The time between the moment when Wilson’s 2011 novel first bleeped on my radar and the moment when I actually decided to read it was immense. The topic interested me (end of the world, robot war, man versus tech, weeeee). It was sitting on the shelf at the book store. I picked it up. I read the title. Ugh. I put it back. Robopocalypse? What a horrible title. Makes me think of Terminator. No thanks. The scene repeated itself every time I returned. What is a title to a book really? A coincidental adjective. A marketing device. A chance. And yet my distaste for the title kept me from buying it. It took a free copy of the e-book to get my eyes on it at last.
And of course I enjoyed it. Of course I had been avoiding it for nothing, just like I had avoided Margaret Atwood’s writing for years because I had gotten it into my head that I didn’t like her work. Robopocalypse is a quick, entertaining read with all the usual interesting questions about humankind’s relationship with technology that I want in robot-themed sci-fi, though the “found first-hand account” form didn’t rate high for me and sometimes felt stretched, but it didn’t detract as much as I thought it might when I began reading.
The story in a nutshell: Man creates super-intelligent robots. These robots love life and are smart, so smart that they immediately see mankind for the threat to all life that it, in its current form, so often seems to be. (Or I should say, “it” as it is ultimately a singular robot “brain” known as Rob that uses other robots and computers and tech to enact its madcap, murderous plan.) So the robots decide to wipe out mankind, in the interest of saving all life on the planet (which they study in fascinating tree-like stations). Kind of a strange twist.
But what does the story say about technology? What doe it say about Wilson’s vision of the world and robotics (this man is also a robotics engineer, fyi)? What does it say about our own obsessions and fears, considering it was a New York Times bestseller? I may tend to Ludditery, but at the end of the day I really like technology. I wish we could get our shit together when it comes to using up the non-renewable resources to make it, but yes, I like the internet and I love e-reading and having Google maps on my telephone and all the thousands of other little ways in which technology makes my life full and interesting and convenient. (I can point to William Gibson’s collection of essays Distrust that Particular Flavor and everything Cory Doctorow has ever said or written for helping me clarify these thoughts for myself.) So how would Wilson answer these questions?
Point: We have surrounded ourselves with technology. Point: We don’t know how most of it works. Point: Being so dependent on technology means that when/if that technology goes wrong, we are fucked. And not in the good way. The implication that mankind is a threat to all life is, well, fucking obvious when you look at the way we’ve decided to interact with the world as a species and culture. But the implication that technology is dangerous surprised me, particularly coming from an engineer. At first glance, Robopocalypse seems particularly bleak on the “is technology good or evil” front. However, it also offers an alternative. One engineer who innately understands the workings of robots (as well as being married to one) learns how to free robots from Rob’s control who then fight to protect him and other human survivors. Other robots awaken to Rob-free consciousness and share the desire to destroy the despotic Rob who wants to control them. Perhaps what the reader is meant to take away from the story is that surrounding ourselves with technology that we do not understand is a mistake, while an understanding of how the tech in our lives work can be empowering, even life-saving. Looks like we’ve arrived back at Doctorow after all.
Ultimately, every robot-turns-against-man story is a retelling of Frankenstein, a revisiting of the hidden fear of every artist and parent and creator. What if we manage to create something we don’t understand? What if our creation turns against us? What if our pitchforks aren’t enough to keep things under control? The act of creation begins with control and ends with a complete loss of it as we send our creation into the world and it begins its life independent of us, be it child or novel, computer or program. After the control of creation, the separation can be terrifying. But knowledge can ease the fear, and help us to engage in a healthy relationship with our creations.
buy, borrow, burn
This is a buy or borrow book. It isn’t the kind of book I can imagine wanting to reread in the near future, but the questions it poses are interesting enough that I may want to take another look in the far future. If you love robots, buy it. If you find robots interesting, the library is the place.