With a title like “Robopocalypse,” you don’t expect Daniel H. Wilson’s novel about computers gone mad to be a work of Proustian sophistication, but the real surprise is what a groaner it is. Even by the cornball standards of the original “Battlestar Galactica,” this is a frakkin’ disaster, a literary version of Windows Me — much hyped but prone to crash.
As with the inevitable robot rebellion, though, there’s nothing we can do to stop it. Even before Wilson finished inputting his novel, Steven Spielberg bought the film rights and started drafting the storyboard. That transition won’t be hard because the short chapters of “Robopocalypse” already read like a series of rough sketches for set designers and animators. God help the actors — or avatars — who have to deliver these lines. (Is R2-D2 still available?)
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,” “Logan’s Run,” “Westworld,” “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.
Cormac “Bright Boy” Wallace, a warrior sitting on Archos’s electronic carcass in Alaska, discovers a “goddamn black box on the whole war” written in Robspeak. He realizes that the vanquished machines “want me to remember and write it all down,” and so he presents a series of vignettes of the crucial moments in humanity’s battle against robots. Each of these short chapters begins with a clunky explanation, e.g. “This account was reported by a fourteen-year-old,” “A handheld digital recording device was used to record the following audio diary,” “This transcript was taken during a congressional hearing,” etc. But none of these narrators sounds authentic. No matter who’s supposedly doing the telling, they all come out speaking the same synthesized melodrama.
Disposable characters who are obviously about to be killed say things such as: “I’ve got a bad feeling. . . . Something is in our technology. Something evil.” Computers that sound as though they’ve been infected by the voice of Ming the Merciless announce: “In less than one hour, human civilization will cease to exist as you know it. Major population centers of the world will be decimated.” And everywhere we get exposition in beta to bring us up to speed on each mini-crisis: “The government made IVC chips standard more than a decade ago, same as they did with seatbelts, airbags, and emissions criteria. This way, the cars can talk to each other.” No, Herbie, no!
That stop-’n’-go structure should keep the movie scenes zipping along, but it repeatedly saps the momentum of this novel, which jerks through machine-gone-haywire episodes with the requisite computer-game gore. First, it’s just trucks and elevators taking us down, but then robot peacekeepers open fire, and swarms of little six-legged bombs scurry around looking for skin.
Naturally, this worldwide battle is fought by a handful of heart-of-gold American heroes: the firefighter, the Indian, the police officer, the construction worker, the black guy. (Yes, someday in a frightening future, the Village People will save us all.) These are brave Americans who joke with each other before dangerous missions: “Don’t get killed!” They’re brought together in the heat of battle to take on a computer villain set on electrocuting, shooting, smashing, squishing, freezing, burning and boring every human being on Earth. But even when there are moments of real excitement in these pages, they’re quickly aborted, the narrator gives us a brief italicized summary, and then the story does another cold boot.
“What can I say?” Cormac shrugs. “It’s just an anything goes kind of war.”
To your battle station, Cole Porter: Your country needs you!
Charles is The Washington Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Daniel H. Wilson
Doubleday. 347 pp. $25