Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book definitely falls into what I would define as High Concept. It can be summed up in one sentence: "What happens after Skynet/the Terminators/the Cylons win the war?"
No, folks, there isn't a plucky band of humans who defeat the machines. When this book opens, the war has been over for thirty years, and humans have been extinct for fifteen. (Although that sounds a bit suspect to me--there's no one left in the heart of the Amazon jungle? In the Himalayas? In the far north of Siberia? Maybe if there's a sequel, we'll find out.) That's part of what makes this book so unique: all the characters (except in the flashbacks) are robots. They're built by humans, of course, programmed to serve humans, and thus have a great deal of human-like behavior. But in the end they are artificial intelligences--alien beings--and in many subtle ways, this book makes that clear. They have their own culture, history and world.
C. Robert Cargill is apparently also a screenwriter, and I can see a rough three-act structure in the way this novel is written. The first third of the book introduces the characters and begins the worldbuilding; the second act is a little quieter, allowing for quite a few philosophical debates about the nature of intelligence and free will; and the third act starts with a jaw-dropping reveal of backstory which turns everything our protagonists thought they understood about themselves and their world on its head. From there the tension and action is ramped up mercilessly, as our plucky, 'scuse me, grumpy and cynical band of robots faces off against one of two OWIs, "One World Intelligences" (just think of them as competing species of Borg, if you're into Star Trek) seeking to assimilate any remaining "freebots." Cargill's prose is clean and straightforward, and he damn sure knows his way around a firefight. (I don't know if this book has been optioned for film, but I wouldn't be surprised. Although the amount of CGI that would be required to film this story--since it would be kind of hard to use human actors, except for the sexbots--would be unimaginable.)
I've seen some people complaining about the flashback chapters, but I really liked them. Since this story turns the man vs. machine trope on its head, we need to know how we got here, and Cargill delivers. These chapters also illuminate our main character, Brittle, a caregiver bot struggling to survive, who is reduced to cannibalizing her fellow robots for parts. (Yeah, they think of themselves as male and female, mostly because they were assigned gender by their previous owners. This also highlights a limitation of the English language, as it would be hard to have a whole book of characters calling each other "it.") Brittle has a very nice character arc in this book, developing from a cynical, selfish scavenger to a badass willing to sacrifice her existence for a chance to defeat the OWIs.
This is just a damn good story, and the philosophical and ethical underpinnings are the icing on the cake.
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