3.5 out of 5
In 2012 I wrote an Amazon.co.uk review of Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse, a book about a future robot uprising against humanity, led by a super villainous Artificial Intelligence called Archos, and how we, or rather a handful of mostly Americans, fought back to eventual victory.
Daniel obviously knows his stuff when it comes to robots. He has a PhD in Robotics, a Masters Degree in AI & Robotics, and a BSc Degree in Computer Science. He builds a plausible future populated by all manner of servant robots. I have previously read earlier works by Daniel and enjoyed them immensely. Hell, I’ve even bought another of his books while I wrote this. Remarkable, he even sold the movie rights to Steven Spielberg no less, before the book was even released!
So, I had high hopes for this book. Very high hopes, indeed. I’d just read the socio-political, but deeply emotional masterpiece that is World War Z by Max Brooks, and hoped that that this would be a ‘ bad robot’ version of that book. Maybe my expectations were too high, or maybe I wanted an exact replica of WWZ, but I was ultimately bitterly disappointed and gave it a bit of a kicking in my original review. I think that I need to readdress the balance a little.
Warning, spoilers abound!
Firstly, what’s good about the book:
The near future world he builds, populated by a multitude of servant robots is detailed, plausible and well-constructed. This is an area in which he excels.
The scene where the AI is activated in cautionary isolation, kills the human ‘operator’, then finds an ingenious way to connect to, then escape into the wider world is pure genius. It’s really inventive and masterfully written. It also chillingly demonstrates the advantage that faster thoughts, actions and communication would give the AI over us. This could be a prophetic warning about our own future, although I believe that true AI will immerge from augmenting our minds, and we’ll be the Skynet / Archos of the real future, and therefore not very likely to slaughter ourselves out of existence.
There’s a great scene of puny humans versus metal and plastic serving robot engaged in hand to hand combat, in which the humans are mercilessly mangled by the robot. This shows just how painfully vulnerable we’d be.
The Terminator series could learn a lot from this book. Killing machines don’t have to be elaborate and intelligent, or even vaguely humanoid. There are some gruesomely effective, but elegantly simple killing ‘bots in here, like exploding devices that initially burrow into your body along your bloodstream. Beat that ‘Terminator: Genesis’.
(Warning Super Spoilers) The AI ‘installs’ itself into a frozen, inhospitable, snowy wasteland, many miles from humanity, thereby providing a simple, but effective, organic protection and cooling system. To create this ‘lair’, the AI tricks humans into boring into a deadly radioactive nuclear test cavern, from which they die of radiation sickness, thus disposing of them and providing a defence against any future human attackers. The AI, and its legions of robot defenders, are utterly impervious to this radiation threat. This is well thought through, and exactly how an inhuman, super intellect might behave.
The book has received considerable criticism for a lack of jeopardy, due to a narrative which starts in a post war world, in which the victorious survivors recount the events of the AI’s creation and subsequent conflict. I think this is unfair. Apocalypse stories are now old hat and ten a penny. This book avoids telling a story we all know and instead concentrates on personal stories and goals from the conflict, and attempts to mine them for the required jeopardy.
However, building a novel from a patchwork of personal accounts of the events is difficult. Having a character speak the story would be a resounding car crash and at some point you have to switch into an archetype present-tense narration of the action. In this respect I think that the book actually does quite a decent job, even if each flashback is preceded by a dreadfully clunky, contrived introduction, which is a terrible way to stitch the action together. The problems really only start with the unrealistic characters, poor dialogue and badly explained action within each flashback. The lack of jeopardy actually stems from characters we don’t care about doing things we can’t believe.
What’s not so good:
The murderous, hyper intelligent AI that orchestrates the worldwide slaughter only exits in one location – it’s not a distributed system and it doesn’t even make a single copy / back up of itself. I can’t believe that an intelligence thousands of times greater than our own doesn’t practice even the simplest of disaster recovery precautions, and I really can’t believe that the author didn’t consider it either. I can only presume that logic was secondary to servicing the highly unlikely plot.
The characters and treatment of non-American, especially UK protagonists – see the original review below for more information.
None of the characters sound authentic. They all seem to speak with the same voice, even the non-American ones (unforgivable!) and they’re basically the cast of the Village People with a few borderline racist stereotypes thrown in to delineate the world wide scale of the uprising.
