Sunday, 5 June 2011

Daniel H. Wilson, Robopocalypse (2011)


A very efficiently put-together future thriller, this, that rolls along the ringing grooves scored by a thousand SF prior texts: our machines become suddenly not only sentient but hostile and try to wipe us out. It is, indeed, hard to think of a more thoroughly-worked SFnal trope: Bender's 'Kill All Humans', minus the laughs. Still, as forty thousand glittering-vampire, or teenage-wizard retellings attest, you don't often go wrong as a writer ploughing the pre-ploughed furrow; and I can't argue with the readability of Wilson's treatment.

We start after the robot uprising has been smashed; one of the key figures in the human resistance, Cormac "Bright Boy" Johnconnor 'Neo' Wallace discovers what amounts to the black box of the machine command-and-control. Handily, it contains the whole backstory of the uprising: how a scientist called Nicholas Frankenstein Wasserman, blinded by his own hubris created a monster called Skynet Archos, who achieved consciousness and used the interconnectivity of the many near-future machines of the novel's world to wage war on humanity. The novel as a whole is disposed into five parts: we get 'Isolated Incidents', in which various previously reliable machines turn on people: cars, sex-dolls, kid's toys, anything with a chip. Then 'Zero Hour', when the robots kill billions; Part 3 'Survival' when humanity struggles to avoid the wickedness of machines and other wicked people; then, via various happenstances including a child who can telepathically (well: science-handwavily) talk to the machines, the creation of a unified 'North American Army' to fight the robots, which in turn leads, inevitably, to 'Part 5: Retaliation.' Individual character stories have some tension; the overall storyarc has none at all. And although there are some bad people, the emphasis in this novel--from the human narrators but also, oddly, from their machine antagonists--is thumpingly on the heroism of human beings.

It's entertaining, undemanding stuff, lubricated so as to avoid the friction of actual thought, or difficulty, or more lasting aesthetic effect. If I had a complaint, apart from the obviously and deeply derivative nature of the whole project, it's that Wilson's robots uprising isn't rhizomatically decentred enough: there has to be a Boss robot, existing in one physical place (in this case, inside a radioactive chamber underground in Alaska) that can be targeted and taken out -- despite the fact that the internet as we know and love it has nothing so easily identifiable or take-outable. Oh, and as a side-note, his British characters talk like no British people I've ever met -- and I've met, well, several ('just the three of us, duchess. A right happy family. Me and my cheating wife and her fucking hemorrhaging ex-boyfriend', 70). This is a very minor part of the whole, and loomed perhaps disproportionately large for me: for 'what are you sodding off about?' is not idiomatic Londonspeak for 'what do you mean?', and I don't know anybody who addresses women as 'duchess', except, perhaps, when speaking to an actual duchess. Still: who breaks a robutterfly upon a wheel, and all that.

So, Doubleday are promoting this title very hard (doublehard, you might say); they clearly think it's going to be huge, and they're probably right. Apparently Steven Spielberg has signed up to direct the film of the book (the fillum even has its own imdb page). There are many distinctively SeƱor Spielbergo moments in the book, too; so I can see why: kids in peril; kids being brave and smart to overcome peril; the uncanny-domestic; the family as the locus for heroism.

What else? Well, two things. The strongest sections of this novel, by a long way, are the first two parts, and several of the chapters in Part 1 achieve genuinely eerie effectiveness. I liked the low-key, sinister vibe of the Frankenstein 'it's alive' chapter; there's a good set-piece about a humanoid robot on duty in Afghanistan that goes on a killing spree, and chapter 5, with the Aldissean/Spielbergian title 'Super-Toys' is exceptionally good: Congresswoman Laura Perez is trying to pass anti-robot legislation. Her 10-year-daughter Mathilda has a spooky encounter with her toy chest ('peeking out from my covers I see there's a rainbow of flashing lights coming from our wooden toy box'). Her 'Baby-Comes-Alive' doll has literally come alive; it urges her to call her mommy home, threatens to hurt her kid brother if she doesn't, and shows malicious willing ('the doll scissors its arms down. The web of my thumbs are caught in the doll's soft armpits and the hard metal underneath') somewhat after the manner of a child abuser: 'Just before I slam shut the lid,' says the first-person narrator, 'I hear the cold little baby doll voice speak to me from the blackness. "Nobody will believe you, Mathilda," it says. "Nobody will believe you."' That said, when the robot rebellion gathers pace, the novel loses much of its eeriness and becomes more run-o-the-mill.

