Saturday, January 28, 2012

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

I know what you're thinking. Robopocalypse? Really? I know. It sounds cheesy. I thought the same thing when I picked it out. But it was late and the library had already made their "last call" announcement and it looked new so I took it.

Author Daniel H. Wilson has a Ph.D. in robotics from Carnegie Mellon and an academic pedigree that allows him to write intelligently about his subject matter. Imagine a near future when all our computerized gadgets are turned against us by a computer that is not just super intelligent - it has become sentient. This, of course, is one of the commonly cited doomsday scenarios that will end human life on Earth. Wilson is able to turn this concept into a plot that doesn't sound too farfetched.

The novel follows the exploits of several widely dispersed (Oklahoma, Afghanistan, England, Japan) people or groups of people as they fight their own battles versus the machines. Wilson crafts several interesting scenarios as the robots begin to evolve into forms more well suited to killing humans than the simple household robots and automated cars that started the war.

But the scenarios are part of the problem. They're too widely dispersed in space and time (the war spans over 2 years) to maintain pacing and interest. It also leaves very little time for introspection and rich character development. Lots of characters die. I really didn't care. Several potentially interesting subplots are virtually untouched. What exactly makes a robot self-aware and alive? What is Archos, the leader of the robots, thinking? What's the rationale for the actions he takes? What's he gonna do when all the people are dead?

Where Wilson falls short is the dialog. I often thought to myself "No one talks like that." He also takes certain liberties to keep the novel moving that involve characters being able to figure out what's happening way too quickly. Like on the first day of the uprising when all the robotic things start attacking their former human masters, too many characters are able to surmise within 24 hours that this is a global coordinated event instead of just some local, and perhaps accidental, disaster.

One reviewer compared Wilson's Robopocalypse to Michael Crichton's Andromeda Strain. Even accounting for my personal fondness for Andromeda, that's a bit of a stretch. Andromeda Strain is a great novel and a great movie (the original). Robopocalypse isn't quite there yet. On the other hand, Crichton's later work like Prey may be a more apt comparison because he doesn't write novels as much as he cranks out screenplays on an 8th grade level. Sorry - didn't mean for this to devolve into Crichton bashing.

Wilson's Robopocalypse was an enjoyable, albeit light, sci-fi experience.

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