Have you ever seen a movie where you get the idea that you are watching a really great production but parts of it are missing? Maybe the budget wasn’t big enough so things didn’t get filmed or the dialog just doesn’t quite tell the whole story.
I’m pretty sure that Daniel H. Wilson didn’t run into budget problems when writing Robopocalypse but it feels like he did. It should be a great, high concept, end of the world, dozens of characters come together to save mankind sort of story. Instead it’s a series of vignettes that are loosely tied together by a narrator. This is a story of a brilliant idea after it’s been living in a cave in the mountains for months with nothing but lichen and the occasional insect to feed off of. All the fat has been trimmed away leaving something so lean it tastes… Okay I think I’ve used up that metaphor. The point is that Robopocalypse has one of the best ideas that I’ve ever heard and in the hands of somebody with more patience this could be a brilliant Spielbergian end of the world opus. Instead it’s kind of short and over too quickly and maybe just a little lame.
I had two major problems with this book. The length and the format.
In the near future everything we own will be controlled by robots — this is already basically the case, the toys, microwave, oven, cars, and most household appliances are all computer driven in some way. What if a malicious virus infected all of those appliances and made them try to kill humans? That’s the idea behind Robopocalypse and it’s brilliant. These are household tools, and they’ve turned on us.
We are fundamentally — in America, at least — a technology dependent society and we become more so every day. Twenty years ago the Internet was used for communication between military branches and a few over excited early adopters who had slow dialup modems. There was no Google, or Facebook. Some websites have risen to the top and then fallen to the bottom so far that nobody even remembers them (Excite!, Alta Vista) in that same short time. Our technology drives our economy and our lives. Cameras and cellular phones are in everybody’s pockets. Cars will parallel park for you or tell you when something is in your blind spot. GPS and online maps tell us how to get around, the toys sing and dance, cameras apply digital filters and processing to pictures before we even see the result, even our clothes can be wired with heaters and phone chargers. These are not inherently bad things.
But how much should we trust our technology to guide us and tell us what to do? Thousands of people found themselves lost or misdirected when Apple unrolled their maps app because some of the information it contained was incorrect. The fact is that we trust our technology implicitly and by extension the people that create it and sell it to us.
This particular discussion is ignored by Robopocalypse, however. Instead it jumps right from “robots want to kill us” to “well we taught them” with little in between. There’s a trek across a continent, on foot, fighting robots that are evolving and getting better at hunting humans the entire way and the whole thing is summed up in a couple of pages. I guess in a world of ten book cycles of never ending plots it should be refreshing to read something that concludes in just one volume but I really felt cheated by how quickly everything just wrapped up.
My second complaint, though, was the one that bothered me the most. I can get over the lack of discussion of social impact — this just wasn’t that kind of story — not all of them are. The format was inherently flawed.
The idea was that a soldier finds a data recorder that the robots used to catalog all the action of the most heroic humans during the titular Robopocalypse. He’s compiled all those stories together so that it will chronicle, not only the events that led up to the end of the world but also the people who saved the human race. Most of these vignettes are told in the first person of each of the characters, as they are in the format of voice journals or police interviews. However each character spends vast amount of time inserting exposition that they did not need to say. A normal person doesn’t describe how a toaster works when talking about making toast for breakfast in their journal. A normal person might not even mention that the toaster exists. Our technology is so ubiquitous that we don’t even remember that we have it. However, every single character in Robopocalypse spends a significant amount of time making sure we know what each household appliance can do, what it should do, and what it is doing wrong. As a third person narrative, that might work. As a first person narrative — telling the story to the reader — it might work. (I say might on both of these because I think with a little more thought and a lot more trust in the readers the exposition could be hidden away entirely.) As a series of epistolary scripts to people who already know these things, it is damagingly distracting.
After the book gets going the exposition calms down and story moves along, by jumping to the end of the conflict.
I feel like Daniel H. Wilson has a fascinating concept here and I would love for an editor to have given him some advice about the exposition at the beginning and I would like for him to have had the patience to continue the kind of detailed story telling he started with through to the end of the book.
In short, if the ending were more like the beginning and the beginning more like the end it would have been a much better novel. As it is, I’d rather see the movie.