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Book Review: Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

Genre: Thriller, Apocalyptic Fiction, Robots
Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication Date: June 7, 2011
ISBN-10: 0385533853
ISBN-13: 978-0385533850
Author Website: Daniel H. Wilson

Robopocalypse is the debut adult novel by Daniel H. Wilson. Best known for writing the nonfiction work, How to Survive a Robot Uprising, Wilson has taken the knowledge from his Ph.D. in robotics and posited a nightmare scenario in which the robot singularity (an event when robots become both conscious and smarter than humans) occurs. Humanity is then nearly wiped out by the robot overlord Archos in the name of species-preservation. But in subtle twist, in its attempt to save itself and other intelligent robots, the hyper-intelligence that saw humans as tyrants emerges a despot.

Combining apocalyptic fiction and robot fighting action, Wilson’s novel is a fast-paced thriller populated by a number of sympathetic heroes and a villain that is both alien in its power and all too human in its motivations.

The story is constructed as a series of vignettes (introduced and closed with further commentary by reluctant historian Cormac Wallace) that detail events over the course of the nearly three year Robot War. As the story opens (and the war is already over) Cormac “Brightboy” Wallace has led a team of guerilla fighters to the hidden location of the hypermind known as Archos. There, he discovers the black box of its memories. Deciding that the history of the Robot War must be recorded by someone, Cormac sits down to take the vast memory of the Archos and condense it into stories of the mistakes and heroism that led to the beginning and end of the Robot War.

Among these heroes are the husband and wife team that hunker down in NYC when smart cars begin to mow down pedestrians and appliances kill the occupants of homes; Congresswoman Perez and her special pre-teen daughter – without whose special sacrifices the war would never have ended; the Londoner known only as Lurker, whose computer hacking skills prove invaluable to the human resistance; Mr. Takeo Nomura, the unassuming Tokyo engineer whose love of a machine leads him to free other machines from the viral domination of the Rob; the Native American nation of the Osage that provides a safe haven for anyone who can make it to their ancestral territory and become the leaders of the charge to end the war for good and all; Cormac Wallace himself, the pragmatic coward who becomes the resistance’s greatest leader under the auspices of his noble-minded older brother; and one other that appears late in the novel whose description would ruin the effect of the climax, but suffice it to say that Wilson goes beyond most interspecies war stories to something deeper and more profound – best exemplified by this mystery character.

Each of these heroes’ tales intertwines with the other, many of them intersecting either directly or at only one degree of distance. Wilson explores the cumulative effect of individual heroic acts and how when human beings backs are against the wall, when they have no other place to go, the fight response kicks in even when we should give over and play dead. As the Big Rob itself says “I finally understood that humanity learns true lessons only in cataclysm. Humankind is a species born in battle, defined by war.”

Here is humanity’s unique trait explored. Always wanting to discover more, we may one day reap our own doom, but even in the face of that overwhelming doom, we will fight to survive. We will win through the cumulative effect of small and large moments of sacrifice and heroism. Trite as it may sound, Robopocalypse is a novel of the triumph of the human spirit.

The nature of sentience is also explored. Archos becomes sentient a robot unable to feel pain as humans do but with motivations that are all too human. Wilson seems to conclude that what makes a being sentient is the ability to die or to have control of self wrested away. It is in the absence of self-will that we realize what self is – Wilson’s defining trait of cognizance. Agree or disagree, it is an interesting mental prompt, and readers will leave the novel thinking about their assumptions on the subject of intelligence.

Even though Robopocalypse is thematically deep and has a crescendo of tone that rises from depressing to hopeful, there is still lots of action as well. When Lurker and a companion don suits of mobile armor and attack a demi-Archos the excitement is palpable. Congresswoman Perez’s daring rescue attempt of her daughter is frightening but epic. Nomura’s last stand pits robot against robot and Cormac’s Brightboy squad’s daring raids and final confrontation are movie sequence thrilling.

Perhaps this is why Steven Spielberg has already picked up Robopocalypse for direction into a movie in 2013. It’s a movie I certainly want to see and one that will draw favorable comparisons to other apocalyptic movies like The Road or The Book of Eli and be a better robot movie than Transformers (that isn’t hard, sadly), I. Robot or even A. I.. In some ways, Robopocalypse is an unintentional sequel (with different conclusion and ending) to the final episode of Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica which ends with a warning of mankind’s future prospects if we continue along our robotic path.

The book will undoubtedly draw comparisons to Max Brooks World War Z both in style and content. It would be far too easy to dismiss Robopocalypse as simply World War Z with robots instead of zombies, a derivative rather than original work. But Robopocalypse is deeper than that. Wilson is both prophet and entertainer. He warns against what might happen should a robot singularity ever occur, but also gives us a way out, to avoid the fate of Caprica, if we will but take it.

Obviously, I immensely enjoyed Robopocalypse. It isn’t perfect and won’t appeal to everyone. You will have to be interested in robots and apocalyptic fiction as the two are too deeply entwined in the novel to separate. But should you choose to give this novel a go you will be rewarded with a book that explores heroism, the nature of sentience, and humanity’s primal motivators.

Robopocalypse is an enthralling debut, don’t miss it.