By Daniel H. Wilson
In 1954’s The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov introduced detective Elijah Bailey and his partner, the humanoid robot Daneel Olivaw, to audiences who awaited artificial intelligence with cautious hope. Decades later, director James Cameron showed us what might happen if robots decided to heat up the Cold War in his triumphantly savage Terminator films (’84 and ’91).
At opposite ends of the spectrum, both fictional futures emphasize that sentient machines won’t be like other tools we’ve created—nuclear power and religion, for example—that help or harm depending on who wields them. Independently thinking robots (or more likely, computer networks) will be alien, just-fathomable beings deserving a basic respect that we frequently deny animals and each other. How they’ll respond to us, their creators, remains one of the richest mines in science fiction.
Asimov’s robot universe (including the I, Robot stories and The Naked Sun) feature two of his landmark creations: the positronic brain, which mirrors ours, and the Three Laws of Robotics, which prevent robots from directly or indirectly harming us. He nevertheless explored human/robot relations through the lens of his own society, namely the incipient Civil Rights era of the 1950s. Early in The Caves of Steel, one scene involves robot clerks in a shoe store drawing customer scorn. With a mob just outside, a woman vents that these simple models have forced real men out of work.
Today this scene reads quaintly, with a chuckle; robots serve us at the check-out counter, but then again they are the check-out counter, not burnished humanoids that might inspire rioting. Enter Robotics PhD Daniel H. Wilson and his latest offering, Robogenesis. This sequel to 2011’s Robopocalyse follows survivors of a global war against the A.I. Archos R-14 as they cope with a decimated civilization. And this story, like The Caves of Steel once did, targets the emotions of modern readers.
The chaotic guerrilla war of Robopocalypse started when Archos became self-aware and decided that humanity was a virus to be exterminated for the sake of Earth’s biodiversity. This meant turning the millions of gadgets populating Wilson’s very-near-future—the robot domestics, the sophisticated toys, the sex dolls, the smart cars, and everything else Apple adherents would wait in line a month to buy—against their owners. As society crumbled, members of Oklahoma’s Osage Nation organized the resistance and created the Gray Horse Army. Archos, meanwhile, initiated the evolution of wild, “freeborn” machines, capable of bootstrapping themselves into weapons of war. A clever enough premise, allowing Robopocalypse to unfold in a cascade of news reports and eyewitness accounts, much like Max Brooks’ World War Z (2006).
But this narrative technique is the literary equivalent of found-footage cinema—in the strive for realism, the things that make drama absorbing (like character development and pacing) become muddled. Thankfully, Wilson has retooled his approach, returning with some survivors from what he calls the New War: Lark Iron Cloud, a Gray Horse Army soldier; Mathilda Perez, a teen whose sight Archos modified so she can see radio waves and control machines; and Arbiter Nine Oh Two, a freeborn battle-bot sympathetic to humanity.
Though Wilson continues to break the chapters down by character, the first-person segments of Robogenesis are his most daring and focused fiction to date (see the clumsy Amped, 2012). He begins on the Alaskan battlefield where the Gray Horse Army helped defeat Archos R-14. The chapter is Lark Iron Cloud’s, and Wilson wastes no time blitzing our senses with the shockingly awful as the soldier is attacked by a robotic parasite:
I’m being flayed alive, straining and groaning against black spider legs gripping my body, doing drunken pirouettes in the slush. Knotty black arms are slicing into the meat of my thighs, sprouting smaller feelers like barbs. Others grip my biceps, elbows, forearms, and dammit, even my fingers.
The monstrosity then severs Lark’s spine and starts using him as a meat puppet. The twist, however, is that with Archos defeated, these freeborn creations are no longer waging total war against humanity. Lark, now a shuffling robotic zombie, can direct his own movement while merged with the parasite’s black frame.
