It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

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Robopocalypse, Daniel H Wilson

Robopocalypse, Daniel H Wilson
(2011, Doubleday, $25.00, 347pp)

Daniel H Wilson has a PhD in Robotics. He is also the author of How to Survive a Robot Uprising, among other books. He’s the go-to guy when American television needs an expert on robots. Almost every book he has written has been optioned – including this one, Robopocalypse, his first novel for adults. In fact, the film rights were sold before the book was even published.

This is a well-worn narrative, and it’s the story of the book rather than the story in the book which often generates more interest. When six-figure sums are bandied about for a genre novel, its quality is beside the point. Such books cannot depend on genre readers to recoup their outlay. They have to break out – and an author with celebrity status is needed provide the slingshot required. Robopocalypse will be a successful book, but not from any quality intrinsic to it as a novel qua novel.

So it should come as little surprise that, as a novel qua novel, Robopocalypse is not a satisfactory read. Sometime in the near-future, a scientist accidentally unleashes an Artificial Intelligence. Over a period of a couple of years, this AI, Archos, reprograms all the world’s robots to turn on human beings, and so a war begins. Robopocalypse opens with a human combat team finding a device, built by the robots, which appears to contain eyewitness accounts to various incidents which took place during the Robot War. These incidents become the chapters of Robopocalypse, and each one is introduced with a blurb from the device’s discoverer.

This novel, then, is not a narrative but a collection of vignettes which, together, create a story-arc of sorts. Some of these vignettes are more successful than others. When the story is set in the US, Wilson handles his voices well, though there is a tendency to lionise his protagonists. However, one series of chapters is set in London, and it appears Wilson learnt his British accent from watching Guy Ritchie films. Another features a mild-mannered technician in Tokyo who later proves to be a genius. These are not ordinary people, though the structure of Robopocalypse would have you believe they are representative of the human race.

Given the author’s credentials, the one area in which you’d expect Robopocalypse to shine would be its science and technology. But even these elements were so clearly written with an eye toward cinematic visuals they often appear implausible. Automated cars in New York, for instance, go on a killing spree. But this makes little or no sense – the computing power necessary to turn a car into a weapon which can target moving pedestrians simply wouldn’t be built in. Wilson also has a tendency to project emotions onto the robots, as if anthropomorphisation would make them a more implacable enemy. Being a roboticist, he should know better.

Robopocalypse is a novel powered by two things, both external to the text. It reads as though it has been written to facilitate its transformation to another medium, the cinema. Hence the soundbites and pithy blurbs which open each chapter. Likewise the framing narrative, which implies a level of rigour the novel too often exceeds: the claimed sources for each chapter – CCTV footage, recorded interview, etc. – do not possess the level of detail or insight the writing displays. However, it is not all bad. Some parts of Robopocalypse are quite effective, and Wilson does a good job of describing the collapse of US society and the destruction of the nation’s infrastructure. Having said that, there’s little point, to be honest, in reading the book. Spielberg is all ready working on the film adaptation. You might as well wait for that: the visuals are likely to remain unchanged, but at least the story-arc will have been distilled down into something much more potent and satisfying.

This review originally appeared in Interzone #236, September-October 2011.

Note: the film mentioned in the review is due to be released in 2014, but as yet no cast members have been attached.