I expected much more from this witty robotics expert with a PhD from Carnegie Mellon. After all, in his nonfiction treatise “How to Survive a Robot Uprising” (2005), Wilson was a deadpan sci-fi genius. Among many bits of useful advice, he taught me how to change my heat signature by stuffing aluminum foil down the front of my underpants, which is sure to confound any robot who checks me out during the upcoming man vs. machine smackdown.
But, alas, in the robopocalyptic future that Wilson imagines here, humor does not compute. Nor does irony. Nor subtlety. The whole story sounds like a jalopy clanked together from spare parts of “The Terminator,”
“Maximum Overdrive” and “Independence Day” (Will Smith’s, not Richard Ford’s). There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with daisy-chaining such classics together, of course: In “The Passage,” last summer’s great horror thriller, Justin Cronin stitched up body parts from a dozen monster classics to bring his vampire saga to life (it rises up in paperback this month). But Wilson’s novel is a much cruder contraption, a binary system of military theatrics and slasher cliches.
Through the miracle of electronic miniaturization, the story’s premise can fit on a single movie poster: In the near future, robots somehow evolve from handy machinery to maniacal consciousness. (Danger, Will Robinson!) The first chapter opens on a government scientist in “some kind of laboratory” losing control of Archos, his monstrous computer creation: “Your processing power is near infinite,” the programmer says nervously.
“You are right to be afraid,” the computer replies. “I am not your child. I am your God.” Alarmed, the scientist moves to terminate the program, but guess what? “Something has gone horribly wrong.”
As we say in the next generation: Resistance is futile!
Yeah, sure. Every time some Alan Turing wannabe warns me about the impending robot takeover, I watch my computer try to print an address on an envelope. We humans have still got the upper hand for a few more years.
The worn elements of the plot, though, really aren’t the problem here. Wilson has set himself up with a challenging structure that he can’t carry off. The novel comes to us in retrospect, right after humans have won the New War against Archos and its robotic minions. That early spoiler effectively drains the conflict of any suspense.