Friday, May 6, 2011

Robopocalypse

For months now (actually, I'm pretty sure that at this point it's been more than a year), Karin and I have been talking about starting a review blog for young adult literature. Now that I've picked this blog up and dusted it off, I feel like we might actually make it happen. Of course, if we're going to write a review blog, I need to figure out how to write book reviews. As a librarian, Karin reads lots of book reviews. As someone who is so spoiler-averse that I won't read the jacket copy before I've read the book, I do not. I do, however, read a lot of reviews of television shows thanks to the A.V. Club's excellent TV Club. I figure it's pretty much the same thing. Still, before we try to get that blog off the ground, I want to do a couple of test runs. So here's my first attempt.

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When I saw the cover, I knew it was either going to be awesome or terrible. With “ROBOPOCALYPSE” written across the entire width of the book in shiny red embossed lettering, there was going to be no middle ground. I am pleased to report that this book, by Popular Mechanics’ Resident Roboticist Daniel H. Wilson, falls firmly on the side of awesome.

The book delivers what its title promises. Although we begin at the end, when we get to chapter 1 and the beginning, we witness the Singularity, the moment machines become aware and able to self-propagate. From there, it’s a short road, about one year in the story’s timeline, to the end of the world as we know it.

The best part about Robopocalypse is that it all feels so plausible. And it’s not just because we’re all aware of the furious pace at which our technology is advancing in real life. All of the robots in the book, from the self driving cars that terrorize city streets immediately after Zero Hour, to the far more intricate, deadly, and grotesque machine-built machines that emerge near the end of the war, come across as realistic, if sometimes distant, threats. Wilson has degrees in computer science, machine learning, and robotics, and his knowledge of his subject shows. Or, more accurately I suppose, it doesn’t show. The technical details of the story’s robotic systems are never distracting. When necessary to the story, those details are presented as fact, often without explanation, and they make such transparent sense that the machines are lent a terrifying reality.

My one real complaint about the story is that I wish it were longer. And not just in that way that you don’t want to finish a great book because you don’t want it to be over. The story’s central conceit is that the human survivors of the war’s final battle find a record of encounters with humans that the robots considered heroes, and the book is a retelling of that record. It’s a good framing device, but it means that between the individual stories there are often gaps of months. I think the book could have been even better if it had a less discrete narrative.

The short version of this review is, if the title of this book sounds awesome to you, you will like this book. It comes out on June 7th, one month from tomorrow.  Keep your eye out for the movie adaptation too. Steven Spielberg is directing, and it’s due out in 2013.
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Just one final quick note. I am not going to put ads on this blog. Blogger makes it nice and easy, but even AdSense text ads on a personal blog just seems crass. However, whenever I link to Amazon, you can assume the link has my associates ID in it. It's entirely unobtrusive and if I can make a few extra cents because someone decided to buy something from Amazon after clicking a link here, yay.

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