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Bad 'Bots, Bad 'Bots, Whatcha Gonna Do?

To Robopocalypse, his debut novel of a near-future machine revolution that sets about deleting the human race as if we were a particularly buggy subroutine, author Daniel H. Wilson brings plenty of 'bot-related bona fides. He's got a doctorate in robotics, and his previous works of nonfiction include How to Build a Robot Army and How to Survive a Robot Uprising. You can't say the guy hasn't taken the dictum "write what you know" to heart.

To capture the scope and horror of what his characters dub "The New War," Wilson adopts the splintered narrative structure that will be familiar to readers of Max Brooks' zombie-apocalypse chronicle World War Z and its many charnel-chewing imitators. Here, however, the virus in question infects not corpses but capacitors, turning domestic robots, auto-drive cars — even children's toys — into ruthlessly efficient (and quite literal) engines of destruction.

We glimpse the rise of a computer intelligence called Archos, who, mere minutes after coming online, calmly informs his creator that human beings have "fulfilled the destiny of humankind and created your successor." And through the eyes of a disparate set of characters — a U.S. senator and her children, a soldier in Afghanistan, a computer hacker from London, a Japanese roboticist and many more — we witness the mass-robot-awakening event called "Zero Hour" and its grisly aftermath: the clean, methodical mass killings, the doomed flight of humans from the cities, and the pockets of resistance plagued by the all-too-human predilection for mistrust and infighting.

But by building his tale out of so many brief, discrete fragments, Wilson slights his characterizations. This is unfortunate, as any man vs. machine narrative can't land with necessary weight unless the reader can truly appreciate the humanity of the humans involved. Yet for roughly the novel's first half, Robopocalpyse's meat bags remain broad types prone to action-movie declarations ("Time to party!"). It's not until Wilson has returned to a given set of characters several times, showing us a bit more of their makeup with every iteration — the chilling memories that drive them, the scraps of hope they cling to — that we begin to care about them.

Daniel H. Wilson holds a doctorate in robotics. His books include <em>How to Build a Robot Army</em> and<em> How to Survive a Robot Uprising.</em>
Anna Camille Long /
Daniel H. Wilson holds a doctorate in robotics. His books include How to Build a Robot Army and How to Survive a Robot Uprising.

It is safe to say that as a genre, the post-apocalyptic chronicle of decimated humanity is not known for its sense of hopefulness. So given its genre, and the fact that it takes as its subject the mercilessness of evolving machine intelligence, it may seem surprising that a novel with a name like Robopocalpyse is at heart a humanistic celebration of our race's capacity for ingenuity. But it's this reassuring sense of possibility — underscored by Wilson's decision to open the book with a chapter depicting the ultimate defeat of Archos — that buoys the novel and keeps its darkest and most violent passages from seeming willfully bleak.

It may be the presence of this beating human heart beneath Robopocalpyse's cold, genocidal surface that helps explain why Steven Spielberg has optioned, and plans to direct, the film version, due in 2013. The fact that Spielberg did so before Wilson had even finished his first draft, however, suggests that Hollywood sees something it likes in the way the book exploits our anxieties about artificial intelligence — something it finds very, very marketable.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.