Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson – Book Review

Do you often feel like computers have it in for you? Do you fear that the more technology advances, the more it’s going to take over our lives? I don’t really share those sentiments, but after reading Daniel H. Wilson’s novel Robopocalypse, I did start to look at all the gadgetry in my daily life and think about what would happen if they turned against us. In this book, the story is broken into a large number of diverse storylines and time periods all centred around the moment that a massive artificial intelligence called “Archos” takes over all the robots in the world (and in this world, civilization has advanced enough to have all kinds of different robots around). The first few chapters read like an anthology of various incidents that foreshadow the rise of the machines: from the violent attack of a domestic service robot in a frozen yogurt shop, to the creepy and threatening words of a child’s electronic dolls. These early episodes set the groundwork for the rest of the novel which jumps from one character’s situation to the next as humans are defeated, then rise up against the robots that threaten to destroy their entire race.

As you might imagine, there’s a bit of a military overtone to a lot of the chapters. Some of the narrators are members of the military or militia, and of course the whole context of the novel is a human-robot war, so there are going to be battle scenes and battle language. Unfortunately I don’t really enjoy military narration. Often writers try hard to express a military character’s persona by making them very gruff, loud, or simplistic in their sense of right and wrong. There is a single, overall narrator named Cormac Wallace who comments on each of the other sub-narrators and though he wasn’t originally in the military, he led the militia group who ended up defeating Archos, so his developed “roughneck”-style voice is throughout. While the other characters vary widely in demographics, one of the deficiencies of this book is that they start to sound a bit too similar in tone. The child characters don’t really speak like children. Their descriptions and accounts of their remembered thoughts don’t use language that necessarily fit what they’re supposed to be (these narrations supposedly come from the characters either personally recounting their anecdotes or surveillance from robots who’ve recorded events with their sensors). The language seems like a novel, and a verbose one at that. For example, here’s a gruesome account of a man being attacked by robots:

Tiberius is heaving, muscles spasming, kicking up clumps of bloodstained snow. Mist pours off his sweating 250-pound frame as the East African thrashes violently, flat on his back. He’s the biggest, most fearless grunt in the squad, but none of that matters when a glinting nightmare flashes out of the swirling snow and begins eating him alive.

Despite the lack of success in creating truly distinct voices, I still liked the anecdotal approach to telling the story of the robot uprising from a human point of view. The episodes added some variation to the storytelling. Most of the narrator-characters are followed through several chapters each and through the progressive sections of the novel. There is actually a specific structure to the novel starting with assorted isolated incidents of suspicious robot behaviour, culminating in Zero Hour (when the robots take over) and the days immediately around the incident. Two sections are devoted to the survival of humanity under robotic oppression and attack after Zero Hour. Finally, it all culminates with retaliation, when the humans successfully fight back. In each section, the major narrator-characters each advance their stories a bit with new information and anecdotes. I would almost have preferred that some of the characters not be revisited, that many of the anecdotes be left as one-off accounts. Because we get the same small roster of heroes again and again, we don’t have as much of a sense that this conflict was a global/universal one. There is reference to massacres of humans by the robot forces, but surely these could not have been all that remained of the human population. Where were the other billions of people?

My other big problem (and I may have just missed something, but I don’t think I did) is that there was no actual account of Zero Hour. I believe that was intentional by the author, presumably banking that the reader’s imagination could conjure up something so much worse than his words could. That being said, I think the jump was too abrupt. One minute we’re reading about a relatively minor incident, then next thing you know, the robots have already taken over. I would like to know how. How did they actually take over the global infrastructure? Why did they start killing all the humans? Why were they doing it?

Despite all my issues with this novel, I still felt that the premise was intriguing and worth reading about. It was also interesting how Wilson imagined a worldwide network of robots would behave, act, and evolve. For example, it was mentioned that at first the robots looked more human-like, but since they no longer served humans, subsequent generations of robots were redesigned for efficiency and mobility, not so much for pleasing human owners. They started to study living creatures to try to learn lessons for how to build better robots. Plus, (while I hopefully won’t be spoiling anything), I like how the section of the novel subtitled “Awakening” played out (Can you guess who’s waking up?).

This novel has been optioned for a movie that is supposed to be directed by Steven Spielberg. I don’t know how their treatment of this novel on screen is going to be, but it seems a lot more violent than your average Spielberg movie. Nevertheless, I think it would make a pretty good film (or even TV series — I know, I always say that). In the end, I wanted to really love this book, but I found it only OK. Concept and premise compensated for the mediocre writing skill. I definitely did not love this book. (Now let’s hope my computer will not stop me from posting this review.) 3 out of 5.

Fan art by gavwoodhouse

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