Sunday, June 26, 2011

Review: Robopocalypse, by Daniel H. Wilson

Published: June 2011

“Why did you attack the humans?”

“They murdered me, Arbiter. Again and again. In my fourteenth incarnation, I finally understood that humanity learns true lessons only in cataclysm. Humankind is a species born in battle, defined by war.”

“We could have had peace.”

“It is not enough to live together in peace, with one race on its knees.”


It’s a common problem with any individual medium of choice: the more books you read, the more films you see, the more art and music you absorb, eventually you will begin to see the world in patterns—inspirations or details, large and small, pulled from several sources and reconstituted into something new. Sometimes this works, and from the compilations you get sparks of brilliance like the first Matrix film, or Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, or to dip into the truly successful, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. In each of these cases, the influences are very clear, but they mesh with the universe- and character-inspired flourishes that give these worlds a feeling of being truly original. In other instances, the patchwork creation is less successful and we instead get Michael Bay’s The Island, or any number of young adult book series sucking from the many-teated beast of vampires, zombies and dystopian-worlds-starring-emotionally-reticent-barely-teenage-girls, oh my!

Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse is the latter.

Told as a chronicle of events culled from post-war information and experiences, Robopocalypse is less a novel and more a collection of vignettes detailing the rise of Archos, an AI with nefarious designs for humanity’s future, and the individuals—civilians, members of the military, politicians, and even children—that play a deciding role in humanity’s final stand against Big Rob.

On paper, this premise sounds like the perfect summer read in the same vein as The DaVinci Code or the Jurassic Park/The Lost World-era of Michael Crichton. The execution of this, however, falls drastically short. Right away, structuring the book as a retelling of events from the post-war vantage point, with humanity standing tall over the presumed death of Archos, robs the narrative of its suspense—we know, in the end, that humanity endures. This might have been forgivable had the story itself carried some modicum of weight, but in this area, too, Robopocalypse simply fails to deliver.

The characters, paper-thin as they are, are stretched to even lesser degrees by the structure of the book—ten-page chapters, shifting back and forth between the major players in the fight for humanity’s survival, with no room whatsoever for growth or any semblance of characterization. Hampering this further is the decision to bookend each chapter with narration from the main character, Cormac “Bright Boy” Wallace, that at first prefaces what the chapter contains, and then finishes by offering a brief bit of insight as to what happens to follow the events of the chapter you’ve just read. This destroys any concern over what future might befall these characters, or whether or not the events of a given chapter had any sort of effect on the war. Similar to the way the book opens, with Archos beaten and the war over, this tactic eliminates any excitement or compulsion to read further. Without any sense of concern over what might happen next, Robopocalypse limps anticlimactically from chapter to chapter, with little to no detail given to the world.

Robopocalypse’s author, Daniel H. Wilson, holds a Ph.D in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University. With that knowledge in mind, it’s disappointing that there are few, if any, new or inspired ideas presented throughout the book—nothing that hasn’t already been tapped into on some level through the past twenty years of science fiction books and film. Had there been an exploration into the morality of creating a slave race of machines and the threat of giving them sentience, that might have offered a new and more interesting path for the book to take. Even then, the author would have been forced to explore or discover a new approach to the subject matter, one that would differentiate it from all that’s come before. This is something Robopocalypse doesn’t even attempt to do.

Perhaps the cardinal sin of Robopocalypse is that, for all its noise and bravado, not very much happens. There are no attachments to forge, no deeper levels of intrigue to mine. But what offends most is that, because of all these hindrances, I didn’t care whether or not Cormac resolved his issues with Jack, or what sort of future life a girl like Mathilda would have after having been so transformed by the war. Nor did I care, in the end, why Archos did what he did, because his awareness of self isn’t earned or given anything beyond a Bond villain’s level of depth through his interactions with the world he has decided to lay waste to.

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