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"
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 Señor 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?