Thursday, October 6, 2011

Robopocalypse - Daniel H. Wilson

I accomplished basically nothing today other than scrapbooking (which was, frankly, lackluster) and finishing this book, so here it is. There'll be some minor spoilers, but the book is almost entirely about the how, not the if. The major plot points are revealed on the jacket - there's a robot uprising. Smart phones, smart cars, smart dolls, all of our technology (and some that doesn't yet exist) turns on us on an epic scale, from cars running down humans by the dozen to "stumpers," small machines that wait for a warm body to pass by, then latch onto your leg and blow it off.

The first half of the book, which centered on "Zero Hour" and the isolated glitches and events leading up to it, was terrifying. It had me awake at 1am, eyeing my computer apprehensively. I haven't encountered a book with the scary, paranoia-inducing quality of a good horror movie in quite a while - without images, music, spooky camera angles, it's just harder for a book to grab hold of you and keep you awake, and at least in the first half, this one did.

To me, things came unraveled somewhat in the latter half. The author has a Ph.D in robotics, and although he didn't delve so deeply into techno-speak that it became inaccessible, some descriptions that in his eyes probably added to the chilling tone of the book may have been better appreciated by his colleagues than the general public. Phrases like "disposable sentry turrets," "massive bridge crane," are most likely terrifying in context, but without a point of reference for technical details, some of it was probably lost.

The story also gets away with several things that were too convenient, such as a cryptic exchange between an elderly Japanese man and his robot companion that inexplicably leads to numerous humanoid robots experiencing an "awakening" and becoming sentient and individually thinking (you may be thinking "Aren't they all sentient, isn't that the point?" but no, they're all more or less under the control of the central intelligence, Archos). I'm not sure if I missed something here, or if the entire chapter followed no clear logic and the "awakening" could have been more easily explained with an author's note in place of the chapter that just said "The humanoid robots are sentient now, because I damn well said so. It's the only way I can get around the radioactive well in the next chapter."

The place that the book truly succeeds is on the human level. The individual losses and horrors that specific people experience are gut-wrenching. The story is told from multiple perspectives as seen in various surveillance videos and interviews that had been collected by a robot and found by a soldier at the end of the war, and it works very well for the most part, save for the inevitable issue of not fleshing out each character fully. From my perspective it was that or stunting it to one person's perspective of a global apocalypse, so it was a sacrifice well worth making. In several chapters they follow one person or family, get the reader wrapped up in rooting for them and horrified at the atrocities they see along the way, and at the end of that perspective, the detached notation "No further record of Laura Perez exists" is simple but absolutely chilling.

Overall, I think that it hits and misses equally, in different areas. The book loses some steam just when it should be picking some up, but the first half of the book alone is well worth the read.

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