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Entertaining, generic, disposable
on 26 November 2011
'Robopocalypse' is a fast-reading science fiction adventure set in the near future. Humanity succeeds in creating the first viable artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, the AI's ideas about human-AI relations are rather different from those of its creators; the resulting struggle threatens humanity with subjugation or extinction.
Daniel Wilson has a background in robotics, and he seems confident in extrapolating from the current state of the art to this disastrous fictional scenario. Unfortunately, he isn't so able a writer as a scientist. 'Robopocalypse' reads like a less subtle version of Max Brooks' 'World War Z', with sentient and semi-sentient robots replacing the zombies in a very similar narrative structure, with multiple narrators.
Oddly, Wilson seems more comfortable when dealing with action than with the science, and the book has considerable pace - which is useful, in that the reader is carried rapidly past the numerous implausibilities. The author's grasp of character never develops much beyond stereotypes, and he seems frankly uninterested in some of the people he creates; a number of them simply drop out of the story, never to be heard from again. His grasp of politics and foreign affairs is minimal: it won't surprise the British reader to learn that this is yet another parochial American SF thriller in which a well-armed American citizenry saves the world (with a token tip of the hat to a solitary Japanese).
The premise itself is not contemptible - put simply, nobody has any real idea of what a human-created machine intelligence would be like - but Wilson never convinced me that he had considered the issues raised in any depth. His imagination seems heavily dependent on popular movies (spot the 'homages' to The Terminator, Star Trek's 'Data', 300, and Bladerunner along with the horde of generic 'apocalyptic survivalist' films) and a handful of fictional sources: Max Brooks in particular, but also Philip K. Dick ('Second Variety' and its film versions) and Vernor Vinge. The result is a page-turning but disposable book that reads less like a novel and more like a screenplay for one of those adequate but uninspiring SF movies that spring up in the wake of something more original. In fact, Wilson explicitly thanks DreamWorks SKG at the end of the book - the film rights were sold before the book was completed - and 'Robopocalypse' is at the time of writing to be filmed by Steven Spielberg, with an adapted screenplay by Drew Goddard of Cloverfield fame.