exquisite bites surrounded by irregular portions alternatively chunky or chewy. It’s not a coincidence that all four authors cited on the back cover are thriller writers, or that the cover copy compares Wilson to Michael Crichton. Robopocalypse is science fiction in its setting but a thriller at heart. For some people this is perfect; for me, it is a caution that reminds me why I am pleasantly surprised when this turns out to be a fruitful combination.