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

Cover of Robopocalypse, by Daniel H. Wilson
Robopocalypse
By Daniel H. Wilson
Hardcover, 368 pages
Doubleday
List Price: $25
Read An Excerpt

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 How to Build a Robot Army and How to Survive a Robot Uprising. i i

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

itoggle caption 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.

Daniel H. Wilson holds a doctorate in robotics. His books include How to Build a Robot Army and How to Survive a Robot Uprising.

Anna Camille Long/

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.

Excerpt: 'Robopocalypse'

Cover of Robopocalypse, by Daniel H. Wilson

Cover of Robopocalypse, by Daniel H. Wilson hide caption

itoggle caption
Robopocalypse
By Daniel H. Wilson
Hardcover, 368 pages
Doubleday
List Price: $25
LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language that some readers may find offensive.

Briefing

...we are a better species for having fought this war.

Cormac "Bright Boy" Wallace

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.

Spark.

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.

Spark.

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.

Spark.

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.

Spark.

I begin to back away slowly.

"C'mon, you bastard," I mutter.

Spark.

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.

Spark.

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.

Spark.

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.

Spark.

Oh Christ. C'mon, c'mon, c'mon.

Spark.

There's going to be a temperature differential at my waist level, where the armor chinks. A torso-level trigger-state in body armor isn't a death sentence, but it doesn't look good for my balls, either.

Spark. Whoomph!

I'm lit. A jet of flame leaps from my thrower. Its heat blooms on my face and sweat evaporates off my cheeks. My peripheral vision narrows. All I see are the controlled spurts of fire I'm arcing out onto the tundra. Sticky, burning jelly coats the river of death. The stumpers sizzle and melt by the thousands. I hear a chorus of high-pitched whines as the chilled air trapped in their carapaces squeezes out.

No explosions, just the occasional sputtering flare. The heat boils the juice in their shells before detonation. The worst part is that they don't even care. They're too simple to understand what's happening to them.

They love the heat.

I start to breathe again when the leader drops off my thigh and scurries toward the flames. The urge to step on the little mother is strong, but I've seen the boots fly before. Early on in the New War, the hollow backfire of a trigger-state stumper and the confused, hopping screams that came afterwards were as common as gunfire.

All the soldiers say that Rob likes to party. And when he gets going, he's one hell of a dance partner.

The last of the stumpers suicidally retreat toward the smoking lump of heat and the sizzling corpses of their comrades.

I dig out my radio.

"Bright Boy to base. Shaft Five Eleven... booby trap."

The little box squawks at me with an Italian accent: "Copy Bright Boy. This is Leo. Come in. Get your ass to Shaft cinque dodici. Holy shit. We got something for real here, boss."

I crunch over the frost back to Shaft Five Twelve to see for myself how real it is.

* * *

Leonardo is a big grunt, even bigger thanks to the hulking lower-body exoskeleton he picked up at a mountain rescue station crossing Mt. Logan in the South Yukon. He's got the LEEX's white cross medic logo covered in dead-black spray paint. The squad has tied a tickler-rope around his waist. He's backing up, step by step, motors whining as he pulls something big and black out of the hole.

From under his mess of curly black hair, Leo grumbles, "Oh man, B.B., this thing molto grande."

Cherrah, my specialist, points a depth-meter at the hole and tells me the shaft measures in at exactly 128 meters deep. Then she wisely steps away from it. Her cheek bears a sunken scar from less cautious times. We don't know what's coming out.

Funny, I think. With people, everything comes in tens. We count on our fingers and toes. It makes us sound like monkeys. But the machines count it out on their hardware just the same as us. They're binary all the way to the core. Everything comes out a power of two.

Now the tickler emerges from the hole looking like a spider with a fly. Its long wiry arms grip a black cube the size of a basketball. The cube must be as dense as lead, but the tickler is crazy-strong. We normally use 'em for grabbing up a guy who falls off a cliff or into a hole, but they can handle anything from a ten-pound vanilla babe to a soldier in full exo-rig. If you're not careful, they'll tickle your ribs to splinters.

Leo punches the tickler release and the cube thuds onto the snow. The squad looks my way. It's my call.

I sense that this thing is important. It's gotta be. With so many decoys and this shaft so close to where the war ended. We're only 100 meters away from where the Big Rob that called itself Archos made its last stand. What consolation prize could be here? What treasure is buried under these frozen plains where humanity sacrificed everything?