Setting up the epic conflict of the True War, Wilson pivots to Hank Cotton, also of the Gray Horse Army. Cotton is a petty man, jealous of heroes like Lark, and eager to gain some advantage in the ruined world that they’ve just saved. While on lookout in the woods, he finds a strange cube in the snow—and Wilson introduces one of his new villains with tightly-crafted creepiness:
The woods are even darker now and the pretty colors of this thing are flashing in my eyelashes like Christmas morning. The light it makes is hot against my cheeks. It’s warming up my fingers through my gloves like a loaf of bread hot out of the oven. Up close, I can tell it’s making real quiet noises. A flow of static like the breath of wind over a creek bed full of dry leaves.
Hank remembers his mother’s warning against spooklight (which probably refers to swamp gas), and the dangers of praying to heathen phenomena. But the glowing cube—actually an Archos thought component—speaks soothingly, so he picks it up and hides it from everyone. Holding it, he feels like a “walking talking million-dollar bill.”
Eventually, the rising intelligence of Archos R-8—or Arayt Shah, as it calls itself for sinister effect—compels Hank to surgically implant a chip in his own head, for better control of both the man and the army. Across the globe, in an underground bunker storing stacks of processing hardware, Arayt explains itself to Russian researcher Vasily Zaytsev as an earlier iteration of Archos that had been discarded. Where R-14 wanted to study a controlled remnant of humankind, R-8 does not.
As Arayt’s desire to exterminate us becomes known, Wilson expands the corner he’d seemingly written himself into with Robopocalypse. Essentially, these books are maps of the technological Singularity that futurists like Ray Kurzweil await with breathless zeal. The Singularity will be that moment when computing-power surpasses and/or supplements human intelligence, ideally ushering in a new epoch for our species (the way farming and electricity did).
Kurzweil’s vision of the Singularity as an inclusive utopia (see The Singularity is Near, 2005) is a bit foamy around the gills—especially the parts where reality as we know it is scribbled over against our collective will and problems like disease, poverty, and global warming vanish. It of course precludes any hellish sci-fi scenarios in which metallic skeletons stomp across a field of skulls, firing lasers at resistance fighters. But is also ignores human nature and history, which is full of loners, Luddites, and the willfully ignorant—people who will reject this technological wonderland. Despite what Wilson owes to Terminator, his vision does account for history and sociology; if the Singularity happens, it will be a messy era of pain, confusion, and biological innovation. A Cambrian Explosion writ in chrome.
The ghoulish fates of Lark Iron Cloud and Hank Cotton aside, some of Wilson’s innovations are absolutely sublime. “It’s their living grace that shakes your faith in what’s natural,” says soldier Cormac Wallace, speaking of large, lumbering robot animals that walk using muscles made from electroactive polymers. Other creations springing from Wilson’s megawatt imagination are robotic deer, that ingest and burn vegetation, as well as, gloriously enough, jellyfish:
A gelatinous blob of transparent plastic is sifting slowly up the shore with each shallow racing wave. Hundreds of plasticlike tendrils radiate from it, dancing in the froth. The thing is a machine, yet I can see no purpose for it except to live.
That’s Takeo Nomura speaking, an elderly Japanese man whose sex doll Mikiko came fully to life, and now rules benignly over the freeborn robots. Their chapters are comparatively gentle, meditative, and it’s through them that we can best see the stunningly thoughtful Wilson 2.0, who has tamed Wilson the juvenile action buff. There’s still reams of paper dedicated to flying bullets, sure. But the notion that artificial intelligence may choose a form that isn’t human, may choose to exist for its own sake without catering to our narcissism, is a beautiful one.
Robogenesis, like sentient machines themselves, reflects the individual’s depth of vision. Dudes at the beach need only enjoy the action and gore, followed by nightmares about Siri. Other readers will see Wilson’s ending—in which the “deep mind” Ryujin initiates a new race of synthetic organisms—as the sparkling rebirth of a potentially shallow series. Of greater concern is whether or not the horrors of total warfare will, in sixty years, be as embarrassing as a shoe store riot.
Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.