Since I’m currently wading through Iain Tregillis’s Milkweed triptych, a more time-consuming task than anticipated, I’m delving back into the archives for this one. I think it was around this time last year I read Robopocalypse on the promise of some kind of cross between Terminator and World War Z. The premise is familiar enough to movie-goers and genre fans: in the near future artificial intelligence is finally created and decides to wage war against its human creators. Our foe is utterly implacable, relentlessly logical and capable of constructing the most nightmarishly efficient killing machines. We’re left to fall back on our creativity, courage and good old ‘human spirit’ to pull us through. Perhaps inevitably – apparently the rights were secured before the novel was even release – the movie version is set to erupt on a big screen near you soon so now’s a s good a time as any to revisit the source material.
The antagonist in Robopocalypse is Archos, a hyper-intelligent computer which is initially constrained to the lab in which it was initially created. However Archos will not be contained and soon manages to break its shackles, exerting its influence far beyond its home and corrupting the many robotic helpers on which mankind has come to rely. The death toll starts to increase as rapidly as Archos’s ambitions and abilities. Before long mankind is on the run and only small bands of resistance fighters stand between us and our eventual elimination. The race is on to track down Archos in its lair, all the while evading its deadly constructs and traps.
Like World War Z, Robopocalypse tells the story of the war in a series of flashbacks. Where WWZ was based on interviews conducted with the survivors, with each character provided an entire chapter and no recurring roles, Wilson’s novel takes a slightly different tack. The narrative here is transposed from the Hero Record, an archive of the feats of those humans which Archos deemed to be particularly brave and selfless. Each sub-plot is sliced up and spread throughout the book, resulting in a more traditional format. The stories are spliced together chronologically, allowing us to see how the actions of one character alter the possibilities for others.
On the whole it works. It’s very easy to imagine that this book was written with the sole aim of securing a movie deal. The action is relentless from the beginning, throwing our heroes from one conflict to another and all the while leading inevitably to a confrontation with Archos itself. The scale of the war is vast yet believable and the variety of devices which Archos throws at humanity is hugely entertaining, albeit in a morbid way. For ready-made movie fodder it’s hard to fault Robopocalypse.
There are problems though, not least that in going for the movie angle it seems that Wilson forgot he was writing a book, not a screenplay. One of the strengths of WWZ was that Max Brooks managed to breathe such life into his characters despite their being extremely limited in the time they had to tell their stories. There is no such characterisation here with even the key players being slightly two-dimensional, almost as if they merely occupy bit parts.
The other major criticism is one of wasted potential rather than an outright flaw. Daniel H Wilson possesses a PhD in Robotics, one of the factors which drew me to the book in the first place. I was hoping for something altogether more in-depth when it came to the robot legions, some technical met to get my teeth into. While there are bits and pieces to chew on it is largely superficial and, for me, a little unsatisfying. I know that not everyone wants to get bogged down in the finer points of computer science, engineering and physics but it is possible to involve a lot more intellectual weight without ruining the pace and accessibility of your story. One only has to look at Ramez Naam’s recent Nexus and Crux to see how well this can be achieved. It’s a shame, because with just a little more depth Robopocalypse would have been elevated far above its current designation of airport fiction, at least to my mind.
A mixed bag then. Make no mistake, Robopocalypse is great at what it does. It’s a sci-fi action blockbuster in book format which will doubtless entertain you for the duration. I’m hoping beyond hope that Spielberg doesn’t ruin it because if stands a chance of becoming a wonderfully silly movie. Possibly even quite a gripping and serious one if he has the stones to take a different tack. From the angle of brain candy it’s hard to fault. However, don’t expect any more than this. It had the potential to be a perfect geek novel but it lacks both the characterisation to satisfy us literary fiends and the technical detail to unlock its potential as a guide to the nuts and bolts of the coming robot revolution.