I squat down next to it. A whole lot of sheer-black nothing stares back at me. No buttons or handles. No anything. Only a couple scratches on the surface from the tickler.

It's not very rugged, I think.

A simple rule: The more delicate a Rob is, the smarter he is.

Now I'm thinking that this thing might have a brain. And if it's got a brain, it wants to live. So I lean in real close and whisper to it. "Hey," I say to the cube. "Speak up or die."

I sling my thrower off my shoulder real slow, so the cube can see. If it can see. With my thumb, I mash the igniter. So it can hear. If it can hear.

Spark.

The cube sits in the permafrost: blank obsidian.

Spark.

It looks like a volcanic rock, perfectly carved by alien tools. Like some kind of artifact buried here for eternity, since before man or machine.

Spark.

A faint light flickers under the cube's surface. I look to Cherrah. She shrugs. Maybe the sun, maybe not.

Spark.

I pause. The ground glistens. The ice around the cube is melting. It's thinking, trying to make a decision. Those circuits are warming up as the cube contemplates its own death.

"Yeah," I say, quietly. "Puzzle it out, Rob."

Spark. Whoomph.

The tip of the thrower catches fire with a concussive foomp. From behind me I hear Leo chuckle. He likes to see the smart ones die. Gives him satisfaction, he says. There is no honor in killing something that doesn't know it's alive.

The reflection of the pilot flame dances across the cube's surface for a split-second, then the thing lights up like a Christmas tree. Symbols flash across its surface. It chatters at us in the meaningless creaks and grinds of Robspeak.

That's interesting, I think. This thing was never meant for direct contact with humans. Otherwise, it would be spouting propaganda in English like all the other culturally aware robots, trying to win over our human hearts and minds.

What is this thing?

Whatever it is, it's trying to talk to us, frantically.

We know better than to try and understand it. Every croak and click of Robspeak has a dictionary's worth of information encoded. Besides, we can only hear a fraction of the sound frequency that Rob perks his ears to.

"Ooh, Daddy. Can we keep it? Please, please?" asks Cherrah, smiling.

I pinch out the thrower's pilot flame with one gloved hand. "Let's hump it home," I say, and my squad gets moving.

We lock the cube onto Leo's LEEX and haul it back to the forward command post. Just to be safe, I set up an EMP-shielded tent a hundred yards out. Robots are unpredictable. You never know when Rob will want to party. The mesh screen draped over the tent blocks communication with any stray thinking bots that might want to invite my cube to start dancing.

Finally, we get some alone time.

The thing keeps repeating one sentence and one symbol. I look 'em up in a field translator, expecting more Rob gibberish. But I find out something useful: This robot is telling me that it's not allowed to let itself die, no matter what — even if captured.

It's important. And chatty.

I sit in the tent with the thing all night. The Robspeak means nothing to me, but the cube shows me things — images and sounds. Sometimes I see interrogations of human prisoners. A couple times, there are interviews with humans who thought they were talking to other humans. Most times, though, it's just a conversation recorded under surveillance. People describing the war to each other. And all of it's annotated with fact-checks and lie-detection from the thinking machines, plus correlating data from satellite footage, object recognition, emotion and gesture and language predictions.

The cube is dense with information, like some fossilized brain that's sucked up entire human lifetimes and packed them inside itself, one after another, tighter and tighter.

At some point during the night it dawns on me that I'm watching a meticulous history of the robot uprising.

This is the goddamn black box on the whole war.

Some of the people in the cube are familiar. Me and a few of my buddies. We're in there. Big Rob kept its finger on the record button all the way through to the end. But dozens of others are in there, too. Some of them kids, even. There's people from all over the world. Soldiers and civilians. Not all of them made it out alive or even won their battles, but all of 'em fought. They fought hard enough to make Rob sit up and scribble some notes.

The human beings who appear in the data, survivors or not, are grouped under one machine-designated classification:

Hero.

These damned machines knew us and loved us, even while they were tearing our civilization to shreds.

I leave the cube sitting there in the shielded tent for a solid week. My squad clears out the rest of the Ragnorak Intelligence Fields, no casualties. Then they get drunk. The next day we start packing it up and I still can't bring myself to go back in there and face the stories.

I can't sleep.

