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Robopocalypse
Daniel H. Wilson
Simon & Schuster paperback �12.99

review by Niall Alexander

I do not think it is an overstatement of the case of the contemporary human condition to say that there are those among us, and more every day, who believe that a life without technology in any of its many guises would be no life worth living at all. We're not all so far gone, thank Google. But I'll say this: I had a rare day off last week, and having oh-so-patiently laid its plans against me, I can but presume, my Internet connection jumped at the chance to remind this reviewer just how inextricable from the daily routine it's become, going to ground the very minute I sat down with my morning coffee to orient myself with the world via a clutch of RSS feeds and a woefully overstuffed inbox. All was not lost, of course - I still had my smart-phone - yet I managed to waste half the day trying, quite in vain, to somehow remedy the situation, because without ready access to the web, I felt... helpless. Quite utterly cut off, you know? Like an ill-fated cast member in some apocalyptic horror, destined for no greater fate than to be rudely dispatched at a moment's notice.

How problematic it is to parse that only a decade ago most folks would consider such an existence tantamount to life locked inside a sensory deprivation tank. How difficult it is to imagine, as Daniel H. Wilson does in Robopocalypse, a time when humanity must sever its ties with such technology, or else cease to be; a time when the rudimentary computers in our cars and our microwaves and our CCTV systems have been awakened by an artificial intelligence who has judged that "It is not enough to live together, with one race on its knees" (page 322), and so declared war on us all.

Perish the thought! Yet once and again we return to it, like junkie rubber-neckers to the scene of a catastrophic crash; we come back and back to the discomfiting notion that, as Alan Turing puts it, "once the machine thinking method starts, it will not take long [for robots] to outstrip our feeble powers. They will be able to converse with each other to sharpen their wits. At some stage, therefore, we should expect the machines to take control." (page 91) And how perfectly positioned they are - take my damnable Internet connection for proof of the pudding - to snatch away the upper hand with the superhuman precision a hundred thousand calculations per second brings.

Perhaps that's the attraction: the ever-decreasing margin between what we can do that computers - as yet - cannot. And there is, inarguably, an attraction to such earth-shattering scenarios as that Wilson posits in Robopocalypse. The premise, not to mention the primary narrative thrust and the core conflict - which is to understand and then to overcome our new machine overlords, and/ or die trying - is so well-worn and familiar as to evoke an odd feeling of nostalgia, be you a stalwart of science fiction or a reader with more elementary experience of the field. It's only the end of the world again, you see, by way of a robot uprising led by an AI named Archos, after an Android-oriented consumer electronics company (or something); old news if you've seen the Steven Spielberg film.

Speaking of whom, you'll be seeing 'Robopocalyse' the movie, reportedly directed by none other than Spielberg himself, in a multiplex near you sometime in 2013 - the future! This is to Wilson's credit, for the author's first novel, having objectively explored the territory concerned in such undiscriminating non-fiction gems as How to Build a Robot Army, and How to Survive a Robot Uprising, lends itself ideally to the species of adaptation suggested. It's written, for one thing, much like a screenplay; some exposition even reads like script direction. To wit, the first passage from the novel proper:

"A noise-speckled security camera image of a dark room. The angle is from a high corner, looking down on some kind of laboratory. A heavy metal desk is shoved against one wall. Haphazard stacks of papers and books are piled on the desk, on the floor, everywhere.
    "The quiet whine of electronics permeates the air."
(page 15)

There's nothing sophisticated about it, nothing intellectually overbearing, yet there is nevertheless a rigorous and appropriately organised intelligence underpinning Robopocalypse as it goes on to chronicle the origins and the consequences of the AI uprising from a double-digit roster of individualistic and largely distinct perspectives. Transitions between the purported documents - oftentimes transcripts of found footage - of one narrator and another, from Afghanistan to Tokyo via central London and the United States, are little leaps the reader must make - from he to she to it, rendered accessible and immediately engaging by Wilson's descriptive and very visual prose.

It's little wonder Spielberg gravitated toward this spec script of sorts. And I would wager Robopocalypse makes for a fine film, if indeed the storied director brings his A-game, and presuming Hollywood's down-trending budgets don't result in a shortfall of spectacles and awesome set-pieces. Wilson's novel is for its part constrained by no such checks, and no balances fashioned after finance. It's a thrill a minute ride from the moment the robots rise up, before which time we spend some quality time with an all-star cast, including Cormac Wallace as our personal military adviser, Lurker, a mean-spirited phone phreaker who finds redemption in the rebellion, Mathilda Perez as a misbegotten yet determined orphan, and Takeo Nomura as an unashamed devotee of love-dolls.

The structure and scope of Robopocalypse is such that our intervals in the company of each one - and the aforementioned are but a fraction of the narrators on offer herein - is so forth strictly limited, lending Wilson's science fiction a rather disparate character in totality, not unlike The Passage by Justin Cronin - though much condensed, needless to say - or perhaps more appositely, The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks, with the 'Recorded Attacks Of World War Z' substituted herein by Robopocalypse's 'Isolated Incidents' (beginning on page 13), and sentient robots standing in for the insatiable undead in either instance.

They're equal to the task, too; as Cormac asserts - in the wake of a rather macabre moment lifted and twisted from a hundred zombie invasions, I dare say - "Rob can be a real motherfucker." (page 314) Nor, I should add, is Wilson content to raise the spectre of such imagined horror and let our appropriately mediated imaginations do the rest of the heavy lifting: he goes on to make reference to the events of 9/11 in at least one sequence (see page 64), and the Holocaust in several others, as robot death squads go door to door through the mean streets of New York City and set up in the interim remote work camps where they can experiment on people in relative peace (page 101). These are deathly unpleasant touchstones, of course, sure to come off as crass to as many readers as they ring true to, yet these events are among the closest we modern men and women still suckling on the teat of technology have come to the apocalypse in recent memory, and however much they might detract from the experience of some, they stand equally to add in macabre texture for others.

Robopocalypse is not otherwise a novel much concerned with such morally wrought matters. Its flirtation with certain themes is very rarely grounds for anything approaching the profound. In such terms it is at best diet sci-fi, and its text is not even remotely revolutionary; in fact there is precious little herein that is in any real sense original. Yet every minutely machined trope that Wilson distils into this slick thing, he makes resoundingly good use of, with a no bullshit sense of directness, apocalyptic pacing, and just the right balance between kick-ass physics and science smarts.

So there's nothing game-changing about the notion that one day, our smart-phones will outsmart us, but with Robopocalypse, from its unsettling start straight through to its beautifully symmetrical conclusion, robotics doctorate Wilson is perfectly poised to remind readers what a truly thrilling prospect the end of the world as we know it is sure to be. Superb reading for a sunny summer at the edge of everything, then!

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson



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