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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 between Maximum 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.

Robopocalypse 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.

Archos 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 kingdom.

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.

This 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, and whose 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.

The resistance force comes up with a pejorative term for their enemy: Robs. Some battles are carefully staged while 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.

The author's 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.

The author 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 and spiritual repercussions, but the characters don't have any time to ponder these deep issues. Neither do the readers.

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