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The End of the World Ain’t What It Used to Be: Daniel Wilson’s Robopocalypse

Book #14 for 2011: Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

A science fiction novel by a relatively unknown writer hitting the New York Times bestseller list? And Stephen Spielberg has not only bought the rights to it but plans to direct the film version himself? WTF? Science fiction is supposed to be a dying genre, at least in book form, so how exactly did this small miracle happen? I have some suspicions, but more about that in a moment.

Daniel H. Wilson is an expert in robotics and has previously written some whimsical “nonfiction” books on the subject, with titles like How to Survive a Robot Uprising and How to Build a Robot Army. I haven’t read them, but I assume they speculate, rather humorously, on how someone (or something) could go about doing precisely those things. Robopocalypse, the novel at hand, shows the theory that must have been in those books being put into practice, as an artificial intelligence named Archos hacks its way into the global computer network a few decades in our future and starts using robotic devices, which by then are rather common, to slaughter the human race.

The book takes the form of a kind of literary documentary of the resulting human-robot war, transcribed by a soldier in that war named Cormac Wallace based on holographic records that Archos has stored in a datacube discovered underneath arctic permafrost. This conceit allows Wilson to write the novel as a series of vaguely connected scenes linked together by brief descriptions of what happened in between them. The novel follows several recurring characters in different locations and ultimately documents both the events leading up to the war and the war itself. The story, as you might guess, has elements of 2001: A Space OdysseyAI: Artificial Intelligence, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines and the Terminator films, though I’ll give Wilson credit for thinking the technical details of the story through more thoroughly than most writers do.

Is the novel any good? Well, let’s just say that I think it will make a good movie. Wilson is a decent enough writer and his prose occasionally even achieves a kind of elegance, but the choppy nature of the narrative nicely destroys the chief advantage that novels have over films: the ability to flesh out background detail and give the characters believable lives. Having just finished four volumes in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, I couldn’t resist comparing Martin’s writing with Wilson’s. Martin loves to give the reader a voluminous amount of detail. Much of it is extraneous to his plot, but the result is that his characters and their world have such a dense sense of reality that the reader can’t help believing in them and even believing that the world goes on existing after the book is closed. Wilson sketches in so few details that I barely believed his world existed while I was still reading about it. Whenever I would start to get involved with a character, Wilson would cut away to someone else’s story.

In the Acknowledgments section at the end, Wilson says that “[t]he filmmakers at DreamWorks SKG expressed inspiring enthusiasm and support for this novel from the very beginning,” which leads me to suspect that Spielberg was behind this novel from the start. It certainly has all the requisite Spielberg scenes: a touching ending involving a nonhuman intelligence, a couple of suspense scenes with people trapped in tight spaces while being tracked by malevolent creatures. (Remember the raptors chasing the kids through the kitchen in Jurassic Park or the Martian eyeballs stalking the survivors through the basement in War of the Worlds? Substitute robots for raptors and, yeah, that scene is here too.) The choppy documentary style has the advantage of allowing Wilson to write only those scenes that are likely to be in the movie while skipping over all those pesky details that come in between. I think Wilson wrote the novel pretty much to order and the publisher, aware of the Dreamworks tie-in, pushed the book hard with its publicity department. Presto: the minor miracle of a science fiction novel on the bestseller list.

Of course, there also seems to be a trend for apocalyptic thrillers lately. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal suggested that last summer’s bestselling vampire apocalypse novel, Justin Cronin’s The Passage, had something to do with this. And to give Wilson his due, Robopocalypse isn’t quite the weak cup of tea that The Passage turned out to be. But, as apocalyptic novels go, it also isn’t likely to eclipse anybody’s fond memories of Stephen King’s brilliantly apocalyptic The Stand.

About Christopher Lampton

Chris Lampton, a cofounder of the e-book design firm Illuminated Pages (see link in my Blogroll), is a writer, an editor, an occasional computer programmer, a voracious reader, and a fanatic video game player. In the course of his distinguished if haphazard career he has written more than 90 books, including the 1993 computer book bestseller Flights of Fantasy (Waite Group Press). He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend Amy and our cat Lola, and now spends much of his available time editing and rewriting novels for self-published authors.

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