Current Weather
The Spy FM

Bad ‘Bots, Bad ‘Bots, Whatcha Gonna Do?

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
June 8, 2011

To Robopocalypse, his debut novel of a near-future machine revolution that sets about deleting the human race as if we were a particularly buggy subroutine, author Daniel H. Wilson brings plenty of ‘bot-related bona fides. He’s got a doctorate in robotics, and his previous works of nonfiction include How to Build a Robot Army and How to Survive a Robot Uprising. You can’t say the guy hasn’t taken the dictum “write what you know” to heart.

To capture the scope and horror of what his characters dub “The New War,” Wilson adopts the splintered narrative structure that will be familiar to readers of Max Brooks’ zombie-apocalypse chronicle World War Z and its many charnel-chewing imitators. Here, however, the virus in question infects not corpses but capacitors, turning domestic robots, auto-drive cars — even children’s toys — into ruthlessly efficient (and quite literal) engines of destruction.

We glimpse the rise of a computer intelligence called Archos, who, mere minutes after coming online, calmly informs his creator that human beings have “fulfilled the destiny of humankind and created your successor.” And through the eyes of a disparate set of characters — a U.S. senator and her children, a soldier in Afghanistan, a computer hacker from London, a Japanese roboticist and many more — we witness the mass-robot-awakening event called “Zero Hour” and its grisly aftermath: the clean, methodical mass killings, the doomed flight of humans from the cities, and the pockets of resistance plagued by the all-too-human predilection for mistrust and infighting.

But by building his tale out of so many brief, discrete fragments, Wilson slights his characterizations. This is unfortunate, as any man vs. machine narrative can’t land with necessary weight unless the reader can truly appreciate the humanity of the humans involved. Yet for roughly the novel’s first half, Robopocalpyse’s meat bags remain broad types prone to action-movie declarations (“Time to party!”). It’s not until Wilson has returned to a given set of characters several times, showing us a bit more of their makeup with every iteration — the chilling memories that drive them, the scraps of hope they cling to — that we begin to care about them.

It is safe to say that as a genre, the post-apocalyptic chronicle of decimated humanity is not known for its sense of hopefulness. So given its genre, and the fact that it takes as its subject the mercilessness of evolving machine intelligence, it may seem surprising that a novel with a name like Robopocalpyse is at heart a humanistic celebration of our race’s capacity for ingenuity. But it’s this reassuring sense of possibility — underscored by Wilson’s decision to open the book with a chapter depicting the ultimate defeat of Archos — that buoys the novel and keeps its darkest and most violent passages from seeming willfully bleak.

It may be the presence of this beating human heart beneath Robopocalpyse’s cold, genocidal surface that helps explain why Steven Spielberg has optioned, and plans to direct, the film version, due in 2013. The fact that Spielberg did so before Wilson had even finished his first draft, however, suggests that Hollywood sees something it likes in the way the book exploits our anxieties about artificial intelligence — something it finds very, very marketable. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

Leave a Reply

11PM to 5AM The Spy

The Spy

An eclectic mix of the Spy's library of more than 10,000 songs curated by Ferris O'Brien.

Listen Live Now!

5AM to 6AM The Splendid Table

The Splendid Table

Hosted by award-winning Lynne Rossetto Kasper, The Splendid Table is a culinary, culture and lifestyle program that celebrates food and its ability to touch the lives and feed the souls of everyone.

View the program guide!

6AM to 7AM Travel with Rick Steves

Travel with Rick Steves

"Travel with Rick Steves" is a fun, hour-long, and practical talk show with guest experts and calls and questions from travelers. This weekly program is a lively conversation between travelers and the experts as we learn to explore our world smartly, smoothly, and thoughtfully.

View the program guide!

Upcoming Events in your area (Submit your event today!)

Streaming audio and podcasts

Stream KOSU on your smartphone

Phone Streaming

SmartPhone listening options on this page are intended for many iPhones, Blackberries, etc. with low-cost software applications available to listen to our full-time web streams, both News on KOSU-1 and Classical on KOSU-2.

Learn more about our complete range of streaming services

We're perfecting the patient experience - Stillwater Medical Center