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TBTS Reviews: Robopocalypse

July 13, 2011

When you tell someone you’re reading a book called Robopocalypse, much less recommending that they read it themselves, it’s probably natural for eyebrows to raise. After all, the nobel is called Robopocalypse, for Christ’s sake. And on top of that, it’s not a terribly good book. But Daniel H. Wilson’s action/horror tale of the near future is actually quite a fun read. It’s like reading a summer blockbuster; consider it the Transformers: Dark of the Moon of summer beach reads this year — big, dumb and yet immensely entertaining.

Wilson’s tale is told, in a strangely roundabout way, by a protagonist named Cormac Wallace (which is roughly the equivalent of writing a play in which your hero’s name is Tennessee Shakespeare) who opens the novel at the conclusion of a monstrous battle between humans and robotics. Wallace has discovered that the robots have been chronicling the entire struggle, and it all exists on a mysterious black box which screens footage from surveillance cameras and webcams to put the story together for future generations. A highly advanced piece of artificial intelligence named Archos nestled deep in the tundra of Alaska, it seems, has become smart enough to realize it’s time for the next stage of the earth’s evolution will belong to the robots. And humans are definitely not part of that plan. So Archos sends out, through networks and satellites, an all-call for all connected machinery to take out the human race. The following chapters unfold in a type of oral history from the heros of the human-robot war, each focusing on a different personality and some focusing on Wallace himself.

The narrative structure of Robopocalypse is, at first, very frustrating. Wilson frames the story as if Wallace is watching these various chapters on these various individuals unfold, yet each chapter is told from a first-person perspective of the character featured in that chapter. That’s problematic because it makes very little sense from a story standpoint — there’s no way Wallace, who’s supposedly watching all of this on the black box — could know what these people are thinking or feeling. After a while, I’m happy to say, the reader settles into the fact that this is just going to be buggy, and if he or she just goes with it, there’s still some fun to be had.

The story takes shape as Archos manipulates its robotic colleagues to attack and take over. Smart cars run down their owners, robotic housekeepers brutally murder Oklahoma yogurt store employees, a japanese “Love Doll” attacks its programmer. Once the humans band together to figure out how to strike back, forces begin to mobilize and a big finale is at hand. At the center of this revolution are a seemingly unconnected group of people — an internet chat room hero, an inner-city demolitions expert, a Japanese mechanical worker and a little girl whose body has been modified by the robots, among others.

If all of this sounds like a movie, it’s because it reads like a movie. It often seems as if one’s reading a script more than an honest-to-God novel. And if there’s one reason to read Robopocalypse at all, it’s that Steven Spielberg optioned the movie rights to the novel even before it hit stands, and some critics have noted if he does it correctly it could be his next Jaws. I’m not going to dispute the fact that Spielberg could really go to town with material like this, and let’s not forget that Peter Benchley’s Jaws wasn’t all that great of a book itself. Plus, it has every element of a Spielberg blockbuster: mass destruction, robots, great moments of heightened and dangerous suspense, even a child with special powers that comes into play in a big way.

It’s likely odd that I’m telling you both a.) Robopocalypse isn’t a well-written novel, and yet b.) you should check it out, but it is often a fun, wispy read and Wilson does put together some great sequences, especially in the technology-turning-on-humans moments of the book’s first half. I’m not sold on Daniel H. Wilson, but he’s certainly found a unique way to pitch a story to Steven Spielberg. If there was ever true beach reading, this is it. It won’t exactly make you fear that your Kindle is trying to kill you, but it might give you some fun summer jolts if you don’t take it too seriously.

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