There are a lot of questions that come to my mind when I think of the future of robotics like will robots feel emotions? Can they have dreams and aspirations to fulfill if only they could take a week off from the factory? Do they dream of electric sheep or of paying child support or of just escaping, and slumming it in some Czech brothel far away from that bitch of a mother-in-law? Will I be able to kill robots with fire? Like I said, a lot of questions come to mind. The 2011 novel, Robopocalypse, answers exactly one of them, and yes, many of them can be killed with fire.
Set in a near future of self-driving cars, smart buildings, walking sex dolls, and a largely automated war on terror, Robopocalypse imagines an epic robotic uprising in which a top secret, highly advanced artificial intelligence learns to harness control of literally every piece of technology on Earth and turn them all against humanity.
From cell phones to toaster ovens, vibrators to celebrity Justin Beiber, the machines’ primary function suddenly, one day out of the blue, becomes to destroy humanity…. But why? Well, here is where it gets a bit weird. You see, this novel is, if nothing else, a whole lot of fun. It will give you fast paced, hardcore human on robot action in nearly every single chapter and you will enjoy the hell out of it if you’re into that sorta thing, but even epic robot battles cannot disguise the elements of the plot and narrative design that leave you scratching your head and wondering- huh? For instance, it’s explained right away that the reason this supercomputer known as Archos wants to do away with humanity is so that it can preserve the rest of the life on Earth based on the assumption that mankind is so damaging to the planet that we could destroy everything if we aren’t eradicated.
Now, I don’t want to sound like a humanist, but I find that a bit insulting, and who exactly is this supercomputer to judge what the correct path of life on this planet is exactly? I mean we’re all evolving and doing our best here so I think Archos should really cut us some slack…. But, alas, the mechanized environmentalist does not. Instead it unleashes metallic hell upon the planet and wipes most of us out immediately.
Whether the plane you’re on decides to nose dive directly into the ground, you’re smart car drives full speed into a tree, or you’re Roomba attempts to push you down an elevator shaft, chances are you will meet your maker within the first hour. Those who aren’t killed right away in Robopocalypse begin to form a resistance, slowly over several years and eventually they are victorious.
Now before you scream ‘SPOILER!!’ please understand that the outcome of the uprising is revealed to the reader in the very first chapter, and this brings me to the very bizarre narrative device that’s used in Robopocalypse. Not to spend too much time on the device but I found it to be strange and unnecessary. There is literally a ‘Black Box’ that is found at the location of the final epic battle and it’s used to play back the events of the uprising from the points of view of a handful of main characters. It was odd, but I got used to it.
Once beyond that, I found that the real major pull of Robopocalypse is in the descriptions of the robots. Not just what they look like, but also the way they react, behave, and rip people to shreds. The writer, who happens to hold a PhD in robotics, is clearly in his element when he is pitting man versus machine in close combat, and he definitely plays on that strength. I don’t think a chapter goes by without at least one extended action sequence, and that’s a great thing. The sequences are gruesome and honest about the kind of damage that robotkind can do to their flesh sacked creators.
Ultimately, while I did enjoy Robopocalypse for its action-packed robo-mayhem, it seemed often very clichéd when it came to the human characters almost to the point of being vomit-inducing (there is an Italian-American militia member whose battle cry is, I shit you not, “arrivederci”). It also failed to convey the real horror and despair that I believe is inherent in the situation. The writer, many times, seemed to be enjoying the bloodshed entirely too much to notice that most of his characters should be suffering from advanced exhaustion, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder at some point. The most major character, in particular, seems worried whether or not he is a ‘hero’ at a point in the uprising when even the toughest gentleman would be contemplating a barrel in the old mouth.
You’re not going to find any deep examinations of mankind’s relationship with its creations in Robopocalypse, but you will find a buttload of kickass action. If Terminator is your idea of deep A.I. philosophy, Robopocalypse is for you. If the prospect of a robotic uprising seems like a really fun way to start the afternoon, then Robopocalypse is also for you. If the thought of sentient killing machines horrifies you to the point of frenzied madness, you may want to check out Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream…. no, on second thought don’t do that.
I give Robopocalypse three tree hugging supercomputers out of five.
Survival Perk: When the real robopocalypse arrives, the most important lesson this novel teaches us is that it’s vital we stay arctic cool and keep in mind every machine has a weakness. If you are being hunted by an unmanned car, don’t be afraid to get off the road! If you awake to find your iPad choking you to death then it may be time to take it back to the store.
There is another major lesson that Robopocalypse attempts to teach, and I’m not sure if I agree with it. It’s the lesson that in order to fight robots we may have to give up our humanity and become robots ourselves, only to recover our humanity when the fighting is over. Can you recover your humanity once it’s lost? I’m not certain. What I am sure of is that we will all find the answer for ourselves when machines do rise up.
-- celebrity humanoid robot, Justin Bieber