If there’s such a thing as voodoo in literary circles, a lot of jealous sci-fi writers are probably burying needles into tiny Daniel H. Wilson dolls these days. What struggling novelist wouldn’t be envious of Wilson’s trajectory? None other than Steven Spielberg reached down from the heavens to option his new novel “Robopocalypse” — a deal brokered before the book was even finished, by the way — and rights to his still-unpublished follow-up have already been snapped up by another studio.
How does a 33-year-old robotics engineer become the heir apparent to Michael Crichton? Attracting a name like Spielberg certainly helps, but so does following the path taken by fellow sci-fi upstart Max Brooks. In 2003 Brooks broke through with the pithy parody “The Zombie Survival Guide,” and the resulting novel “World War Z” has been spun into a movie due next summer starring Brad Pitt.
Similarly, Wilson published the mock guidebook “How to Survive a Robot Uprising” in 2005, and “Robopocalypse” is its fiction spinoff, a crisply efficient and intermittently chilling summer read that carries such propulsive energy you can practically see the film’s storyboard being shaped behind every word, possibly because that’s exactly what was happening once a certain director got on board.
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if you can overlook some clunky dialogue and story turns in line with summer blockbuster season. Using a similar oral history-styled conceit as “World War Z,” Wilson enlists civilian-turned-robot war veteran Cormac “Bright Boy” Wallace to anchor a series of first-person flashbacks to various sides of the uprising, from its ominous beginnings to its ultimate conclusion in snowy Alaska (though there’s room for a sequel, naturally).
As is often the case with these kinds of things, the trouble begins when an artificial intelligence experiment called Archos grows just smart enough to kill its master, a statistics professor in Washington state. Often taking the disturbing form of a small child with an auto-tuned voice, Archos gradually releases a virus that leads the planet’s network of machines to violently turn on the human race.
The conflict’s beginnings provide some of the book’s most effective moments, such as a slow-witted young employee recounting a domestic robot laying brutal siege to an ice cream shop and an unnerving transcript of air traffic controllers struggling to separate two airliners whose navigation systems start having homicidal urges.
Robot uprisings are well-worn territory in science fiction, and as if to underscore his awareness of the fact Wilson peppers his story with references to his forebears. A talking doll threatening a young daughter of a congresswoman nudges against Roy Batty’s dying words from “Blade Runner,” and a surveillance “bug” that appears once the robots evolving into new forms will seem familiar to fans of “The Matrix.” Other nods, such as allowing Archos to briefly appear as a large eye not unlike Sauron from “Lord of the Rings,” feel more forced, but such in-jokes mostly feel comforting.
Wilson’s war includes darkly comic touches, such as the fastidious robots compulsively clearing away the human remains after every attack, and a murderous elevator communicating with its familiar “ding” as it cheerily lures elderly retirees to their deaths. These details add a richly haunting atmosphere to the robots’ tactics, but it’s a shame that the humanity isn’t drawn with similarly vivid colors.
Wilson casts a wide net with his heroes, including a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, a Japanese factory manager and an impromptu militia developing out of Oklahoma’s Osage Nation. As pleasantly diverse a lineup as it is, their ham-fisted dialogue — such as “Being hurt isn’t half as embarrassing as being dead” and “She’s a born survivor” — leave them sounding as stiffly mechanical as their attackers. Pivotal moments in which humans learn to reprogram select robots to their advantage feel hastily explained, as does the sudden birth of a few sentient robot allies who join the human side, although, ironically, this logic-driven “Freeborn Squad” feels more alive than any of its human counterparts.
Given the rise of drone warfare, Wilson has terrific timing in building a page-turner around the perils of technology’s advance into our lives. But apart from one character grimly describing some of the war’s victims as “too safe to survive,” this isn’t a book loaded with deep insight. But who has time for such things when there’s so much popcorn to sell?