The other thing, I suppose, is: what will future culture-historians makes of the saturation of this particular anxiety -- that our machines hate us, and are out to get us? The semiotic of this trope is an interesting thing. Take three key recent iterations of it: the Terminator franchise; the Matrix franchise; BSG. What are they saying? More specifically , what does their huge success say about us? A while ago, I pondered on the representational logic of the first of these:
What is the Terminator? The Terminator is Death; his grinning titanium skull the latest incarnation of an ancient western tradition of iconic momento mori. The first film dramatised, straightforwardly and therefore effectively, life's struggles and attempted flight from death's implacable pursuit. The simplicity of the narrative served the story perfectly, because our own mortality is, on one level, wholly linear and perfectly simple: it will come; it will come straight, it will come straight for you; it will not stop. Without exception, that's the fate of everybody in the world. This unsettling existential truth is at the heart of the original movie's enduring resonance. In a nutshell, the first Terminator movie said: death is singular, implacable and after you. That's true. (What I mean when I say this is that although we know, intellectually, that death is general, not singular--that although we die individually others live on--nevertheless that's not how it feels. Our impending deaths, as the end of our world, feel like the end of the world)
But although both Matrix and BSG are also, obviously, in some symbolic sense 'about' extinction, they're also, oddly, about sex, and physical hyperperformance. This somatic quality of machines is key, I think: those senses in which the superior strength, endurance and regularity of machines generates a corresponding somatic angst in us. What machines lack, I suppose, is 'soul'; which Wilson here tropes as 'heroism'. So in that sense, the obsession with machines is 'about' an anxiety not to do with death so much, as with the creeping materialisation of the world, the disappearance of God. The dawning realisation that we are machines too.

One final thing: I was sent an unsolicited advance copy of this novel (not that I'm complaining, mind you) together with the usual PR fliers, posters and gubbins. Why me? I pored over the accompanying stuff. Here:
Click to embiggen, if you must. Aside from the strange phrasing at the top (not 'will be released' but the passive-voice-phobic 'The major motion picture will release in 2013'), the thing that snagged by eye was the reason why I'd gotten a copy at all: 'Major ARC distribution to stores, librarians, big mouths and movie influencers.' Since I'm assuredly not the first, second or fourth of these things, I guess I'm on a list somewhere as a Big Mouth. My bouche, it gapes. When did this happen?

11 comments:

springer said...

I had dinner with Daniel Wilson recently (me and a crew of other booksellers) and he came across as a very decent chap (if I may make use of his cod-British vernacular). I was inwardly annoyed, though, that he emphasized that his book was not SF, but a techno-thriller. He didn't speak ill of the genre or its practitioners, but he was very clear that the SF section was the wrong part of the store for this novel.

As a side note, is it possible to write a contemporary thriller that could not also be described as a techno-thriller?

Adam Roberts said...

What was that David Mamet-scripted film about the two chaps lost in the wilderness with the big bear? Anthony Hopkins and A.N.Other? That was tech-free; although I suppose an adventure story, not a thriller per se. And that's the only I can think of, off the top of.

Otherwise; this is very clearly a SFnal book, and Wilson -- whom I don't doubt is perfectly lovely, and who has written a novel with bestseller written all over it -- is thinking primarily that shelving it with SF would limit sales.

Matt Hilliard said...

Isn't there more than a little bourgeois anxiety in most machine uprising narratives? Our prosperity is achieved only through the exploitation of the labor of the proletariat (machines) who will eventually gain class consciousness (consciousness) and overthrow us.

Adam Roberts said...

Yes: it's no coincidence that the old Fritz Lang Metropolis class-war fable was mediated through a marvellous android. But tech is so much more ubiquitous, and tightly integrated into our lives -- it's no longer something that happens in distant subterranean caverns, whilst we the wealthy frolic in sunlit fields.

Baduin said...

"But although both Matrix and BSG are also, obviously, in some symbolic sense 'about' extinction, they're also, oddly, about sex, and physical hyperperformance. This somatic quality of machines is key, I think: those senses in which the superior strength, endurance and regularity of machines generates a corresponding somatic angst in us. What machines lack, I suppose, is 'soul'; which Wilson here tropes as 'heroism'. So in that sense, the obsession with machines is 'about' an anxiety not to do with death so much, as with the creeping materialisation of the world, the disappearance of God. The dawning realisation that we are machines too."

Very perceptive comment. Since Matrix is a rather too obviously Gnostic film, it should be about the materialisation of the world and disappearance of God - but I didn't connect this with the superior physical performance of Agents.

Justina Robson said...

I also think your comment about physical hyperperformance very astute. The Terminator is the end of humans because it has all their survival-of-the-fittest attributes and none of the downtime biological and social drawbacks to bother with, having neither flesh nor 'soul'. Rip off human fancies and you get the 'cold' perfection of nature taken to its limit apparently. I note that no counter-arguments to this fiction seem to have appeared so far in which warm care-bear huggability and sweet, artistic flights of whimsy as observed in the human race cause machines to develop a quasi-religious outlook in the service of the greatest and most potent creative experiences they are capable of generating.

But since the whole point of thrillers is to scare you and bombard you with technoporn whilst at the same time giving you the illusion of superiority to a deadly foe I guess that doesn't provide a lot of opportunity to stimulate the right panic buttons.

Glyn said...

"What machines lack is soul", briefly on this issue. One of the books I read recently which took the robo/tech angst issue in a spiritual or philosophical direction in a reasonably effective (and indeed affective) manner was The Holy Machine by Chris Beckett. It's not at all about robocalypse but it raises some interesting questions about materialism, science vs. religion and how the two issues relate in a techno culture.

lechpandyne said...

mt bom esse livro sz

lechpandyne said...

mt bom esse livro sz

lechpandyne said...

mt bom esse livro sz

Adam Roberts said...

Nice to see the machines themselves turning up to comment.