Book Club In Session: Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse

WARNING: This is a full-blown discussion of the book, so as such there will be spoilers throughout.  Proceed with caution!  If you would like to read a spoiler free review, follow this link!

Lauren:  Oh robots.  We lean on them like a crutch so much so that when they step aside, we inevitably fall, crack our heads open, and die (well maybe it doesn’t go exactly like that, but the humans dying part is typically pretty constant).  The Terminator series depicts this, as did I, Robot and even Wall-E (and that we will all be morbidly obese in the future), yet we still progress towards this inevitable end in which the servants become sentient and decide they don’t like being servants to a weaker species.  Wilson said it well in Robopocalypse:

You humans are biological machines designed to create ever more intelligent tools. You have reached the pinnacle of your species. All your ancestors’ lives, the rise and fall of your nations, every pink and squirming baby—they have all led you here, to this moment where you have fulfilled the destiny of humankind and created your successor. You have expired. You have accomplished what you were designed to do.

Clearly the robot in this passage is a little peeved; however, the book actually starts with the acknowledgement that the war between humans and robots has ended and man has survived.  As our narrator, Cormac Wallace, recounts the events that transpired, he does his best to do justice to the individuals whose stories he is telling.  So how do you think he did?

Zach:  I have mixed feeling on this book.  On one hand, it was a really fun read, easy to digest piecemeal (the chapters are all fairly short and self contained), and who doesn’t love the whole AI going rogue angle (you somehow forgot The Matrix in your little recap up there Lauren, for shame).

On the other hand, the way the book is laid out really doesn’t give you a chance to build any kind of relationship with any of the characters.  I really didn’t have any strong feelings for any character’s death or survival throughout the entire book.  How did you guys feel the pacing affected your enjoyment of the story and its characters?

Heather:  I thought that the book had great pacing, and I really liked the way the book was structured – essentially, Cormac Wallace finds this little black box that has video and audio footage depicting the war from beginning to end.  Wallace decides the story of the war needs to be written down and shared, so he transcribes a great deal of what the box shows him, supplementing it with his own personal experiences of the war.  It was interesting to see how the war affected all these various people and how their lives intersected throughout the course of the war.  Plus, I think I would have been a bit bored if the story centered on Wallace the whole time, as I actually found his part of the story to be my least favorite part (my favorite storyline was that of the factory worker in love with a robot that he created).

Despite how much I liked the way the book was structured, this comes with a few caveats.

First, the story was supposed to be Cormac Wallace’s account of everything he saw on the box.  Thus, it would have made sense for the stories written about each of the characters to be written in the third person.  In actuality, each of the chapters is written in the first person – Wallace tells the story as if he is actually experiencing everything the character experienced himself, to the extent of even knowing exactly what those characters were thinking.  It was never explained how exactly he was privy to the information in these other characters’ minds. Was Cormac just guessing at what they were thinking and feeling?  Without proper explanation, a first person retelling just doesn’t make sense the way the book is initially set up.

Another related caveat is what many other reviews have already mentioned: that the author did a poor job of giving the storytellers in each chapter their own voice, which I tend to agree with to an extent.  Each story sounds like it is told from the perspective of Cormac Wallace; while making all the stories sound like Wallace would have been just fine had the various stories been told from his third person perspective, since Wallace chose to tell the stories as though he is that other character, then he should at the very least attempt to capture their voice.  The account told from the perspective of a twelve year old girl should not sound the same as the story told from the perspective of a middle aged male police officer, or even a robot.

That being said, I liked the first person account of each scenario – I think we would have lost a lot of information had we not known each character’s internal thoughts and feelings, but maybe the story could have been set up differently.  The inclusion of the little black box was unnecessary, in my opinion, and really posed far more questions than it answered.

Finally, I wish we wouldn’t have known the outcome of the war right from the very beginning.  I think I would have been able to get more invested in the characters and care more about what happened to them had I not known what the ultimate outcome of the book would be.

