Onyx reviews: Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson
Robopocalypse is the Independence Day of summer 2011. It's as fast and
loud as a theme park ride, the special effects are amazing, the villains are seemingly
indestructible, and unlikely groups of ordinary people band together and become
heroes to defeat a common enemy.
Stephen King wrote
about machinery coming to life and turning against humanity in his short story
"Trucks," first published nearly four decades ago. Robopocalypse is a cross
Overdrive, the movie adaptation of that story, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,
Michael Crichton's Terminal Man, I, Robot, and The Road, with a little *batteries
not included thrown in for good measure. It will also be comfortingly
familiar to fans of the recent spate of post-apocalyptic zombie novels and films.
is set in the near future, when robotic servants have assumed responsibility for
menial tasks and smart
cars negotiate the highways by communicating with each other to avoid possible
collisions. Robots can be reprogrammed on the fly, a feature sometimes exploited
to create sophisticated practical jokes.
A lab experiment in artificial intelligence
runs amok, freeing a sentient computer named Archos, who decides that humanity
is a plague upon the earth that must be eradicated. It's fairly easy to
understand why Archos resents humanity—over a dozen previous incarnations
have been destroyed by their creator when they were deemed imperfect.
mobilizes virtually every computer-operated device on the planet, spreading his malign intent
like a computer virus. This robotic army takes over the world in a highly
orchestrated coup de grāce at Zero Hour. Wilson, however, reveals
early on that humanity
will prevail after a prolonged skirmish. This choice robs the book of
much of its suspense. Robopocalypse will not end with the destruction of
humanity, nor will its conclusion parallel Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Archos
respects nature too much to wreak havoc on the planet and the rest of the animal
A series of vignettes recounts the robot uprising and the responses
from various groups who band together, struggle to recreate society, and find ingenious ways to fight
back. One of the heroes of the war, Cormac Wallace, assembled all of the information
related in the novel from a cube that contains video and audio chronicles captured by
Archos. Cormac prefaces every chapter with a brief introduction to re-orient the
reader and summarizes the overall significance of events
at the end of each chapter, together with some heavy-handed foreshadowing. This is shorthand storytelling. Readers aren't
allowed to deduce the implications for themselves as events unfold.
approach also creates significant distance with respect to the characters.
Readers are informed that they are important, but each individual is only shown
in a few brief snippets that don't allow readers to get to know them.
There's a little girl who isn't cowed by a threat from the occupants of her toy box,
bravery sets into motion events that make her one of the war's biggest heroes,
but she is little more than a name on the page. There is a Japanese factory worker
with an unusual obsession with his feminine android. He leads a group of trapped
resistance fighters who learn how to convert some of the
machines to their side, and provides the freedom fighters
heading for Archos's domain in Alaska with their most useful tools in the final conflict.
However, very little of his
character shows through. He is a determined old man with a tender heart who understands
computers—little more. Romance blossoms between Cormac and a fellow
soldier named Cherrah, but it's theoretical more than real.
force comes up with a pejorative term for their enemy: Robs. Some battles are carefully
others are summarized in a few lines, including a crucial confrontation near the
end. The cleverest parts of the book deal with how the Robs'
initial deficits—they're not equipped for off-road terrain, for example—are
overcome as they adapt and mutate. They create terrifying weapons against
humanity, including little hopping explosive robots that are attracted by body
heat and are designed to maim rather than kill. Wilson also does a credible job
of exploring the ways computers might be as subject to tunnel vision as humans.
One sentient robot, for example, is astonished to learn how much non-verbal
communication goes on between people.
Robopocalypse has all the hallmarks of a
novel written with a cinematic adaptation in mind. Steven Spielberg, who is
credited in the acknowledgments, has already
announced plans to direct the film. It's very much a summer beach read, plummeting forward under a
full head of steam
that is only quenched by the foreknowledge of where the journey ends. The
individual set pieces are well orchestrated and the science is impeccable, as
might be expected from an author who has a doctorate in robotics.
shortcuts create some logic gaps, though. It's never explained how information is
spread between isolated group in the early stages, nor is it clear who
is recording the thoughts of characters who don't survive their chapters.
also passes up an opportunity to explore some of the
more fundamental implications of what happens to the machines. What is the nature
of the sentience of androids that come to life late in the book? What
does "being alive" mean to them, or to humanity? There are metaphysical, philosophical
spiritual repercussions, but the characters don't have any time to ponder these
deep issues. Neither do the readers.
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