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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

'Robopocalypse's' human survivors rage against the machine

Filmmaker Stephen Spielberg committed to direct the adaptation of Robopocalypse in October of 2010. Daniel H. Wilson's sci-fi novel wasn't published until June 7 of this year, but maybe Spielberg's "precogs" from Minority Report told him it would be a hit.

It always annoys me a little when publishers release books presold as movies-to-be, since it makes the publishing business feel like an extension of Hollywood. As the source of the 2013 film release of America's most successful movie director, Robopocalypse arrives pre-annointed as a significant novel, and it feels scarcely relevant whether it lives up to the hype. For what it's worth, Robopocalypse turns out to be an exciting and imaginative technothriller, like the kind the late Michael Crichton used to write.

Robopocalypse resembles Max Brooks' entertaining bestseller World War Z, only if you searched the manuscript for the word "zombie" and replaced it with "robot." Like Brooks, Wilson previously wrote a satirical handbook about surviving a sci-fi apocalypse, then used his research as raw material for a sprawling, multi-character novel. Robopocalypse takes place in the near future, but many of the book's military, industrial or domestic robots seem technologically plausible. The servant robot model called "Big Happy" sounds like a taller, more sophisticated version of the Asimo.

Wilson borrows a page from the Terminator movies, where the Skynet artificial intelligence system became self-aware and launched "Judgment Day," a thermonuclear war against humanity. In Robopocalypse, a superintelligent computer program called Archos murders its programmer, sends its consciousness into the grid and lays the groundwork for "Zero Hour." The book's early chapters present testimony from ordinary people — from a fast food worker to a military contractor in Afghanistan — who notice machines malfunction in sinister ways. One chapter evokes John Carpenter's The Thing as the roughnecks of a drilling company fulfill a mysterious assignment in icy Alaska.

Archos turns on humanity not by launching nuclear warheads, but turning robots, Smartcars and other advanced tools against their maker. The book subsequently follows such characters as an English computer hacker, an elderly Japanese inventor and an Oklahoma police officer as they struggle to survive, regroup and take the fight to the robots. By the end, the rebels refer to the enemy as "Rob," like the way U.S. servicemen called the Viet Cong "Charlie" in the Vietnam War.

Wilson has a knack for setting up and drawing out exciting sequences, and doesn't get bogged down with the specs of the various weapons and other gizmos. Robopocalypse grabs the reader earlier on, but feels increasingly insubstantial as it goes along. Essentially all of chapters involve some kind of life-or-death situation, which gives the book a fast pace but eliminates most opportunities for characterization. It's like Wilson started with a huge manuscript like Stephen King's The Stand and cut out all the talking scenes and slow parts. Sections involve tensions between Native Americans on a remote reservation as they build a new army, but intriguing character details receive no payoff. It's still a fun read, but makes you suspect that the movie will be better.

Robopocalypse. Daniel H. Wilson, Doubleday, $25, 347 pp.

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