Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This one has been on my list for a while, discovered somewhere online. It seemed right up my alley. I was reminded to tackle it after my friend Emily read it recently, and I wanted to see if my impression lined up with her criticisms. This book continues my post-apocalyptic theme. It was another very fast read – I devoured it in two sessions in a total of about 3 hours.

Spoilers are below the cut, although the narrative style of the book (found documents) makes that largely moot.

I’m concentrating on the writing style because I think it’s the aspect that will most affect a reader’s impression of the book. This is an entry in the long tradition of found document literature, implemented with a prologue and epilogue featuring the narrator, with a chapter for each document. The interesting variation in this case is that it’s all from the point of view of the villain, but since the villain is an AI, they’re all just straight recordings based on whatever sensors it had available in the area. The narrative voice thus comes in with a human introducing each found document.

Where this style fell on its face was the use of foreshadowing – the ending is known from the prologue, and each chapter ended with a comment along the lines of “Little did X know what an important role they’d play…”. I’d much rather be surprised as events unfold. I did like the touch of quotes about humanity and machines in the header for each chapter.

As far as writing quality, I just found the actions of the characters a bit unbelievable. The cast was also too large, but not given enough time to develop before the climax. I’d say the best character was actually the “freed” military robot that turned out to have a critical role in the finale. The technical details of that character, and most of the other computer systems, were, however, spot on. This all made sense as soon as I read the back flap and found out that the author has a PhD in robotics from CMU. Suffice it to say it does not surprise me that an expert from one of the premier robot labs in the country would be better at writing about machines than people. I’m glad I didn’t know that going in, because then I would have been more biased while reading.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, but I think the story and style could have been improved by a more experienced author. On the other hand, that probably would have lost a lot of the technical accuracy that appealed to me as a computer scientist. I don’t know how to strike that balance, but I can think of a few authors (among them, my favorite, Neal Stephenson) who can pull off both the wordcraft and world-building of a great writer and do crazy amounts of background research necessary to “speak the language” to an audience that includes subject matter experts.

I’d recommend it if you’d be interested in the technical writing and can ignore the problems, but not strongly enough to override your usual book preferences.


2 responses to “Robopocalypse”

  1. Nelson Avatar

    Yeah, I enjoyed this book enough to read it twice but it feels like a “me too” response to World War Z, which was significantly better written. That said, once I got past the clunky writing and silly coincidences, I was fascinated by the world he created. I guess I’m a sucker for good world-building, and I’m willing to forgive many sins if a writer creates an interesting, believable world.

    1. I only read the first chapter of World War Z in a bookstore, and it didn’t grab me. Zombies are just not my subgenre of choice.

      I suppose this apocalypse is actually possible, if you believe in hard AI. I thought the insane AI being an environmentalist was an interesting take on it.

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