Appetite for Cybernetic Destruction
Published on Wednesday, July 6, 2011 - 7:21pm
Who doesn't like a good apocalypse? The world, tightly wound and ignorant of its imminent demise, is brought to a screeching halt by forces that cannot be contained; humanity is confronted with its own mortality on a global scale. A reckoning has come, and all of us must come to grips with the consequences of ... whichever thing it is the story is about. Nuclear fallout, pandemic disease, global warming, or the wrath of God, we eat it up -- the proof can be found in the box office results for movies like 2012, Godzilla, Planet of the Apes and even Wall-E.
This is no less true in the history of English literature; catastrophic destruction abounds, from Ray Bradbury's "There Will Come Soft Rains" and Richard Matheson's I am Legend to Stephen King's The Stand and Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood. Recently Max Brooks redefined the zombie uprising with his brilliantly written World War Z, and now Daniel H. Wilson has done the same for robots with Robopocalypse.
If literature is a reflection of the culture that produced it, what does our horror say about the hopes and fears of the place and time in which it emerges? The robot uprising is not a new concept -– in fact, it is so common that the title of the book brings up a whole catalogue of other work that has touched on the subject. Machines have become our mortal enemies in Battlestar Galactica, The Matrix, the Terminator series, Maximum Overdrive, Star Trek (remember the Borg?) and Doctor Who, to list just a few. What makes this book worth reading is what Wilson brings to the table as an author –- his style, his personal knowledge of cybernetics and his ability to weave together a story out of disparate parts with unique characters to create an original ending.
Wilson’s writing is incontrovertibly of a type with Max Brooks, which is not a bad thing. Both men wrote their big apocalyptic novels after already writing a “survival guide” for exactly the sort of story taking place in their respective novels. Both books are written in a journalistic, “after the storm” style that gives the reader a greater sense of immersion. To call Robopocalypse derivative would be to miss the point. I suspect the parallels are neither accidental nor the product of literary laziness (as has been suggested by less trusting reviewers); instead, I choose to believe it is homage. In any case, it is well written and engaging enough that, if you can get past the similarities to World War Z, you will find that the book stands up very well on its own account. At the very least, if you enjoyed the one, you will almost certainly enjoy the other.
One thing I found refreshing was the book’s deviation from the Michael Crichton school of “What have we done?” techno-panic. Yes, robots rise up to destroy their human creators, and, yes, they are led by an evil AI that has convinced itself that human beings are a threat; however, Wilson does something interesting with the question of inevitability and interface. One of the themes that runs through the book is the way in which the human beings who survive are also the ones who seem to have developed an instinctive grasp of the machine mind, and have found a way to interact with it in a meaningful way. Sometimes, the interaction is so tightly interconnected that the lines between machine and human are blurred, just enough to see a glimmer of optimistic transhumanism in the tradition of Donna Haraway.
One important takeaway from my own reading experience: The technology is there already, though moderately less ubiquitous than in the novel, and its use and development are inevitable. True to life, the only real way to survive is to adapt to the new paradigm. Your iPhone (probably) won’t kill you if you fail to learn to communicate with it effectively, and your Roomba isn’t likely to weaponize any time soon, but we do still live in a world of perpetually evolving technology that is used, daily and on a massive scale, by people who have no idea what they’re really doing. Even without apocalyptic horror, the consequences of such blithe technological illiteracy aren’t likely to be pretty.
The face of the enemy?