The story might sound familiar; sometime in the near future, a super-intelligent AI has co-opted all the machines in the world to wage war against humanity. Humanity, of course, has lined itself up for this disaster by allowing more and more of the machines it takes for granted to be controlled by their own inbuilt computers. It should be no surprise that eventually the machines stand up and rebel, and that premise has driven any number of books and movies in the past. But dig just the tiniest bit deeper and you’ll find a far more complex story going on in Robopocalypse.
Along with the more subtle presentation of a familiar theme, this book presents the story in an unusual style. It is presented as a number of reports or incidents viewed retrospectively by a third person, the narrator. So while all books are a fusion of style and content, in this book the style is more than just a container for the words, it’s an actual part of the story. Robopocalypse relies on this unusual structure to build a cohesive and moving story from a number of engaging vignettes.
Cormac Wallace narrates the story for us after a brief introduction, which actually starts just after the war is over. In fact the first sentence in the book starts, “Twenty minutes after the war ends ….” so there are no spoilers in revealing this. Cormac takes us back to before the war starts, through reports of a small groups of individuals who turn out to have pivotal roles in the upcoming struggle. They include a US congresswoman, a lonely inventor, an American soldier and a London based hacker to name a few. Each shows up over and over in different chapters focussed on them, and we eventually witness the rise of the artificial intelligence (Archos), and the terrible war which follows.
The vignettes are all excellently written and Wilson manages to present well rounded and engaging characters very quickly. Which is good news, because this format could so easily have failed if the reader couldn’t empathise with or join the characters on their journeys. It is the emotional engagement that drives the overall story arc, we mostly already know the end, so the only reason to read is to see how these people get there.
The individual chapters each cover very short periods of time, but together they take us from just before the war, to the moment where Archos takes control, through the actual fighting and right up to the end over three years later. Each chapter has it’s own pace, some are frantic and filled with panic while others are more relaxed. While we don’t get to see individual characters often or for very much time, the long time scale involved in the main story arc gives Wilson a chance to show us those characters have changed even if we don’t watch that process in action.
I did sometimes feel that pieces of the story were missing, or that I would have liked to have seen more of some of the characters, but that’s the nature of the format Wilson has chosen. Perhaps less is more, and that desire to find out kept me turning the pages. Either way the end result is an excellent, entertaining and emotional look at what might be if the Robots ever do rebel. If my only complaint about a book is that it’s too short, then I think it’s a pretty good sign. I thoroughly enjoyed Robopocalypse, and hope you do as well.