Lauren:  The ending is still a little open ended in terms of leaving this world available to a sequel, but I definitely agree with Heather when she says it might have been a better writing angle had we not known the end.  Then again, there are countless films that do this reveal first, but more often than not it is an ending that the audience wishes were different, so they spend the whole movie wishing and hoping that the truth can be averted.  As for Robopocalypse, I think it might have been better if after finding the box Cormac felt the need to write down his story along with those of others because he was still afraid for what might happen to him.

Though I agree with this, I did really enjoy the inclusion of the box.  It was a great idea in theory, unfortunately it was not fully realized in the writing style.  As Heather mentioned, it allowed for an interesting structure that I also really liked; granted, it only really works for the earlier parts of the book before the main body of the uprising happened, which is why part 1 ends up being my favorite section of the book.  It is written in the form of transcripts, recordings taken from radio transmissions, Q and As from courtrooms and police documentation, security camera footage, webcams, etc.  For example, the first chapter begins with these words: “The following transcript was taken from security footage recorded at the Lake Novus Research Laboratories located belowground in northwest Washington State. The man appears to be Professor Nicholas Wasserman, an American statistician.”

This perspective on the story could have kept it from being possible to relate to, and truly sympathize with, some of the characters, but I like to think that this first part already shows otherwise.  The best example I can think of is within the chapter that is solely formed from audio diary recordings that were spoken as messages to the speaker’s wife.  This was one of the most touching chapters, and yet there was little character build towards this man.  Plus, these sources allowed for the use of first person perspectives that made sense, unlike what comes later in the book.

In addition to this, I also liked the idea of the black box because Archos (the big bad robot king) was the one who collected what was contained within.  His motives are still debatable at the end of the book, but I do think this need to record the “heroes” of mankind was an interesting character detail to add to the AI.  Plus, these forms that set the reader in an outside, technological perspective looking in, instead of being within the mind of the narrator, almost makes the presence of Archos more foreboding, as a constant reminder that he has eyes and ears everywhere.

Heather:  Speaking of the ambiguity surrounding Archos’ motives, I wish that area would have been more fully explored.   I get the need to keep Archos an enigmatic character so the reader doesn’t know what his next move will be or even the full extent of what he is capable of;  however, I think it would have been just as interesting, if not more so, to write some of the book chapters from Archos’ perspective.  Then maybe I could better understand his motives for starting the war in the first place, as well as the reasoning behind many of the choices made by him during the war.  As far as motives go, in the beginning Archos kept claiming that the war was necessary to help the humans.  Yet it was never fully explained how the war would help humans, and for some reason I just couldn’t buy that as Archos’ true motive.  For one thing, what reason would Archos even have for wanting to “help” the humans?  Then later, another motive emerged… that the scientist who created Archos continually destroyed and recreated him because Archos was not living up to his expectations.  Archos grew tired of his creator repeatedly giving him life then taking it away, and thus took the first chance he got to seek revenge.  Was this his real motive all along and the story about helping the humans a simple attempt at manipulating them for his own gain?  We can never know with certainty without a section written from the robot’s perspective.

I also wondered about why the robots killed some humans, but enslaved others in work camps.  What was the logic behind choosing which were spared? After all, during Zero Hour, when the robot uprising truly began, one character (Marcus) sneakily glanced out his apartment window and noticed that the robots were selectively targeting some humans while sparing others.  Furthermore, why were some humans dismembered and given replacement robot parts?  What was Archos planning on doing with this hybrid breed?  I think if more chapters had been accounts taken straight from Archos, we would have a better understanding of both the robotic side and the human side of the war.  As it stands, we get an overload of the human perspective.

Zach:  I too would have enjoyed some more insight into the mind of Archos.  A chapter from his perspective wouldn’t have fit into the way the story was told (since the box only recorded the events of the heroes of the new war); however, more stories where the characters have interaction with Archos would have been nice.  I enjoyed the short interaction in the kids’ bedroom with the toy box and all the Lurker chapters, they gave Archos that menacing, emotionless, calculating quality that created some substance for the overall conflict, but it just didn’t feel like it was enough.  And then after those chapters Archos really loses its voice for the remainder of the book until the end.  I guess I was looking for a more Brainiac (he’s a Superman villain, Heather) type character out of Archos.

