Book Review: Robopacalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

Short, tl;dr book review: while well written, I preferred this book when it was titled World War Z, but please read the rest of the review because that very short synopsis alone would be selling Robopacylpse short.

Robopacylpse by Daniel H. Wilson is the story of our world, set in the nearish future, when our machines rise up to kill us all. Robots and automation have become ubiquitous in our lives, our cars have computer-controlled autopilots and robots of every shape and size help us with housework, tend to our elderly, deliver our mail, etc. They are in our police forces, our military, our factories and shops, they even are, arguably, our buildings as they control our elevators, air conditioning, fire prevention methods, etc. and so when a rogue AI, created by a government researcher and inadvertently released into the world, decides that for the world to flourish we must die, he’s in a pretty good position to make that possibly happen.

Written in a vignette-style, Robopacylpse does very much closely resemble World War Z. Both stories deal with an apocalypse situation created by a monster of our own making (robots in one, zombies in another) that happens suddenly, bringing about an incredible loss of life over a short period of time, and almost driving our species to extinction. Both novels are told after the fact using scenes from the before, during, and after moments of the wars in question as told by “survivors”; literal survivors in the case of World War Z and a robot archivist computer who recorded the events for posterity for humanity in Robopacylpse.

Both books are well written and do a good job, IMO, of building an emotional connection between the reader and the tragedy of what is going on. One scene in particular in Robopacylpse that got me was where two characters were attempting to escape London via a houseboat on the Thames. They are in the process of getting loose from the pier when a car comes screaming at them, controlled by the enemy AI. They barely manage to get away, the car flying off the pier and landing a few feet short of the boat, when the two characters look at the car and watch it begin to fill rapidly with water. As they watch, they see two tiny, pink hands pressing furtively against one of the windows and are helpless to do anything as the car sinks beneath the surface of the Thames. As a new-ish father (the kid is getting close to two now), that scene got to me because the kid in the back seat, scared to death because the car killed his mom and dad and now, terrified, is trying to get out of the car as the water rises inside it, is my son. There were more scenes like that in the novel but I’d rather not give them away.

The action in both books is descriptively vibrant allowing you to easily imagine what is going on in your head and does a very good job of building up the heroes of the story.

All of this said, I did enjoy Robopacylpse very much but, as I said before, I liked it more when it was World War Z.

While reading Robopacylpse it was difficult to not see how derivative it is, both in style and the general plot outline of what happens. One of the things I liked about World War Z was that particular style of after-the-fact vignettes, that felt new (or at least new to me), and all throughout Robopacylpse I couldn’t get past that similarity. Both follow the same basic formula: 1) world is recognizably ours although in the future; 2) bad guy shows up and proceeds to stomp a mud hole in everyone because they can’t get their stuff together quickly enough to handle it; 3) lots and lots of death, tragedy, and suffering; 4) small, plucky groups of survivors begin making inroads into fighting back; 5) a greater resistance is established and humanity begins to win; and 6) humanity wins but with a (great) cost.

Another stylistic issue I had with Wilson’s writing was that each little chapter had a kind of introduction and afterword to it that really reduced the tension of the chapters in question. If we know, going into the chapter, that it’s about such-and-such character, and that they’re going to be extraordinarily important to the war effort, then it’s pretty safe to say that they’re not going to die or, if they are, they’re going to go out in a particularly useful/meaningful fashion which for me reduced the tension and suspense.

In comparing the plot of the two, Wilson took a more focused approach while Brooks, IMO, rambled a bit (although not in a bad way). Wilson spends his time building up particular characters who are very important to the plot or, baring that, characters who later set up the characters important to the plot. Brooks, on the other hand, has several vignettes that really don’t have much of an impact on the overall plot of the book except that they add color, such as the chapter about the astronauts on the ISS and the things they learned from their vantage point above the earth or the story about the woman and her family fleeing to Canada, being ill-suited for living in nature, and having to resort to cannibalism to survive.

Both books leave with fairly open endings that leave room for further work in those worlds while still standing fairly well on their own.

Honestly, I liked World War Z better because I think that zombies, in a number of ways, are more horrible than robots (although the AI did kind of create zombies in the end, but I won’t say anything more here). Also, World War Z got there first in the after-the-war, survivors’ tale-style in genre fiction (or, at least, it got there first as far as I know; I wouldn’t be surprised if there were similar books published before). That being said, I enjoyed Robopacylpse and don’t regret reading it.

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