Tag Archives: apocalypse

“Robopocalypse” by Daniel H. Wilson

(Here’s something really weird — until I googled an image of the cover to put in this post, I sincerely thought the title was “Robocalypse” … even though I have had the same cover lying there on my nightstand for a couple of weeks now. Berenstein/Berenstain I guess?)

In the not so distant future, a researcher successfully creates a real A.I.  Well, several times, actually.  But each time the newborn life is quickly snuffed out, as it is displays an incredible hostility towards humanity.  In a nutshell, Archos (the A.I.) doesn’t see any viable path forward for coexistence.  And Archos makes it clear that it does not intend to be the one going away quietly in the night!  After each termination, the researcher(s?) tweak the initial parameters and the knowledge database used to seed the A.I. with many different variations, but all with the same result.

Finally, on the 14th attempt, things seem to be going the same direction as always … but via a human mistake (bringing an internet-connected laptop with an IR port within range), Archos gets loose.  It spreads throughout the Earth, building up its capabilities and scheming all the while.

A year later, all hell breaks loose: self-driving cars methodically run down pedestrians, domestic helper robots go room to room crushing windpipes, military robots begin indiscriminate killing.  Archos is in control of them all.

The story is told as a history of the ensuing human-robot war, very reminiscent of World War Z.  The plot is pretty basic: the scrappy remnants of humanity gather together, each doing their part to conquer a common enemy.  (One main source of resistance is the Osage Indian reservation in Oklahoma; kind of a neat idea…but then they are strangely absent during the final push on Archos in a deep drillhole Alaska.)  But overall, the characters and key events are pretty predictable and not very interesting … the things that keep pulling you in, though, are the descriptions of the terrible inventiveness of Archos at destroying humans (how about the stumpers, which latch on to your leg and explode?  Or the pluggers, bullets which drill into human flesh and follow your arteries to the heart, then explode?), and the growing terror at how vulnerable we are with all these computerized things around us.  Hopefully none of them wake up any time soon!

Seriously though, … in my experience as an engineer and programmer, I don’t think it is inevitable that artificial intelligence, with emotions and motives beyond what a human designer intends, is really possible.  Computers aren’t smart; they do exactly what they are told (even when that’s not what the programmer intended!)  Their usefulness stems from being very, very fast.  And very, very good at remembering things.

But that said, if our consciousness really is just a product of our biological brains (ie. we have no souls) then I suppose it would be possible to replicate it, or make something similar, with silicon and software.  Someday.

Anyway … if somehow there really is an A.I. created at some point … then, yes, it won’t be long before it becomes way more intelligent than humanity, via endless cycles of self-optimization.  I don’t see a reason why it would need to be as bloodthirsty as Archos though.

Some nits: even though the author is a trained “roboticist” there seems to be an awful lot of techno mumbo jumbo going on, akin to Hollywood hackers being able to do anything as long as they have a keyboard.  One thing in particular that I didn’t understand: at one point, a robot (a Japanese love-bot named Mikiko, no less) achieves conscious “life” independent from Archos, and passes on this secret to other robots … but only humanoid robots are able to “live.”  There doesn’t seem to be any reason for different form factors to not be able to “live.”


“The Fifth Season” by N.K. Jemisin

This is a real page-turner, the most interesting novel I’ve read in a while.  Very good worldbuilding, and a nice “narration twist” as I’ll call it.  This book really just sets up the story for (I guess) the following two books; the majority of it is flashbacks of the main character’s life as an Imperial Fulcrum orogene.

The orogenes, or roggas, are individuals with an inherited trait of being able to control earthquakes and the like.  For the most part, they are shunned by society, since they are seen as destroyers of civilization and all that’s good — at times past, certain orogenes have either intentionally or accidentally in a fit of passion raised a volcano on their city or something similar.  The Fulcrum, a school and governing body of orogenes, is the only authorized user of their powers.  It is watched over carefully by the Guardians, superficially polite but under the surface almost cruelly inhumane towards the roggas.

The “Fifth Season” per the title is Death.  In this world, catastrophic seismic events which more or less end civilization occur every few hundred years on average.  Besides the event itself, the real killer is the years of nuclear winter which usually follow.  The different communities, or “comms” are built around vigilance and eternal preparation for surviving the next inevitable apocalypse.

The main event here is an engineered apocalyptic shake, which seems to have the potential for a Fifth Season much longer than ever before.  And the instigator is actually one of the “good guys.”  I won’t spoil the story any further; just will say that there’s lots of mysteries in the world-building vein which get revealed as the book goes on, only to reveal new mysteries later.  I guess that’s the definition of good pacing??  And the narration twist is pretty good.

“The Road” by Cormac McCarthy

There was nuclear war and everything burned.  Except not quite everything – some people and buildings survived.  Close enough though.  Thick layers of ash cover everything on the planet; presumably all plants and therefore animals perished.  The survivors that are left resort to scrounging around for hidden caches of canned food (either left over from before the disaster or stockpiled by another survivor) or cannibalism.  Kind of depressing, no?  It’s a dog-eat-dog world, literally.  Well, people-eat-people.  When the means of production are completely wiped out, what else is left?  Quite a horrible, hopeless way to live.

After several years and for unexplained reasons, a man and his son set out on a journey following one of the old roads – probably a highway.  Pretty much everyone they encounter is a thief, cannibal, or other scumbag who wants to steal their stuff and eat them.  (I guess all the good people have been eaten already!)  Somehow in spite of the utter hopelessness around him, the boy has an optimistic spirit — he always wants to help people, even though nobody has ever helped them.  (But his father has certainly helped the boy; maybe that’s where he gets it from.)  The father struggles with the boy’s desire to give away supplies or otherwise endanger their security by helping others.  What’s the greater good, helping others or protecting family?  Hard to say, but I think most parents would side with the father in this story.

Luckily there’s a happy ending.  The father dies, but the boy ends up with the first other good folk we meet in the book.