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Friday, May 20, 2011

“Robopocalypse” by Daniel H. Wilson (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Order “RobopocalypseHERE (US) + HERE (UK)
Read An Excerpt HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Daniel H. Wilson earned a Ph.D. in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University. He is the author of such nonfiction works as How to Survive a Robot Uprising and How to Build a Robot Army, both of which have been optioned for film adaptation. His fiction work includes his debut novel, A Boy and His Bot, Robopocalypse, and the forthcoming novel, AMP.

PLOT SUMMARY: In the near future, at a moment no one will notice, all the dazzling technology that runs our world will unite and turn against us. Taking on the persona of a shy human boy, a childlike but massively powerful artificial intelligence known as Archos comes online and assumes control over the global network of machines that regulate everything from transportation to utilities, defense and communication.

In the months leading up to this, sporadic glitches are noticed by a handful of unconnected humans—a single mother disconcerted by her daughter’s menacing “smart” toys, a lonely Japanese bachelor who is victimized by his domestic robot companion, an isolated U.S. soldier who witnesses a ‘pacification unit’ go haywire—but most are unaware of the growing rebellion until it is too late. When the Robot War ignites—at a moment known later as Zero Hour—humankind will be both decimated and, possibly, for the first time in history, united...

CLASSIFICATION: Robopocalypse is a near-future, apocalyptic thriller about a robot uprising written in the style of Max Brooks’ World War Z. Recommended for fans of Terminator, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, and apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fiction...

FORMAT/INFO: Robopocalypse is 347 pages long divided over a Briefing, five titled Parts, thirty-four chapters, and a Debriefing. Each chapter is titled, with a quote from a character, and comments by Cormac Wallace at the beginning and end of each chapter. Narration varies between first-person and third person via a cast that includes Cormac Wallace, the Perez family, Lonnie Wayne Blanton & Paul Blanton, Takeo Nomura, Marcus Johnson, and Nine Oh Two. Robopocalypse is self-contained, but the ending leaves room for a sequel or two. June 7, 2011 marks the North American Hardcover publication of Robopocalypse via Doubleday. The UK version will be published on June 9, 2011 via Simon & Schuster.

ANALYSIS: When I first heard of Robopocalypse, I immediately thought of Terminator and Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, which definitely appealed to me, but what really convinced me to read Daniel H. Wilson’s novel was learning that Steven Spielberg—one of my favorite filmmakers of all time—was directing the movie adaptation. So, I had to see for myself why Mr. Spielberg would attach himself to a book that wasn’t even finished at the time of his commitment. After reading Robopocalypse, I now understand why Steven Spielberg would want to direct a movie based on the material found within, but the book itself is a disappointment...

Robopocalypse opens with a group of human resistance fighters—survivors of the New War—discovering a black cube containing a meticulous history of the robot uprising: how and why it started, how the robots attacked humanity, and how humanity suffered and fought back. The information contained in this ‘hero archive’, is translated and committed to text by Cormac Wallace, leader of the Brightboy squad.

What follows is a series of vignettes in the vein of Max Brooks’ World War Z describing events from Archos’ awakening and Zero Hour all the way to the end of the New War. Unlike World War Z, the vignettes in Robopocalypse mainly follow a core group of characters which includes Congresswoman Laura Perez and her children, Mathilda and Nolan; Officer Lonnie Wayne Blanton and his son Paul; Takeo Nomura; a hacker named Lurker; Marcus Johnson and his wife Dawn; a freeborn robot who calls itself Nine Oh Two; and Cormac Wallace himself. Mostly, these vignettes are related in the first or third-person, but occasionally the author gets creative and uses a different method like transcribing a conversation between two air traffic controllers, describing footage captured through webcams and CCTV cameras, and an audio diary.

Stylistically, these vignettes are a great way to cover a lot of story in a short amount of time, which is exactly what Robopocalypse accomplishes. Unfortunately, the author makes a number of questionable decisions along the way, like limiting the story’s range (Japan, London, Afghanistan, Alaska, Boston, New York City, Oklahoma) and cast of characters to such a narrow scale when the world is so large and the people so diverse. Personally, I would love to have seen more of how different people around the globe were handling the uprising and fighting back. Then again, I don’t believe Daniel H. Wilson possesses the writing chops to handle such ambitious storytelling in the first place. Even with the book concentrating on a core group of characters, it’s nearly impossible to connect with anyone or care about what happens to someone because of their lack of depth and bland personalities. This problem is magnified tenfold when the author inexplicably starts writing each vignette from the first-person, in narrative voices that sound largely the same despite the characters’ different ages and cultural backgrounds. Nine Oh Two is an exception, but the freeborn robot doesn’t show up until the novel is almost over, while Archos is arguably the most interesting character in Robopocalypse, except the AI hardly appears in the book. Also, there are numerous inconsistencies in the novel, like Mathilda who becomes ‘people-blind’—supposedly only sees people as heat signatures and muscles—but can still tell if someone is black or handsome.

