'Robopocalypse': Looking back on a bloody war between robots and humans
Robotics expert Daniel H. Wilson's novel "Robopocalypse" is the story of war breaking out between humans and robots, after an experiment in artificial intelligence goes fatally wrong and launches legions of automated hordes against humanity. Wilson will appear Wednesday at the University Book Store's Seattle location.
Special to The Seattle Times
Daniel H. WilsonThe author of "Robopocalypse" will read at 7 p.m. Wednesday, University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).
"Nobody should ever have to see what we saw," declares Cormac Wallace, hero of "Robopocalypse" (Doubleday, 347 pp., $25). He has a point: echoing with shrieks of pain, bright with blood, dark with subterranean secret chambers, roboticist Daniel H. Wilson's first novel reads at times like horror. That its events are scientifically plausible makes them all the more frightening.
We meet Wallace in the aftermath of the worldwide war against Archos, an experiment in artificial intelligence gone fatally wrong. Archos calls himself the god of the robots, and for two years he has hurled hordes of automated machines against humanity. As Wallace reviews his barely vanquished foe's recordings of the global holocaust — the deaths of millions, the demolition of whole cities — two things make it possible to keep reading: we know the war's final outcome, and we're being guided through the devastation by an author who can show us beauty and humor in the grimmest and most unexpected places.
Though the novel focuses on North America, Japan is home to a major thread of resistance against the robot uprising, in the person of an elderly technician named Takeo Nomura. Nomura treats the murderous welding arms, cars, toys and android nannies he meets as victims rather than enemies. He thinks of them as infected, not evil, and dedicates himself to keeping them free of Archos' control. In one scene he confronts an elevator which has deliberately sent hundreds plunging to their deaths:
" 'What have you done, elevator?' I whisper. "
"Bing, it insists ... Something is wrong with my friend."
Attitudes like Nomura's are an important element in humanity's ultimate success. Those who win the fight against Archos do so by using and relating to his robots: a young Cherokee man domesticates a headless, four-legged mechanical scout; an urban guerrilla co-opts the limbs of a mantis-like killing machine. And when, in experiments reminiscent of the punishment of "Remade" criminals in China Miéville's fantastical New Crobuzon ("Perdido Street Station," "The Scar" and "Iron Council"), Archos grafts machine parts onto unwilling humans and replaces a child's eyes with sensors, humanity's survival is assured by accepting these hybrids as equals.
Toward the end of "Robopocalypse," Wilson quotes 1960s poet Richard Brautigan's utopian "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace." Wilson's training as a robotocist makes accepting a ubiquitous robot presence natural to the author; it also helps him imagine and describe some amazing machines, efficient, logically designed and utterly inimical to human life.
Steven Spielberg has reportedly been itching to film "Robopocalypse" since before the book was finished. That's unusual attention for a first novel. But Wilson's actually a publishing veteran, with several nonfiction titles under his belt, including "Where's My Jetpack?" (reviewed in The Seattle Times April 13, 2007), "Mad Scientist Hall of Fame" and "How to Survive a Robot Uprising." His expertise earned him Spielberg's scrutiny, and this could be a very good thing.
While the novel is packed with thriller-type cinematic action — swarms of self-directed napalm bombs, towering automated cranes ripping the roofs off factories, robot-operated zombies — and the aforementioned blood and terror, it has a heart, too. It may well take one of the medium's masters to translate all that to film. Meanwhile, it's available in book form, heart intact.
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