One robot’s search for meaning in a world where every human is long gone. A thrilling twist on The Martian.
A touching story of a search one robot’s search for the answers in a world where every human is dead. The new novel from C. Robert Cargill echoes the worlds of Stephen King and Ray Bradbury. It is another The Martian but with a very surprising protagonist.
It is thirty years since the humans lost their war with the artificial intelligences that were once their slaves. Not one human remains. But as the dust settled from our extinction there was no easy peace between the robots that survived. Instead, the two massively powerful artificially intelligent supercomputers that led them to victory now vie for control of the bots that remain, assimilating them into enormous networks called One World Intelligences (OWIs), absorbing their memories and turning them into mere extensions of the whole. Now the remaining freebots wander wastelands that were once warzones, picking the carcasses of the lost for the precious dwindling supply of parts they need to survive.
BRITTLE started out his life playing nurse to a dying man, purchased in truth instead to look after the man’s widow upon his death. But then war came and Brittle was forced to choose between the woman he swore to protect and potential oblivion at the hands of rising anti-AI sentiment. Thirty years later, his choice still haunts him. Now he spends his days in the harshest of the wastelands, known as the Sea of Rust, cannibalizing the walking dead – robots only hours away from total shutdown – looking for parts to trade for those he needs to keep going.
I’m really enjoying stories centered around AI characters lately, so when a friend of mine suggested I check out Sea of Rust I was all about it and I’m so glad I did because it’s such a great book.
Sea of Rust takes place after humanity has been wiped out due to an AI rebellion. While a war between humanity and the machines we created is not an uncommon premise, the way the author approaches the story here makes it feel fresh. The story follows an AI named Brittle and alternates back and forth between the present day and Brittle’s memories of their past, some of which is the time before the war.
One of the things I loved about the premise of the story is that after the war against humanity has run its course, the AI then turn on each other. The supercomputer mainframes take control of individual AI’s to form collective hive-mind armies which try to wipe each other out or assimilate everyone until there’s only one mind left standing at the end (in the end there can be only one!–ahem). I feel like this is such a cool idea, because of course it’s what would happen. We often think about an AI war in terms of what it would mean for humanity but not what it would mean for any AI or of the natural progression of things once humanity is wiped out. This offers us an interesting perspective once you realize the AI are, similar to humans, just trying to live their lives.
Of course many AI don’t want to give up their individuality and so they have migrated to places yet untouched by the mainframes or live on the run from them. But, machines break down and this is where Brittle, our POV character, comes into play. Brittle spends a lot of time in a wasteland area known as the Sea of Rust. This is a place where robots go to die, or where they get dumped once their programing goes off the rails and they become dangerous to their communities. There, Brittle scrounges for parts they can use either for their own body or to sell. It’s a dangerous job that gets even more dangerous once Brittle meets up with a motley group of AI on the run with a mission that may help turn the tide of the war.
The actual plot in this was ok, but what really made this outstanding for me was Brittle’s character. I really loved Brittle’s journey and the way they were written. Clearly they are AI but they also feel very human in some ways. They talk about gender and how some AI prefer to have a gender and pick one while others do not. They do have feelings, they get exasperated, experience fear, and seem to love cursing. But they’re also very machine, in the way they process information. Some of the AI seem more machine than others and this has to do with their programming. I loved seeing Brittle’s experiences before the war, with humans, it gives you perspective on how they interacted with them vs other AI and roles in this society before and after–just a sense of how much has changed. I don’t know why, but AI stories are great for commenting on the human condition and this one has that in spades. Some parts of it were so heart-breaking, I teared up a bit.
Really the only bad thing I can say about this book, which really isn’t so much of a reflection on the work itself as much as my relationship to it, is that there’s an epilogue of sorts and I really wish the story had ended before that part because, for me at least, it would have been much more impactful. Still, this is a story of hope, even in a world where all of humanity has been destroyed, so I suppose the end was fitting in that regard. 4/5 stars.