The big bad AI is named after the rubbish French budget tablet I wasted my money on during the Christmas 2012 holidays. (Ok, this is a personal niggle.)
My greatest issue with Daniel’s writing is that none of it feels organic. Implausible situations arise to service the plot, people are paper thin caricatures who behave without logic, and talk like supporting characters in a brain-dead Hollywood blockbuster. Worse, obstacles are overcome by the most contrived ‘deus ex machinas’ possible. Even, the AI’s motivations for attacking us, and its love/hate relationship with us, is muddled, confusing and deeply unsatisfying.
Ultimately, this book disappoints in a way that is all too familiar in our lowest common denominator, anti-intellectual 21st century world. There are no great truths to be unearthed here. This is not a sophisticated analogy for any human trait or foible. It’s all bang and bluster. It’s ultimately about nothing but itself and seems to only exist on its own singular superficial level.
It is unfortunately exactly what it initially appears to be – a detailed outline for a particular low-brow, ‘park your brain in neutral’, noisy, summer blockbuster movie. Given the authors background, you would be entitled to expect something more intellectually stimulating, or at least something that has additional levels for those of us who enjoy unearthing hidden depths.
I’m not saying this to be elitist or demonstrate how clever I am. But a book like this getting so much attention (and sales!) is indicative of the world we now live in. Book sales are in free fall. Movies get dumber and shallower every year. Televisions is full of reality shows populated by celebrated morons. Our children have attention deficit syndrome. Our young adults, the so-called Generation Y, can’t make decisions for themselves and ignorantly don’t have the patience to learn lessons from history. For a story about the Rise of the Robots, it could unintentionally teach us more about the Rise of the Idiots.
If it is intentionally about anything, then it’s a warning about not being lazy and in too much of a hurry to offload our drudgery onto robots, and to be mindful of the unintentional consequences. If we start to sub-contract manual labour, or even simple chores to automatons then putting our thinking out to tender may not be too far behind, and we really have to proceed very cautiously before we enter that territory.
Strangely, the book doesn’t seem to give us technology for its own sake. It doesn’t fetishize technology in any way, as you might expect given the author. The future tech on display appears only to serve the story. Unfortunately, this only makes it feel like a less than totally complete and convincing exercise in world building. Maybe I’m just nit-picking.
Judging the book with the greater perspective that the passage of time affords, I would now give it 3.5 out of 5 stars, instead of the original woeful 2 out of 5.
World War Z went on to be an appalling, soulless (boring!) bloodless, mess of a movie. What’s the betting that in the hands of Spielberg, Robopocalypse will spawn a triumphant human story of personal adversity set against spectacular worldwide genocide, if and when it ever gets made. (It’s currently on indefinite hold because Spielberg considers the current scripts too expensive to film.)
Anyway, here’s the original 2012 review in full:
18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Read World War Z instead, 19 Feb 2012
Amazon Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Robopocalypse (Paperback)
I so wanted to love this book. I thought that the writers background, Spielberg's buying of the movie rights from galleys, and all of the great reviews, would guarantee a technological & emotional roller coaster, a magnificent world striding tour de force - in short, a modern sci-fi classic. What we got instead was a small, largely badly written, jingoistic, borderline racist, "isn't America the greatest country on Earth" movie treatment; and not a very good one at that!
Admittedly, the robots are far more imaginative than anything the Terminator movies dreamt up, but it all feels very small and lacking in any real jeopardy. With the whole world to write about the entire story involves a small handful of people whose lives are intertwined in the most contrived ways possible - then written about in the most mundane way possible. The writing is so poor that at times you can't decipher what's being described.
Oh, and if you're British, prepare for a London where Trafalgar Square has FIRE HYDRANTS and hoodies say things like "see you in the funny pages". You can tell where all of the writer's research went!
The final straw for me was reading about how the Indian, Chinese, Russia & Eastern European armies failed in their attempt to destroy the AI because they didn't wait for a handful of American's (the world's saviours, yet again - YAWN!) to show them how to do it. Not that it's any old Americans - no, it's Indians being led by cowboys! (Note: America, your history may seem like a long time ago to you, but to us it's the blink of an eye and has been done to DEATH! Get over it. It's now very, very tired to the rest of us.)
If you want to read a book of true worldwide conflict, human suffering, adversity and courage, then do yourself a real favour and read World War Z instead.
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darrenwhite is the author of the science fiction short story collection "Memes of Loss and Devotion".