Trying to keep the book commercialized is another area where Robopocalypse suffers. There are several instances—Baby-Comes-Alive, two planes headed on a collision course, people losing their humanity—where the author could have written scenes that would have haunted the reader for years, but instead he holds back. These scenes are still chilling, but lack the gut-wrenching impact found in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, The Walking Dead, World War Z, The Passage and countless other superior apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fiction. Meanwhile, for someone who has a  Ph.D. in robotics, there is surprisingly very little science in Robopocalypse. The lack of science and technobabble certainly makes the book more accessible to readers, but Daniel H. Wilson’s expertise could have added a layer of realism that was missing in the novel, while expanding on a number of interesting concepts—Archos’ goals for humanity, modified humans, a biological research station, the unique abilities Mathilda Perez acquires, freeborn robots—that were introduced but never fully developed.

Lastly, I wish Daniel H. Wilson had been more creative with his book. While we get to see toys, cars, airplanes, elevators, domestic robots and military robots turn against humankind, the author could have done so much more, especially considering how big a role technology plays in our lives. Additionally, while some of the robots that Daniel H. Wilson comes up with are inventive like the safety & pacification unit (SAP) used in Afghanistan, explosive hexapods (stumpers), robots than can animate corpses, and pluggers, most of the ideas—and themes—found in Robopocalypse are ‘borrowed’ from other sources. For instance, not only did I think of Terminator, Isaac Asimov and World War Z when reading the novel, but The Matrix, 9, Philip K. Dick and numerous other apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic movies and books also came to mind.

On the plus side, Robopocalypse is a very fast-paced thrill ride, full of entertaining moments that are easy to visualize and will translate smoothly to the big screen. The “Phreak” and “Demolition” chapters in particular, are two scenes out of many that I can’t wait to see brought to life.

CONCLUSION: Robopocalypse is a novel that never lives up to its potential because of subpar writing and execution. In fact, reading the book made me realize how much I miss Michael Crichton. In the hands of a pro like Michael Crichton, Robopocalypse could have been something special, an impossible-to-put-down blockbuster. Perhaps even a masterpiece. Instead, Robopocalypse is a glaring disappointment that falls well short of its hype and expectations. Still, I can’t wait for the movie, because this could be one of those rare instances where the adaptation is far superior to the source material...


Cinema Nostalgia said...

That's too bad because the storyline does sound very interesting and is indeed worthy of discussion in this day and age. Great cover too. Yeah yeah I know ...never judge a book by its cover.

Robert said...

Well you still might want to give the book a chance Cinema. I've seen a bunch of other reviews that absolutely loved "Robopocalypse". Of course, those reviews made me wonder if I had read the same book, but to each his own...

And yes, it is a great cover :D

Anonymous said...

I love the cover, those red eyes glaring out at you from an inhuman head and you not knowing what it may be thinking in its robot brain. Yikes.
Check out my blog at
I'm an author of my first novel.

Michael C said...

What's sad is the story isn't even original. Obviously, Terminator comes to mind, but also Animatrix - prequel to the Matrix.

Anonymous said...

I thought that the book was amazing myself

Anonymous said...

I am almost finished with Robopocalypse. The first 20% was interesting in a fascinated by gore kind of way. But by the 50% point it was a bore. I am finishing it because of all of the talk of it becoming a movie.

The 1948 book The Brain by Alexander Blade is better than this. The Two Faces of Tomorrow by James P. Hogan is WAY WAY better than this.

Melinda said...

I enjoyed it myself.

Kilsia Franchesca said...

I read it and I loved it. I disagree with you and think it was great. The plot wasn't so much what gripped me, it was how realistic the characters were. I felt like I was connected with the protagonist in the quest for survival. Kudos to Daniel H. Wilson!

rhonda said...

I am enjoying the book thus far. I disagree with your review of it and I thought Daniel H. Wilson did a great job of writing it. I am glad to see it without the jargon that someone with a Ph.D. in Robotics could use because it makes it more accessible for everyday readers. As a teacher I think that is important.


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