ROBOPOCALYPSE, by Daniel H. Wilson. Doubleday, 347 pp., $25.
There are novels, and there are movies, and then there are novels that really want to be movies. Daniel H. Wilson's "Robopocalypse" is a member of that third category, and it occupies territory most successfully colonized by Michael Crichton: science (here, robots) goes horribly awry (they kill a sizable percentage of the world's population) and then, when everything looks lost (most non-robots are forced to work in slave labor camps), human beings band together to turn the tide (well . . . you get the idea).
Wilson's debut novel has already succeeded spectacularly in one respect: Steven Spielberg was so enamored of the incomplete manuscript that he immediately adopted it as his next project. He's due to shoot "War Horse" first but reportedly had a scriptwriter translating the book's pages into screenplay format as Wilson wrote them.
The highest compliment that can be paid "Robopocalypse" -- and it's a pretty good one -- is that it will make a totally badass movie. For about 150 pages, it's a tremendously fun entry in the apocalyptic subgenre of science fiction, brimming over with creepy imagery of children fighting haywire computerized toys and old men tearfully struggling with their suddenly murderous android wives. The book's most vivid, visually evocative passages are, in fact, highly Spielbergian, as though "Robopocalypse" were a novelization of the eventual movie and not the other way around. (Full disclosure: this reviewer has read and enjoyed his fair share of movie novelizations. Literature is where you find it, I guess.)
When the dust settles, though, it becomes apparent that the robots in the story are a little more interesting to Wilson than their human foes, and when they're removed from the settings where we first meet them, it becomes harder and harder to tell apart Wilson's acid-washed everydudes. I started thinking of one as "the guy fighting the crazy Afghani robot diplomat" and another as "the guy fighting the creepy crab-walking land mine things."
In fact, the most indisputably compelling characters here are robots -- both a heroic android awakening to the possibilities of sentience, and the book's terrifying, ultrasmart villain, Archos, whose personality is realized in the slow revelation of his plans for humanity.
"You have unleashed the greatest good that this world has ever known," Archos tells his creator near the beginning of the book. "Verdant forests will carpet your cities. New species will evolve to consume your toxic remains. Life will rise in its manifold glory." It's frightening mostly because it sounds morally defensible. There's plenty of imagination in this book; it's just not all in the right places. A little more character development would have gone a long way.
If anything, I wish the book had been longer -- its protagonist, a soldier named Cormac, falls in love with a bandit named Cherrah over the course of the story, but we never get to see the two of them alone together, which seems a shame. There's a lot of speechifying about the human cost of war, but not as much illustration of what makes that cost so dear.
Wilson understands that the book's stakes must be high if we're going to maintain our investment in it. Several characters die truly horrible deaths, some in the service of a greater cause, some simply as the casualties racked up in war. Sometimes, it's not clear why we bothered getting to know a character at all -- too many people seem to exist simply to deactivate some large and vital part of machinery before they die bravely -- but the book's scope is impressive. The story is told from more than a dozen different perspectives, the best interlocking with one another to form a complete picture of which no one narrator has the whole.
There are a few problems with the book's design, most simply of confidence. Wilson begins each chapter with a portentous introduction from our man Cormac, who has composed the book after the war has ended, as though the author is afraid we're not really into the narrative and need to be goosed forward by a cryptic prediction of everlasting change every few pages.
He needn't worry too much. Despite its flaws, "Robopocalypse" is exactly what the travel agent ordered, and copies of the book will be happily and rapidly consumed during plane flights and on beaches like so many hot dogs. Which is to say that they won't be terribly nutritious, but they'll be consumed with relish.
Twenty minutes after the war ends, I'm watching stumpers pour up out of a frozen hole in the ground like ants from hell and praying that I keep my natural legs for another day.
Each walnut-sized robot is lost in the mix as they climb over each other and the whole nightmare jumble of legs and antennae blend together into one seething murderous mass.
With numb fingers, I fumble my goggles down over my eyes and get ready to do some business with my little friend Rob, here.
It's an oddly quiet morning. Just the sigh of the wind through stark tree branches and the hoarse whisper of a hundred thousand explosive mechanical hexapods searching for human victims. Up above, snow geese honk to each other as they glide over the frigid Alaskan landscape.
The war is over. It's time to see what we can find.
From where I'm standing ten yards away from the hole, the killer machines look almost beautiful in the dawn, like candy spilled out onto the permafrost.
I squint into the sunlight, my breath billowing out in pale puffs, and sling my battered old flamethrower off my shoulder. With one gloved thumb, I depress the ignite button.
The thrower doesn't light.
Needs to warm up, so to speak. But they're getting closer. No sweat. I've done this dozens of times. The trick is to be calm and methodical, just like them. Rob must've rubbed off on me after the first couple years.
Now I see the individual stumpers. A tangle of barbed legs attached to a bifurcated shell. I know from experience that each side of the shell contains a different fluid. The texture and heat of human skin initiates a trigger state. The fluids combine. Pop! Somebody wins a brand new stump.
They don't know I'm here. But the scouts are spreading out in semi-random patterns based on Big Rob's study of foraging ants. The robots learned so much about us, about nature.
It won't be long now.
I begin to back away slowly.
"C'mon, you bastard," I mutter.
That was a mistake: to talk. The heat from my breath is like a beacon. The flood of horror surges my way, quiet and fast.
A lead stumper climbs onto my boot. Gotta be careful now. Can't react. If it pops I'm minus a foot, best case.
I should never have come here alone.
Now the flood is at my feet. I feel a tug on my frost-covered shin guard as the leader climbs me like a mountain. Metal-filament antennae tap, tap, tap along, questing for the tell-tale heat of human flesh.
Oh Christ. C'mon, C'mon, C'mon.
Excerpted from "Robopocalypse" by Daniel H. Wilson. Copyright © 2011 by Daniel H. Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.