Robopocalypse wants so badly to be World War Z with evil robots that it’s disappointing when it doesn’t capture that book’s best aspects. Like World War Z, Robocalypse—which surprised the literary world when Steven Spielberg optioned it before it even landed at a publishing house—strives to display how the gradual rise, sudden takeover, and terrifying reign of humanity’s new robot overlords affects a far-flung set of characters from all over the world. Unlike Z, however, Robopocalypse limits itself so much that it never truly seems epic, and that makes its larger flaws harder to forgive.
Structured as a collection of descriptions of footage recorded by the evil A.I. Archos throughout humanity’s war with the robots (which humans win, according to the very first page), Robopocalypse opens with a desperate scientist attempting to sequester the malicious A.I. he’s developed, realizing too late that it’s tricked him. From there, Archos infects the world’s robots, from domestic helper-bots to smart cars to robotic toys. The earliest sections of the book—before the robots launch their sudden, brutal assault on humanity—are the best, as Wilson lets creepy suggestion stand in for more action-packed spectacle.
And once the robots start their war, the book is still fairly entertaining. It’s trashy (how could it not be?), but Wilson has a verve for figuring out how humanity’s cars, cell phones, and other helpful gadgets might abruptly turn on their owners and trick them into death. His characters are also well-chosen to signify how humanity almost immediately begins to fight back through creative ways the more precise Archos can’t predict.
But as the novel wears on, Wilson’s debt to World War Z grows increasingly thin. Where Z traversed the globe and told its story almost entirely via horrific little vignettes, Robopocalypse instead focuses on seven or eight characters. An elderly Japanese man who longs to rescue the mind of his beloved robot companion from Archos is fun, and a 14-year-old girl who unexpectedly becomes the war’s most important figure is similarly fascinating.
But by limiting the focus so much, Wilson robs the war of some of its scale and terror. It increasingly feels like something that happened to about 10 people, with a simple point-A-to-point-B trajectory. One character makes an important discovery that another broadcasts to the world, and a third uses it to fight the robots. This might work if the characters were more interesting, but most of them are variations on military-fiction archetypes.
Wilson also sets up images of grand terror, then doesn’t know what to do with them; he’s too focused on his central storyline of how the war was lost, then won. Brief mentions of terrifying work camps where robots experiment on humans don’t get much weight, and the book spends minimal time explaining how independent human communities function in the post-robot-uprising world. It’s telling that the book’s best section—a brief tale of men sent to the remote wilderness to drill a hole, realizing they’re there at the behest of the devil himself—ends with broad fatalities.
Spielberg’s interest in this material is obvious: Wilson has the lean pacing and solid action sequences of a young Michael Crichton. It’s a pity, that he also has Crichton’s hackneyed characters, without his ability to portray a truly epic scope.