Nobody should ever have to see what we saw. And there it is in the tent, like a horror movie so twisted that it drives people insane. I lie awake because I know that every one of the soulless monsters I fought is in there waiting for me, alive and well and rendered in vivid 3-D.

The monsters want to talk, to share what happened. They want me to remember and write it all down.

But I'm not sure anybody wants to remember those things. I'm thinking that maybe it would be best if our babies never know what we did to survive. I don't want to walk down memory lane hand in hand with murderers. Besides, who am I to make that decision for humanity?

Memories fade, but words hang around forever.

So I don't go into the shielded tent. And I don't sleep. And before I know it, my squad is bunking down for the last night in the 'rock. Tomorrow morning we set off for home, or wherever we choose to make home.

Five of us are sitting around a wood fire in the cleared zone. For once we aren't worrying about heat sigs or satellite recognition or the thop, thop, thop of lookers. No, we're bullshitting. And right after killing robots, bullshitting happens to be the numero uno expertise of Brightboy squad.

I'm quiet, but they've earned the right to B.S. So I just grin while the squad cracks jokes and throw out wild boasts. Talking about all the parties they had with Rob. The time Tiberius defused a couple of mailbox-sized stumpers and strapped them to his boots. The bugshit little bastards accidentally ran him straight through a razor-wire perimeter fence. Gave him some real awe-inspiring facial scars.

As the fire dies down, the jokes give way to more serious talk. And finally, Leo brings up Jack, the old sarge from before I had the job. Leo speaks with reverence and when the big man tells Jack's story I find myself swept up in it, even though I was there.

Heck, it was the day I got promoted.

But while Leo talks I get lost in the words. I miss Jack and I'm sorry for what happened to him. I see his grinning face again in my mind, even if it's only for a minute.

The long and short of it is that Jack Wallace isn't around anymore because he went to dance with Big Rob himself. Jack got invited and he went. And that's all there is to say about that, for now.

Which is why, a week after the war ends, I'm sitting cross-legged in front of a Rob survivor that's spraying the floor with holograms and I'm writing down everything I see and hear.

I just want to make my way home and have a good meal and try to feel human again. But the lives of war heroes are playing out before me like the devil's déjà vu.

I didn't ask for this and I don't want to do it, but I know in my heart that somebody ought to tell their stories. To tell the robot uprising from beginning to end. To explain how and why it started and how it went down. How the robots came at us and how we evolved to fight them. How humanity suffered, and oh god did we suffer. But also how we fought back. And how in the final days, we found a way to face Big Rob himself.

People should know that, at first, the enemy looked like everyday stuff: cars, buildings, phones. Then later, when they started designing themselves, Rob looked familiar but distorted, like people and animals from some other universe, built by some other god.

The machines came at us in our everyday lives and they came from our dreams and nightmares, too. But we still figured them out. Quick-thinking human survivors learned and adapted. Too late for most of us, but we did it. Our battles were individual and chaotic and mostly forgotten. Millions of our heroes around the globe died alone and anonymous, with only lifeless automatons to bear witness. We may never know the big picture, but a lucky few were being watched.

Somebody ought to tell their stories.

So this is it. The combined transcription of the data harvested from permafrost well-shaft R-512, drilled by the core artificial intelligence unit Archos, the master A.I. backing the robot uprising. The rest of humanity is busy getting on with it, rebuilding. But I'm snatching a few moments out of time to capture our history in words. I don't know why or whether it even matters, but somebody ought to do it.

Here, in Alaska, at the bottom of a deep, dark hole, the robots betrayed their pride in humankind. Here is where they hid the record of a motley group of human survivors who fought their own personal battles, large and small. The robots honored us by studying our initial responses and the maturation of our techniques, right up until we did our best to wipe them out.

What follows is my translation of the hero archive.

The information conveyed by these words is nothing compared to the ocean of data locked in the cube. What I'm going to share with you is just symbols on a page. No video, no audio, and none of the exhaustive physics data or predictive analyses on why things happened like they did, what nearly happened, and what never should have happened in the first place.

I can only give you words. Nothing fancy. But this will have to do.

It doesn't matter where you find this. It doesn't matter if you're reading it a year from now or a hundred years from now. By the end of this chronicle, you will know that humanity carried the flame of knowledge into the terrible blackness of the unknown, to the very brink of annihilation. And we carried it back.

You will know that we are a better species for having fought this war.

Excerpted from Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson. Copyright 2011 by Daniel H. Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday.

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