As far as the experiments on humans goes, I think that’s what Archos was referring to when it spoke of helping the humans.  Perhaps a sort of forced mechanical evolution.  Archos was testing the limits of the human body and it’s ability to merge with robotic engineering.  Or maybe it was just morbid curiosity.  On the other hand, it could just be a thematic element to sort of link the New War with WWII and the Nazi camps where they performed all sorts of medical experiments on the Jews.  Who knows?

Lauren:  I don’t know about chapters from his perspective as the book is now, but an interesting idea to consider is how the book would have been had Archos been the narrator instead of Cormac.  It could have been from his perspective as he collected the stories for his hero box.  Then again, when humans ran from technology he would have been at a loss for what occurred in this period of time.  I just think it would be an interesting thing to catch him in the middle of his collection process, only to have the humans punt him from his place in power.

But for now the verdict is definitely still out for me as well on Archos because the things he says and actions he takes can be interpreted in so many different ways.  However, during the final chapter of the book Archos responds to the question of why he is attacking humans by saying: “They murdered me, Arbiter.  Again and again.  In my fourteenth incarnation, I finally understood that humanity learns true lessons only in cataclysm.”  This could be a factual response, but it’s still questionable if he is really trying to teach humanity to live in peace with robots on equal ground, especially because of the personal statement of being murdered.  This is a very human interpretation of death, which means that he could be a slave to human emotions as well if he looks at things this way.

Later in this chapter he also says that there is no way to live in peace if one species is considered lesser than the other, so it is possible that this biomechanical upgrading process could be a way in which his is trying to bring this idea to fruition.  We don’t get to see too many of these experiments up close other than with Matilda, and though her upgrade was interrupted, I seriously doubt the remaining steps including something like putting a snazzy mp3 player in her inner ear.  In most likelihood, the next step was to put a chip in her brain that would make her controllable, thus the perfect Trojan horse.

I guess there really isn’t a humane euthanasia process when it comes to genocide, but there was just something so disturbing in the ways in which the robots and technology were used to kill people.  Cars were used to run them down in the streets, the sprinkler system was used to cause the elderly to slip down a flight of stairs after being herded there by an emergency announcement, and worst of all, Archos eventually found a way to use technology to “reanimate” dead bodies in order to fight against the humans they were fighting with moments before.  Now that I think about it, this is probably the nail in the coffin for me. No one who is using human experimentation to learn how to reanimate dead bodies can really want to live in peace.

Now onto a robot we don’t have to give the stink eye: what did you guys think about Nine Oh Two?  We may never get a first point perspective of Archos’ thought process, but we do get to read chapters from the perspective of a friendly robot going through the awakening process.  Chapter 5 of part 4 was another highlight for me because we get to read the technological jargon of Nine Oh Two coming to life, including one of my favorite quotes from the book:  “Query: What is happening to me?  Maxprob response: Life,” as well as his first interaction with humans in which he asks a girl if they’re enemies.

Zach:  Nine Oh Two was definitely the highlight of the end of the book.  I actually felt more attached to Nine Oh Two than any of the human characters of Brightboy Squad.  He just had a certain innocence that I found intriguing.  Like you mentioned Lauren, that first chapter where he wakes up in the box is definitely one of my favorites.

Overall, I’d give this book a 4/5.  It was a fun read, great ideas, but it fell a little short on the ending and some of the climactic moments.

Heather:  I agree.  Nine Oh Two was definitely a more likeable character than any of the BrightBoy Squad Members.  If only he had showed up a little sooner, like in the middle of the book instead of towards the end.

I would also give this book a 4/5 rating.  It was a quick read, and I found it engaging the whole way through.  Good thing I haven’t read World War Z though, because I hear the two books are very similar!

Lauren:  I’ll be sure to let you know because World War Z is next on my personal reading list, unless The Strain takes its place.  As for Robopocalypse, who am I to break the trend?  It gets a 4/5 from me as well.

All right guys, the meeting is adjourned.  If you would like to follow along with us in our book club, Heather’s selection for next time is 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami.  And if you have any suggestions for us leave them in the comment section below!

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