In approaching Robopocalypse, one might be tempted to believe, or hope, that it could be the modern equivalent of Asimov's classic I, Robot. The surface similarities are certainly present: both volumes constitute a series of interconnected stories about the rise of robot consciousness and the ensuing conflicts between robot and humankind. But Daniel H. Wilson's debut work of adult fiction is a poor substitute indeed for Asimov's philosophically complex books. Rather than offering anything as sophisticated as the positronic brain or the Laws of Robotics, Wilson instead gives readers dull action sequences, wooden prose, and characters so superficial they might as well be made of plastic.
I can't pretend that Asimov himself was known for his multifaceted characters. But even Dr. Susan Calvin's grouchy misanthropy hinted at a rich, recognizably human inner life. Meanwhile, the characters in Wilson's loosely-termed novel are conspicuously lacking in interiority. They are defined instead by their relationships to one another (often familial), but those relationships are simplistic and clichéd. There is a younger brother who admires his older brother, an older sister who frets over her younger brother, and several men who admire the moxie of strong warrior women. Family loyalty seems to be a recurring theme, but this loyalty is not born out of the specifics of any of these characters. Instead, like patriotism or the human-centric political unity these characters celebrate as war between artificial and natural life develops, it's based on assumed traits. Because we know nothing of these characters' likes, dislikes, lives prior to the human/robot war, or interior thoughts beyond basic survival—because they are not so much individuals as hollow archetypes—the rare moments when Wilson attempts any sort of emotionality fall flat. For example, when a mother calls her children, "My little soldiers. Survivors . . . my babies" (p. 227), it sounds obligatory—as though she's reading from a script—rather than a genuine outpouring of emotion.
The simplicity of the characters is only highlighted by the similarities of their voices. Wilson has the opportunity in Robopocalypse to truly play with voice. Like World War Z (2006) before it, this is a tale patterned after the research of historians, and oral histories specifically. But in Wilson's world, fourteen-year-old girls and robots and soldiers and cops all sound essentially indistinguishable. They all have a propensity for relaying action in a flat play-by-play, whether they're battling supposedly terrifying robots—
I hit a plugger and this starts a chain reaction. The pluggers self-detonate the instant their hulls are compromised. A hail of icy shrapnel embeds itself in my armor and the back of my helmet (p. 303)
or, bizarrely, a snow leopard:
The snow leopard is suddenly just a few feet away, landing on its front paws with a great bushy tail outstretched as a counterweight. That wide flat nose collapses into a wrinkled snarl, and white canines flash. The cat gets hold of Jabar from behind and yanks his body back. Finally, I get my rifle up. I fire high to avoid Jabar. The cat shakes him back and forth” (pp. 234-5)
Each chapter is framed by a small piece of narration by a character named Cormac Wallace, whose voice is similarly both dry and arch. For example:
After the alarming experience with his cell phone, the hacker known as Lurker fled his home and found a safe place to hide. He didn’t make it very far. (p. 151)
After four or five of these, I became convinced that Wallace was meant to sound just like the voice-over actor who narrates the opening to Law & Order. In my mind, it became difficult to read sentences like "It is hard to determine whether the young soldier was lucky or shrewd, or both" (p. 229) without hearing the accompanying, infamous "gung hung."
But Wallace isn't the only recurring character. In fact, the same small cast recurs over the course of the novel's five sections. However, because this is presented as an oral history—one supposedly gathered by robot intelligence—the result is to make the events of the novel less believable overall. The same little girl whose toys talk to her later, of course, becomes the key to the larger robot resistance. Cormac Wallace is conveniently present for an early 'bot-powered aircraft near-collision. Because these characters—who just as easily might have been completely unrelated—are often inexplicably and unnecessarily connected by genetics or history, the entire universe feels starkly under-populated. This feels like a war involving only a tiny handful of soldiers, rather than one where all of humanity gathers together to battle our robot overlords.
It might come as no surprise that this small world is one that's entirely heterosexual, with little to challenge the traditionally masculine mores celebrated within its pages. Wilson gives an obligatory nod to the traditionally female impulse to nurture, but otherwise, the women here are only lovable when they act like men in action movies—reticent, tough, resourceful. This would not be problematic if not for the simple repetitiveness of the trope. As one character astutely observes, "The men are big and built like tanks in blue jeans, cowboy shirts all tucked in. The women, well, they’re built just like the men, only in dresses" (p. 125). He's describing here a specific Native American tribe, but description would be apropos for any of the characters found within Robopocalypse's pages.
All that said, I'd hoped, at least, for some inventive exploration of robotics. After all, Wilson himself holds a Ph.D. in Robotics from Carnegie Mellon. But this seemed to have no apparent impact on the novel. The robots themselves are traditional—almost quaint-feeling. The sex bots and automated buildings would have felt right at home in any Golden Era sci-fi romp, and the scenes whose technological terror could have been more striking simply felt well-worn. For example, the aforementioned scene where a young girl's toys come to life pales when compared to the spooky robotic teddy bear in Brian Aldiss's classic short story, "Supertoys Last All Summer Long."
Like "Super-toys," Robopocalypse is slated for a movie adaptation. Like "Super-toys," Steven Spielberg is attached to direct. I'm sure it will do very well as a movie release. The violence, though drily imparted, is intense and grotesque—in an early chapter, a man's teeth are described "pop[ping] out of his mouth like fucking popcorn" (p. 27) as a robot eats his face. The novel's pace doesn't so much ebb and flow as hit one high point after another in a relentless onslaught of action. This is the literary equivalent to a Michael Bay movie, and will find a happy home with the same audience. But readers in search of complexity or humanity or philosophically rich ideas should best look elsewhere.
Phoebe North writes SF for teenagers. An articles editor for Strange Horizons, her short fiction is forthcoming with Aoife's Kiss and Spaceports & Spidersilk. Visit her blog at www.phoebenorth.com.