Thursday, 21 April 2011

‘Robopocalypse’ – Daniel H. Wilson (DoubleDay)


Robots, we can’t live without them but we sure as hell can’t trust them to just simply get on with their programmed duties without getting ideas above their station and rising up to destroy their hapless creators. The general rule of thumb is that if you find a robot in a science fiction novel then it’ll more likely than not try and take over the world within a couple of chapters; that’s what robots do and they’re very good at it. That does lead to the question of why people in science fiction novels insist on continuing to build super intelligent artificial intelligences but I guess that’s a question for another time...

Robots’ rising up against their human masters is a tried and tested plot device (one word, ‘Terminator’...) and it’s hard to see anything new that can be brought to the table to freshen things up. At least, that’s what I thought before I read Daniel H. Wilson’s ‘Robopocalypse’. Here’s a book that’s generated a lot of pre-release buzz and I do mean a lot. A great deal of this buzz has come about through the fact that Steven Spielberg took up the option to direct ‘Robopocalypse’ (look out for it in 2013) before the book had even been sold to a publisher; now that has to say something about the quality of the book, right?
It does. ‘Robopocalypse’ isn’t a perfect book but comes so near that you may not notice the difference.

A robot cleaner enters a cafe and tries to kill the staff inside. An urban pacification unit in Afghanistan disarms an insurgent and then turns the gun on innocent civilians. A young girl has a very strange and unsettling conversation with her ‘smart doll’. What initially looks like a series of isolated events proves to be far more but no-one will make that connection until it’s far too late...
An extremely sophisticated artificial intelligence has decided that the only way it can peacefully exist is to remove humanity from its position as dominant life form on the planet. People that rely on robots in every aspect of their daily life will get a horrible shock when these previously docile machines suddenly rise up and declare war...
Humanity finds itself united in the face of this new threat but has this new found unity come too late?

If you’ve found out one thing about me, by reading this blog, then it will probably be that I love reading fantasy, sci-fi etc. I can’t get enough of the stuff and will get itchy if I don’t have a book immediately to hand when I finish whatever I’m reading. It’s a rare book though that will make me forego things like sleep (a precious commodity these days!) just so I can race through and see how it all ends. ‘Robopocalypse’ is one of those books and it was more than worth going without sleep to finish. Actually, I didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter; ‘Robopocalypse’ is nothing short of compelling.

Whereas most other ‘robot uprising’ tales jump in right at the deep end with full on war, ‘Roboapocalypse’ takes a slightly longer term view and is all the better for it. We get to see the conversation that kicked off the whole Robot War and a gradual build up of ‘precursor’ events that introduce characters who will carry the plot forward into the war itself (along the same lines as Max Brooks’ ‘World War Z’). This approach gives the plot a solid foundation that lends the book a real sense of plausibility. I’m not one for the science of the book (that kind of stuff inevitably flies right over the top of my head) but Wilson’s writing leaves you in no doubt how such an event could come to pass. It’s clear that a lot of thought has gone into the scenario and this shines through on the page. The war itself progresses along a clearly defined path and is an exercise in how self aware robots might adapt and evolve in order to protect themselves. It’s startling to see some of the results and Wilson writes a mean battle scene to accompany these moments!

What was slightly disappointing here though was that a book where everything seems so logical and clear cut relied on a speculative ‘jump’ in order to get humanity back in the game and competing on more equal terms. I can understand why robots might want to experiment on (and augment) humans but one experiment came across a little too obviously as a means of moving the plot to a particular conclusion rather than being an exploration of a theme. That jolted the flow of things somewhat.

It’s a small niggle though as Wilson not only provides that well thought out scenario but also proves to be more than adept at writing scenes that engage with the reader and draw you in. Wilson proves that he can capture those moments when a robot does something entirely unexpected and forces a human witness to change their world view in a split second. You really get inside these people’s heads and can feel the fear that they experience when faced with an implacable robot that just will not stop. The moments that really stood out for me though weren’t those life and death struggles but the occasions where a delicious chill of fear was introduced into something that appeared totally commonplace only a second ago. The look on Lurker’s face when he realises what he is dealing with. Mathilda’s conversation with her doll. Those moments made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and they’ll be in my head for a long time to come.

‘Robopocalypse’ takes a tried and tested plot and reinvigorates it with gripping narrative, engaging characters and a veritable swarm of robots bent on humanity’s destruction. What’s not to like there?
I’m glad that I have the book to read again, 2013 feels like a long time to wait for the film...

Nine and a Half out of Ten

3 comments:

Niall Alexander said...

Ooooh. That sounds really rather like the sort of thing I'd adore. Hmm...

Sally Sapphire said...

I was already curious about this one, but now I'm definitely looking forward to it!

Tyson said...

Picking this up tonight. Great review.