Nicolas Ward's Reviews > Robopocalypse

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson
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's review
Jun 14, 12

bookshelves: fiction, robots, sci-fi, post-apocalyptic
Read from May 26 to 27, 2012

** spoiler alert ** This one has been on my list for a while, discovered somewhere online. It seemed right up my alley. I was reminded to tackle it after my friend Emily read it recently, and I wanted to see if my impression lined up with her criticisms. This book continues my post-apocalyptic theme. It was another very fast read - I devoured it in two sessions in a total of about 3 hours.

This review contains spoilers, although the narrative style of the book (found documents) makes that largely moot.

I'm concentrating on the writing style because I think it's the aspect that will most affect a reader's impression of the book. This is an entry in the long tradition of found document literature, implemented with a prologue and epilogue featuring the narrator, with a chapter for each document. The interesting variation in this case is that it's all from the point of view of the villain, but since the villain is an AI, they're all just straight recordings based on whatever sensors it had available in the area. The narrative voice thus comes in with a human introducing each found document.

Where this style fell on its face was the use of foreshadowing - the ending is known from the prologue, and each chapter ended with a comment along the lines of "Little did X know what an important role they'd play...". I'd much rather be surprised as events unfold. I did like the touch of quotes about humanity and machines in the header for each chapter.

As far as writing quality, I just found the actions of the characters a bit unbelievable. The cast was also too large, but not given enough time to develop before the climax. I'd say the best character was actually the "freed" military robot that turned out to have a critical role in the finale. The technical details of that character, and most of the other computer systems, were, however, spot on. This all made sense as soon as I read the back flap and found out that the author has a PhD in robotics from CMU. Suffice it to say it does not surprise me that an expert from one of the premier robot labs in the country would be better at writing about machines than people. I'm glad I didn't know that going in, because then I would have been more biased while reading.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, but I think the story and style could have been improved by a more experienced author. On the other hand, that probably would have lost a lot of the technical accuracy that appealed to me as a computer scientist. I don't know how to strike that balance, but I can think of a few authors (among them, my favorite, Neal Stephenson) who can pull off both the wordcraft and world-building of a great writer and do crazy amounts of background research necessary to "speak the language" to an audience that includes subject matter experts.

I'd recommend it if you'd be interested in the technical writing and can ignore the problems, but not strongly enough to override your usual book preferences.

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Reading Progress

05/26/2012 page 25
7.0% "Interesting narrative device, I forget what found documents are called. Coelacanth metaphor might be a bad sign..."
05/26/2012 page 159
46.0% "Enjoyable so far, although the narrative style is annoying in two ways: first, the narrator foreshadows things too much in the wrapper paragraphs for each chapter, and second, some of the character voices in the found documents feel unrealistic. It strikes me that this would adapt well to a mildly interactive video game, where each chapter is a puzzle level with some plot, and Cormac's narration is the level select."
05/27/2012 page 347
100.0% "Finished it another two-hour session after dinner. Fast read. Now that I know that the author has a PhD in robotics from CMU, it all makes sense, the style."

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