Daniel Wilson is a PhD roboticist who made his name with a series of fun, light science books about robot uprisings and similar subjects. But his new novel, Robopocalypse, is anything but fun and lightweight: it's a gripping, utterly plausible, often terrifying account of a global apocalypse brought on by a transcendant AI that hijacks the planet's automation systems and uses them in a vicious attempt to wipe out humanity.
Robopocalypse opens on the first days after the terrible robot war, with Cormack Wallace, a human soldier, contemplating a "black box" containing the war's history as recorded by Archos, the rogue AI that nearly exterminated the human race. After this bit of stage setting, we go back to the months before the war, when a researcher unwittingly creates Archos and then loses control of it when it murders him. A series of small, grisly episodes follow in which automation systems are compromised by Archos and domestic robots, autonomous cars, and other devices turn on their owners. These presage the war that is to come.
But the war, when it arrives, is far more brutal than Wilson hints. Archos possesses perfect global coordination, and so when the killing begins, it is near-total and so swift that humanity hardly knows what's coming. Cars mow down people in the streets (even as their owners, trapped within, scream in horror and beat at the windscreens); elevators and domestic robots conspire to drop terrified people down empty shafts or shake them to jelly; planes crash themselves; buildings seal themselves and asphyxiate their occupants.
But some humans survive, thanks to luck and sheer numbers and a bit of cunning, and these humans live to fight. Slowly, and with little success (at first), humanity strikes back at the robots, learning something about the threat they face. Archos is adaptive, though, and every successful measure evinces a countermeasure, horror piled on horror that will have you glued to the pages.
Like Max Brooks's World War Z, Robopocalypse is structured as a kind of oral history, composed of vignettes that take the form of first person accounts, transcripts, technical documents and so on. This is a great literary device in that it dispenses with much of the stage-business in novels where characters get from A to B so that the reader can see what's going on — rather, the author is free to jump from anyplace to anyplace else, telling the story with a viewpoint that's both omniscient and intimate.
But Brooks's novel had very little in the way of recurring characters, while Robopocalypse quickly converges on the stories of a dozen or so freedom fighters whose lives gradually become entangled. This recurrence gives Robopocalypse something World War Z lacks: heart, in the form of character arcs, wherein heroes learn and change and grow, and we get to root for them.
The film rights to Robopocalypse have been bought by Stephen Spielberg, who has announced a big-budget feature for 2013. If the script is at all true to the novel, it might just be one of the best and scariest science fiction movies of all time.