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A Rebooted Robopocalypse

  • Glenn McCarty Contributing Writer
  • 2011 21 Jun
A Rebooted <i>Robopocalypse</i>

Author: Daniel H. Wilson

Title: Robopocalypse

Publisher: Doubleday

It should come as no surprise that Robopocalypse (pause for chuckle over the unapologetically B-movie-ness of that title), Daniel H. Wilson's dystopian novel about - wait for it - a machine-led takeover of the human race in a not-so-distant future has already been sold to Dreamworks and will be directed by Steven Spielberg.

With its prophetic premise and flesh-on-metal fight scenes, it reads like a screenplay. And Wilson's pedigree - PhD in robotics, author of clever nonfiction satire How to Survive a Robot Uprising - suggests he knows his stuff.

All that said, Robopocalypse, the novel version, doesn't completely deliver the goods. It has all the ingredients for a summer escape book, and is certainly capably rendered. So why does it feel like some of the parts aren't assembled properly? One possibility is Wilson's decision to structure the novel as a series of interconnected vignettes, shifting the action among a cast of a dozen or so many characters who drift through the narrative at intervals.

Eventually, their paths cross, but it's hard to get attached to any of them. And he effectively kills any suspense by telling the story in flashback, revealing on page one that the humans win. (Of course we do, you say, fist in the air.) The narrative is collected by Cormac Wallace, a soldier and survivor of the New War between humans and robots, who backtracks to describe the origin of the robot uprising through the end when Big Rob - that would be the head robot - bites the dust. This approach focuses the reader's attention on how we got to this place, not what's going to happen at the end.

Because of the technology-run-amok motif at work here, Wilson's being compared to all the greats: Bradbury, Dick, and Crichton, to name a few. Problem with those comparisons is Jurassic Park was a visionary piece of sci-fi storytelling that was equaled by Spielberg's visual storytelling prowess and cutting-edge CGI. As anyone who read The Lost World, Crichton's follow-up, can attest, writing a novel that's going to be made into a movie is a risky proposition.

Obviously, Wilson's main point is to whip up a cautionary tale about the feasibility of artificial intelligence getting a little too intelligent. And with descriptions of machines evolving to stay one step ahead of humans, that's a terrifying proposition. But there's also The Terminator Problem.

Sure, the possibility of militant iPads and air traffic control systems seems a lot more plausible now than in 1984, but James Cameron's vision wasn't that far away from this one. As one friend put it, "How is this any different from any other robots-gone-wild movie?"

The only answer to that question is in the likelihood of Wilson's scenario playing out. It's a lot easier to imagine the world being overrun by technology now than it was in the 80's. But that's the prophetic nature of sci-fi, right? Once you get past the premise, Wilson's vision isn't freakishly astounding.

The second half of the novel is more readable than the first half, as Wilson and his ragtag army draw nearer to the head robot honcho, dubbed Archos. This plays out in deliciously action-packed glory, up until Wilson's most inspired choice: his decision to have a mutinous robot be the one to descend into the cavern and destroy Archos. Take that, bolt brains!

In the end, Robopocalypse is a thought-provoking read that could have been so much more. It works as a cautionary tale about our technology-driven society, but Wilson doesn't inject his characters with much life, and his pacing plods. None of that matters much, though. It's going to make one stupendous action flick, especially for the things-go-boom crowd.

*This review first published 6/21/2011