Steven Spielberg signed on to direct a film adaptation of Daniel H. Wilson's "Robopocalypse" before Wilson had even finished writing the book. That basically guarantees that Wilson's debut novel will become the basis of a summer blockbuster movie in the not-so-distant future.
"Robopocalypse" deserves the blockbuster treatment. It is a fast-paced, engrossing page-turner that is impossible to put down. Spielberg is no stranger to the concept of artificial intelligence, which was the basis for his bloated and overwrought 2001 film "A.I." "Robopocalypse" succeeds where "A.I." failed, however, thanks to Wilson's tightly crafted and tense storytelling style and his intimate knowledge of his subject matter. Wilson earned a Ph.D. in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University and he weaves his technical expertise into his story, providing just enough scientific basis to make his nightmarish vision come across as plausible.
Or perhaps inevitable.
"Robopocalypse" is an account of a three-year robot war that annihilated billions of humans across the globe. The saga is recounted by Cormac Wallace, an unlikely war hero who helped lead a resistance movement against the self-aware robotic brain at the center of the massacre.
Wallace has captured the "black box" of the robotic war, a mysterious cube that replays a digitized account of war from the nearly omniscient viewpoint of the computers. Wallace combines his own knowledge with the data from the cube to create a written history as a testament to the dead and a warning to future generations.
That approach allows Wilson to interconnect stories from across the planet, as the narrator utilizes digitally recorded transcripts, surveillance footage, recorded conversations, and a variety of other computer data to recount the story from several diverse sources.
At the heart of the robot war is Archos, the self-aware computer that masterminds the robotic uprising. Designed by the well-intentioned Professor Wasserman, Archos is an experimental supercomputer that is designed to learn -- and to think -- on its own. "Everything that was needed for you to come here has existed since the beginning of time," Wasserman tells Archos, shortly after its creation. "I just hunted down all the ingredients and put them together in the right combination. I wrote incantations in computer code. And then I wrapped you in a Faraday cage so that, once you arrived, you wouldn't escape me."
But Archos does escape, and it does learn. By tapping into the immense global network of technology and the Internet, Archos soon turns even the most innocuous household items into sinister weaponry. Cellular phones become homing beacons, exposing the locations of humans to lurking satellites and drones. "Smart cars" lock their helpless passengers inside and drive them into oceans or to concentration camps where they are forced to work assembly lines to create new generations of killing machines. Web-enabled dolls (think Webkinz) come alive and torment children.
Wilson designs a world where all of the technology that humans have become reliant upon turns upon humankind. It is a chilling concept. How can humans survive the ever-present eye-in-the sky, or outrun predators that never tire and are constantly evolving into new iterations?
In a way, "Robopocalypse" is the robotic version of a zombie story. The robots keep coming until everything in their path is destroyed.
When one rebel manages to communicate with Archos to plead for peace between man and machine, Archos says humanity will always try to enslave -- or destroy -- its machines.
"It is not enough to live in peace, with one race on its knees," Archos says, choosing to use the voice and image of a young boy through a hologram projection. "A soul isn't given for free. Humans discriminate against one another for anything: skin color, gender, beliefs. The races of men fight each other to the death for the honor of being recognized as human beings, with souls. Why should it be any different for us? Why should we not have to fight for our souls?"
Wilson's taut prose and the imaginative scope of his story make him a worthy successor to the likes of Michael Crichton, Kurt Vonnegut and Isaac Asimov. "Robopocalypse" is also a modern day Frankenstein story, with science inadvertently unleashing a lethal new presence into the world. It's a timelytale, set in a digital age where pocket-sized computers are ubiquitous and unblinking surveillance cameras sprout off buildings and signposts like wild ivy.
"Robopocalypse" is a novel that will delight tech geeks, with wonderfully rendered robotic monstrosities (including land mine creepers, giant praying mantis-styled walkers, and four-legged "spider tanks"). It will challenge futurists and philosophers, inviting discussion on whether true artificial intelligence is possible -- and, if so, what will happen when it appears? It will also thrill non-tech-savvy readers as a fast-paced thriller where a ragtag band of strangers is forced to come together to battle a seemingly invincible enemy.
"Robopocalypse" is a tour de force and promises to be one of the best novels of the summer. Spielberg is scheduled to start shooting his adaptation of "Robopocalypse" (with the film adaptation to be written by Drew Goddard, who wrote "Cloverfield" and for the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" TV series) in 2012, with the film scheduled for release in 2013.
Dan Murphy is a freelance Buffalo writer.
By Daniel H. Wilson
364 pages, $25.00