Robot end of the world can’t quite top zombie finish

In the wake of the pirates vs. ninjas match-up (how did that come out, anyway?) comes another, even more intriguing face-off: Robots vs. zombies.

The thought comes to mind as I finish “Robopocalypse,” a recent novel by Daniel H. Wilson, a guy with a doctoral degree in robotics and a hell of an imagination.

There are no zombies in Wilson’s end-of-the-world and beyond — well, not really — but clearly “Robopocalypse” is shooting for the same pop culture impact as Max Brooks’ “World War Z.”

Both novels recount the end of the world. Brooks’ 2006 book is about how society breaks down when zombies begin to spread like a virus. Wilson’s story is a near-future tale about what happens when artificial intelligence emerges and decides it deserves to inherit the earth.

Both books employ the technique of alternating chapters telling the story from the points of view of diverse narrators. Brooks’ book rarely returned to the same characters as it jumped from India to the American west to the international space station.

Wilson’s book, however, follows a half-dozen storylines and that many groups of humans as they survive, elude and eventually fight back against the robot revolution.

In the future portrayed in the book, robots are much more commonplace in our society. Most cars are automated, so when Archon, the AI that leads the revolution, gives the order, they begin running down pedestrians. Robotic household helpers commit bloody murder and electronic peacekeeping robots turn on their armed forces comrades in Afghanistan.

Wilson’s idea of recurring narrators will probably make it easier for director Steven Spielberg to turn the book into a movie, a project that’s been announced but not yet begun. The fractured narrative POV of “World War Z” means that the movie version — now in the works — had to add a human narrator to appear throughout the story. In the movie, he’s played by Brad Pitt.

“Robopocalypse” is clever and often thrilling with a likable group of characters and some genuine suspense.

I have to say, though, that I preferred “World War Z” for a couple of reasons. Brooks’ novel isn’t afraid to let readers figure out things for themselves. Wilson’s book, narrated by a young soldier, over-explains what’s happening. Almost every chapter is filled with intriguing scenes and characters but ends with a narrated paragraph reiterating the importance of the developments we’ve just seen and those to come. They’re totally unneeded.

I’m also kind of surprised that a couple of the strongest plot twists and characters don’t happen a little earlier. They’re turning points, to be sure, but by holding them back, Wilson deprives us of some of the most engaging characters until the last few chapters.

Nevertheless, Wilson’s “Robopocalypse” is a very good sci-fi adventure. If you’ve read it and “World War Z,” you’ve read the best latter-day takes on the end of the world.


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