Author: Daniel H. Wilson

2011, Doubleday

Filed under: Sci-Fi, Thriller

Robopocalypse begins with the fun, rambunctious voice of Cormac Wallace, a commander in the human forces fighting a horde of killer robots controlled by a super-intelligent sentient robot that the humans nickname “Big Rob.” Or, at least they were once controlled by Big Rob. The humans have won the war, but they still have to stamp out the last waves of mindless robots, and Wallace does so with panache. When he encounters a swarm of “stumpers”—little scuttling robots who seek out the heat of human flesh and then explode—he tries desperately to spark up his flamethrower as they scramble up his cold metal armor, thinking this:

There’s going to be a temperature differential at my waist level, where the armor has chinks. A torso-level trigger state in body armor isn’t a death sentence, but it doesn’t look good for my balls, either.

Shortly thereafter, balls intact, Wallace discovers a massive archive of robot-curated files about the human-Rob war, specifically about the human “heroes” of the war (according to the intriguing word choice of the robots). The bulk of the novel then becomes Wallace’s selections from the archive—a series of vignettes from different perspectives and featuring different people. Essentially, it’s a collection of linked stories about the robot uprising and the New War.

This structure has its pros and cons. On the plus side, it lets Wilson skip around however he likes, highlighting the most interesting details of a massive story, and it gives the reader a sense of the war’s breadth and depth.

On the other hand, it takes a writer of unusual talent to make such a project feel like more than a fast-cutting mashup of un-fleshed out characters. Wilson, despite a few early glimmers of real promise, does not have that unusual talent.

Still, you’re reading Robocopalypse, not Shakespeare. The idea of sentient robots rebelling against humanity is as old as robots themselves. This is not original, and it’s not literature, but within that framework, Wilson delivers more than I expected.

He especially excels at interior character moments when he comes at them from the right angle. In the passage I quoted above, after Wallace gets his flamethrower operational, he fries the heat-seeking stumpers by the score:

No explosions, just the occasional sputtering flare. The heat boils the juice in their shells before detonation. The worst part is that they don’t even care. They’re too simple to understand what’s happening to them.

They love the heat.

That is a solid, complex moment, both entertainingly written and insightful, as it connotes the dissatisfaction of fighting something that’s too stupid to know it’s losing.

Here’s another one, when the manager of a small fast food joint is attacked by one of the first rogue domestic robots and, bleeding, and then dragged toward safety by his one employee (with whom he’s only recently made friends):

Felipe grabs me by the waist and drags me back around the counter without even looking at the door. He’s panting and taking little crab steps. I can smell the joint in his front pocket. I watch my blood smearing behind me on the tile floor and I think, Shit, man, I just mopped that.

This chapter is one of my favorites. Felipe and this idiot manager display more character, complexity, and pathos in a short, tangential vignette than most of the main characters display during the entire novel.

That’s not entirely to say that those main characters are bad. But they are a bit shallow. If personal interior moments are Wilson’s strength, his weakness is the heartfelt portrayal of climactic scenes. When one character’s closest relation dies quite horribly, their last words to each other are a series of hamfisted callbacks to some of the dorkier things they’ve said in the novel. There’s not much in the way of growth here, or nuance.

I didn’t really expect nuance from a robot apocalypse novel, but I did want it to live up to its potential. Robopocalypse shows flashes, here and there, of great fiction, or at least signs of bringing novelty to the robot-apocalypse genre.

There’s the old man whose lover is a low-quality android. There are the sentient robots who begin to resent the superintelligent Big Rob, seeing their conscription in Big Rob’s war on humanity as enslavement, equal to or worse than their previous lives as servants of humans. There are the experiments Rob conducts on human subjects, replacing flesh with robotic parts—some of those test subjects escape and become Rob’s greatest enemies.

These are interesting ideas and Wilson is in a relatively specialized position to offer them: he’s not just cashing in with a one-off robot book, he actually holds a Ph.D. in Robotics and writes almost exclusively about robots. Unfortunately, the real heft of those ideas comes from the internal struggle with them, not the external ramifications. In other words, the fact that unhappy robots fight with humans against Big Rob is not interesting in terms of the tactics of the battle itself (especially since we know from the beginning that the humans will win), it’s interesting as an exploration of slavery, computer viruses, free will, and the definition of life.

While Wilson is not entirely unequipped to fully exploit these ideas—as his couple of great interior moments show—he does not succeed with them.

It’s a shame, but all is not lost. Robopocalypse is still an entertaining read, good enough for me to read Wilson’s next book, Amped which comes out in June. Hopefully, he’ll stick with one voice and one main character, and he’ll be able to flesh it out well enough to meet its potential.

Similar books: Machine Man, by Max Barry; World War Z, by Max Brooks