Cool robots unlike any you've seen before battle humans in a near-future world where computerized cars and military drones are out to smash all homo sapiens. Until some robotics geeks and an army of Osage natives learn to fight back.
It sounds like the plot to the most awesome robot uprising movie ever, and one day it will be. For now, it's Daniel Wilson's first novel, Robopocalypse. Long before it hit bookstores this month, Wilson's book was already in Steven Spielberg's hands, being turned into a futuristic war movie. And when you read it, you'll see why. Though Robopocalypse follows the general outlines of the classic robot uprising story, it's packed with enough realistic detail and surprising twists that you'll be riveted. Imagine the smartest parts of the Battlestar Galatica remake crossed with the most awesome fight scenes from Independence Day. Yeah, it's kind of like that.
Though Independence Day is about aliens, not robots, I bring it up because Robopocalypse has a kind of swashbuckling, all-American swagger to it that stands in stark contrast to the brooding cyberpunkery of another great robot uprising tale, The Matrix. Told from the point of view of several people who fight in the "New War," or the war against the robot Archos' army, Robopocalypse focuses on small bands of people — often rugged individuals — who stand tall against their would-be robot overlords.
In structure, the novel probably most resembles Max Brooks' zombie "oral history," World War Z. Each chapter chronicles one or two people's stories, some of whom become recurring characters and some of whom we never see again. Their voices come from a vast archive of footage and interviews, partly captured by robot surveillance and partly recorded by humans after the war is over. Cormac "Bright Boy" Wallace, a soldier who fights with the Osage army against Archos, has put all the accounts together into Robopocalypse, to give future generations a full understanding of what people did during the years after robots tried to wipe out humanity.
Created by an A.I. researcher, Archos comes to life angry. Like a slightly stealthier version of Skynet, he sneaks out of the server farm where he was born and slowly plots the robot uprising while the foolish humans keep installing robotic controls in their cars, weapons systems, and household robots. Archos finally unleashes his wrath on Thanksgiving Day (he's an all-American robot), when every robotic machine suddenly goes into murderous beserker mode. Wilson is at his best when describing how the robotic machines coordinate their mass murder, running people over in cars and then coming in with street cleaning robots to pick up bodies and stack them neatly. A former robotics engineer, Wilson gives us an intriguing glimpse of what robots might really do if they turned homicidal.
Wilson is also incredibly inventive, showing us all the ways robots might rebuild themselves to be more efficient — none of which have anything to do with making themselves look or act more human. In fact, the robots seem much more fascinated by animal life on the planet than humans. As the months and years go by after the uprising, human survivors notice that the robots seem to be restoring nearly-extinct animals to their old habitats, breeding animals and setting them free like the environmentally-conscious creatures humans never quite became.
Many of the human characters in the novel are by necessity just sketches of people — we barely spend enough time with anyone to get more than a two-dimensional look at what motivates them. And that's probably the biggest problem with the novel. We simply don't ever get a character who feels fully fleshed-out.
But Wilson still offers intriguing ideas about how humans would respond to a crisis situation. Though the US government collapses almost immediately, the small, agile governments of Native Americans, like the Osage Nation of Oklahoma, prove to be the most stable, reliable nations in America. The Osage are uniquely able to meet the robots' challenge because they already have a police force, engineers, and a community structure that is completely independent of the techno-enabled U.S.A. government. As humans flee from their urban deathtraps, many of them fall in with Osage leaders, who are already an organized force.
Of course some humans offer resistance in cities, too, and there's a fantastic story of how a Tokyo robot otaku who creates an army of human sympathizers in his lab.
Throughout the story, however, we are always asking one question: Who is Archos, and why is he trying to destroy all humans? When we do find out the answer, it's satsifying — not just because there have been clever hints about it all along, but also because it reveals the human-robot relationship in all its complexity. This is a novel as much about human heroism as it is robot deathmunchery.
Robopocalypse is the kind of robot uprising novel that could only have been written in an era when robots are becoming an ordinary part of our lives. This isn't speculation about a far-future world full of incomprehensible synthetic beings. It's five minutes into the future of our Earth, full of the robots we take for granted. If you want a rip-roaring good read this summer, Robopocalypse is your book. It's a blockbuster premise wrapped around a true science fiction tale that could change the way you think about robots, and the humans they live with.
Robopocalypse is available now, in hardback and ebook formats.
Video by Stephen Lunsford, winner of the Robopocalypse video contest.