Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Review: Robogenesis is a solid summer read

Posted By on Tue, Jun 24, 2014 at 3:12 PM

In his new novel Robogenesis (Doubleday Books, 2014), Daniel H. Wilson does not stand on ceremony; the action starts quickly and keeps moving. 

Robogenesis is the sequel to the 2011 Times bestseller, Robopocalypse. The first book examined a worldwide war between humankind and a thinking computer, Archos R-14

Like the preceding book, Robogenesis jumps between a series of characters around the world as it explores the postwar landscape. Even with the majority of the human population dead, there's little peace to be found.

Between a rising warlord and a power struggle, the hunger for power is keeping things from settling for humanity. The free-thinking robots which helped defeat Archos have started a city in now-empty NORAD. To top it all off, an earlier version of the Archos AI is undertaking its own, quiet campaign for power. 

Something that should be minor but isn't in the sci-fi genre is the cast. Unlike much of the genre's white-boys' club, Wilson's books have heroes who are female and/or non-white. One of the major factions — the one responsible for destroying Archos R-14 in the first book — is mostly the Osage residents of Grey Horse, Oklahoma. Wilson includes hispanic characters, a major plot arc in Japan, and even has robots of both sexes. 

From the engineer-grade names to the tech to the core of the story, it's clear Wilson is a doctor of robotics and an expert. Robopocalypse was praised for how plausible its take on a robot uprising was. With the first living computer built and beaten, a sizable population of free-thinking robots, and more than a few cyborgs and upgraded humans exploring the landscape, Wilson is free to start speculating further. His post-war world is an open playground for new life.

That is where the story shines, in the grey area between animal and machine. Ambiguous identity is a recurring theme in the book, as is metamorphosis. The mechanical wildlife, made of plastic and metal, is perhaps his most compelling detail. The great slugs grazing the plains of Oklahoma and the robotic deer feeding on overgrown shrubbery in Central Park make his apocalyptic landscapes come to life. In Robogenesis beats the heart of classic speculative fiction.

Still, Robogenesis has its shortcomings. The novel jumps between 10 perspectives in around 360 pages. Wilson's characters each grow, but everything feels very rushed. Each chapter's time stamp states the novel takes place over 11 months, but things move too quickly to really hit home. Nobody has the time or space to develop and get the audience attached. They're a little better than the non-character clever machines Larry Niven (Ringworld) and Isaac Asimov (I, Robot, Foundation trilogy) often put forth, but they still feel rote. His use of first-person perspective helps, but it's not the gentle way of making a reader care. 

On the surface, Robogenesis reads like Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, Timeline) with an ending as abrupt as its beginning. Whether action or introspection, nothing happens slowly in Wilson's book. A few too-complete reveals in the first third of the book hurt the tension in the other two sections, which examine roughly the same period of time from different points of view.

The Adderall-age pacing in Robogenesis does the most damage to the most fascinating parts of Wilson's imagination. The grey-area characters straddling the line between animal and machine are the reason for the plot that glosses them over. Even a hundred pages more might have been enough to let Wilson guide us through his fascinating world.

With all that said, Robogenesis is still a worthy summer read. It's the second in a series that will have at least one more book, and the middle child in a trilogy is often prone to feeling rushed, or starting and ending awkwardly. It's not Ray Bradbury, but it's not trying to be, and it's certainly not bad. Though it doesn't shy away from darkness, the book's brisk pace keeps it from getting too heavy. Wilson also does a good job of keeping his characters in order.

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