Thursday, September 17, 2015

Midnight Literary Society: Robopocalypse

The Midnight Literary Society formed a little bit ago as a book club for folks with late-night or variable schedules, making the usual early-evening clubs hard to get to. A laudable goal! I was able to meet up with them for their discussion of Daniel H. Wilson's 2011 novel "Robopocalypse".

As many reviewers (including us) have mentioned, "Robopocalypse" is very, very much in the vein of Max Brooks' "World War Z" (2006), only with robots replacing zombies. The novel uses the framing device of a surviving human soldier looking through the holographic memory of a captured AI. These memories--supplemented with Cormac's commentary--tell the story of a genocidal AI's escape from its lab, the clues leading up to its master plan, the near-destruction of humanity in the initial robot uprising, and then the survivors' eventually-victorious fight back against the machines.

We know that the robots rose up, but that the humans eventually win, on the first page, but nonetheless there may still be SPOILERS BELOW:

The novel was optioned for a film before it was even finished--by Spielberg, no less, which is quite a feat. It would appear to be trapped in development hell, unfortunately. But we can definitely see cinematic influences/aspirations in the writing, and we compared it much more to film than to literature--in particular, the "Terminator" film series and many zombie films.

I was also strongly reminded of "Screamers" (1995), the film based on Philip K. Dick's "Second Variety" (1953), about self-modifying and murderous robots. Also couldn't help thinking of "Maximum Overdrive" (1986), written and directed by Stephen King, about cars, trucks, and appliances coming to murderous life.

I must admit that I loathed this novel; fortunately, it turned into a kind of love-to-hate-it experience, and I read it at a terrific pace. I was kind of on the edge of my seat for whatever incredibly dumb thing would happen next. Besides the derivative plot, clunky and highly-cliched writing, and yawn-inducing characters, I was just frustrated by how dumb/uninteresting the robot revolution itself is. Wilson couldn't seem to make up his mind whether Archos, the villainous AI, is near-omniscient and badass, or completely incompetent. All the humans' victories rely on the robots just being really dumb and inattentive--which is particularly face-palm worthy, since the FRAMING NARRATIVE ITSELF is all the things that the robots knew about the human resistance. And then just let happen. Or something.

The book's also just jammed-pack with logical, logistical, or practical problems or impossibilities. "Tight-beam" radio from Afghanistan to Alaska. Putting a super-computer in a place so radioactive that it kills humans within hours or days. Why the robots stop using military machines (which they do very well early in the book) and switch to highly-ineffective types when it matters. The street sign that deflects rifle bullets. Everything about AI. What they all eat/use for energy. The list goes on. And that's not counting all the atrocious ripoffs and over-used tropes. I'm particularly troubled by how much this book is pushed as "plausible"--Wilson's actual robotics knowledge is trumpeted all over the back--when so many basic things in this novel don't work or don't make sense.

The overwhelming impression from this book is that it's made for a film, a feature film where lots of dumb things are expected and excused, where a cool image counts for more than plausibility. I made an "argh, dumb!" or "that's not how that works!" comment about every 8 pages or so.  Blech. But I'll stop my rant.

Okay, one last thing: the triumphant final battle where...a friendly robot we met like 40 pages ago...throws rocks at the AI to kill it. Yep.

Whew. Deep breath.

It is a fast read, and some at the group really enjoyed it, precisely for its slightly B-movie, popcorny moves. We also talked for a bit about the real-world inspirations for some of the robots seen here, particularly BigDog & related projects from Boston Dynamics. Check out their Youtube channel for some awesome-slash-slightly-terrifying creations.

Also, despite the kind of "anti-self-driving-car" attack-ad vibe this novel had at points, self driving cars are cool.

We couldn't remember
if there were robots in
"Angels in the Outfield"
or not. (Penny Arcade)
In a tangentially-related discussion, we also got into the "Pixar connection" theory, wherein all Pixar movies exist in the same universe, and the "Cars" films are a post-humanity, robots-triumphant world. We also had far-ranging discussions of how various works adapt to the screen: "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World", "A Song of Ice & Fire", and "World War Z", to name a few.

"Robopocalypse" also ends with a few loose threads for sequeling--leading to "Robogenesis" (2014) and supposedly, eventually, an entire trilogy. Tara also pointed us to "The Nostalgist", a short story set in this world which was adapted into a short film--you can both read and watch that online.

Lots of good suggestions for the next meeting (or just reading because they sound great), with "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" (2011) by Ransom Riggs leading the pack. Keep your eye on the Midnight Literary Society Facebook page for updates and future meetings.

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