Friday, October 14, 2011

Book Review: ROBOPOCALYPSE by Daniel H. Wilson

In a not so distant future a sentient computer program named Archos has determined that it is time for humanity to step aside as the world’s dominant species. The time of the robot as come.

After slowly infiltrating our technological infrastructure Archos ferments a robotic uprising. The initial success of the robo-revolution leaves humanity scrambling to mount a counter offensive, giving Archos time to create deadly robots whose sole purpose is to kill humankind.

Using giant concentration camps Archos conducts horrific medical experiments on survivors of the revolution in order to better understand how human beings function.

But humanity isn’t down for the count yet. All across the world small pockets of resistance are forming, fighting back against the robots and winning.

Time is running out though. Amidst dwindling resources and in the face of an enemy who feels no remorse and will stop at nothing to wipe them from the face of the earth a small group of soldiers will make a stand against Archos and his minions on the frozen fields of Alaska, with the fate of the entire world resting on the shoulders.

If while reading ROBOPOCALYPSE you muse that it seems particularly suited to a big screen adaptation, that’s probably not a coincidence.

In fact in the author’s acknowledgments at the end of the book he singles out DreamWorks SKG to thank them for their support and enthusiasm.

Putting aside for a moment that it’s awfully strange, for me anyway, to have a major Hollywood film studio interested in your book before it’s even written, ROBO very much reads like the novelization of a Hollywood blockbuster.

Reading ROBOPOCALPYSE so shortly after perusing Robert J. Sawyers own take on artificial intelligence, in his WWW series, was very interesting. You couldn’t have two more completely different takes on AI.

Where Sawyer’s Webmind was a friendly, benevolent being ROBO’s Archos seems bloodthirsty and unforgiving in comparison. It was a little disconcerting to see how quickly Archos moved to condemn and destroy humanity, seemingly have written us off in the span of a couple pages.

In all fairness Sawyer had three books to establish and build on Webmind’s motivations, but the simplistic and underwritten motivations of Archos stand out in stark contrast to Sawyer’s complex and more nuanced approach.

Utilizing the same narrative structure as WORLD WAR Z, ROBOPOCAPLYSE isn’t told so much as it is recapped by a single narrator who transcribes the scenes and adds context to events that let up to the final battle between humankind and robots.

Unlike WWZ, with its sprawling unwieldy narrative, Wilson has chosen to work with a much smaller cast of characters, which gives readers the chance become more invested in their personal story lines.

Unfortunately, by choosing to tell this story as a chronicle of past events ROBO kills the illusion that there are serious stakes at play here as the outcome of the war has already been spelt out in the book’s first pages. Kinda kills the dramatic tension when the narrator gives you an executive summary before the book has a chance to even clear its throat.

The book’s filmic influences also work against it in other ways. Brevity and narrative convenience are recurring problems with this book. Character growth and motivation are often glossed over leaving readers with underwritten characters whose internal workings are often a mystery.

Wilson has sketched out his characters just enough that this oversight sticks out like a sore thumb. I want to know what makes these people tick, where they find the fortitude to keep fighting and how they grow and change over the course of the robot war.

Coincidences also seem to pile up pretty quickly in ROBO. Anytime the human resistance runs into a problem a convenient one of a kind solution will be delivered at exactly the right moment to keep the plot moving forward. These kinds of outs are more acceptable in a movie where directors by necessity have to keep things going. But in a book I expect more from a story than to have the author write in a deus ex machina at will.

Quibbles aside ROBOPOCALYPSE is a fun, entertaining read. And if I’m harsh on its failings that’s only because they stand out against a backdrop of so many other things that are done very well.

The premise is interesting, the story compelling and the execution deft and capable. It’s a good a piece of post-apocalyptic sci-fi as anything I’ve ever read.

And in truth I devoured this book like a starving man at an all you can eat buffet.

Dig in.

(ROBOPOCALYPSE was previously reviewed by Scott here.)


  1. Hasn't this theme been done to death in Terminator et al? Next he'll be writing a book about aliens who look like us and live among us. - Ian

  2. With the exception that in Terminator we've never seen HOW the machines took over. Just that they did.

  3. Nice review - I have to say, I think I'd be slightly irritated by the apparent film similarities and intentions. Still, as you say - I could probably put aside those qualms and just enjoy it. ;)



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