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Daniel H. Wilson (www.danielhwilson.com)
Daniel H. Wilson (www.danielhwilson.com)

Review: Fiction

They, robots. We, humans Add to ...

I keep seeing the future, and I'm sorry to say it's an apocalypse of blood. Here's how it plays out. Humanity is confronted by the unknown - by, let's say, an ultimate threat arising from the benthic deep or dropping from dark skies or crawling out of our machines. Humanity, caught short, fractured, weak, human, wonders, Is it worth fighting back? Can we?

Why do end times always play out this way? Why must the unknown, lurking out there just beyond the circle of firelight, so frighten us? This fear of the new, the unknown, was impressed on me yet again while watching the first episodes of the new TNT show Falling Skies. The action begins in the opening seconds with the stalwart humans of the 2nd Massachusetts army resisting alien creepy-crawlies hell-bent on the destruction of this good green Earth. The show, brought to us by the U.S. ambassador to the unknown, Steven Spielberg, will no doubt find its niche in the ecosystem of summer thrills, but I wonder why the aliens need to be so blood-lusty and rapacious. Does he not remember his own early work, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, wherein the unknown spares us precisely because we are fragile?

Coming up (in 2012) from Spielberg is the film adaptation of Robopocalypse, by Portland author (and Carnegie Mellon-trained roboticist) Daniel H. Wilson. In his sixth novel, Wilson (age 33) opens with the destruction of his own version of "The Other"; viz., an emergent (and efficiently lethal) artificial intelligence named Archos. Prologue dispatched, we jump back to the first strike, then move chronologically through the 32 months leading through manifold defeats to our ultimate triumph. This time is, for humanity, an apocalypse of blood during which we are confronted by an ultimate threat and wonder whether it is worth fighting back. Etc.

Wilson has written that his interest lies not in reinventing apocalyptic fiction but rather in hanging interesting ethical questions and heroic motivation on familiar themes. For this reason, we can take as read that an emergent AI would be unwelcome (we've now reached Spielberg's mid-period, 2001's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence) and that such an entity would take aggressive actions to safeguard the planet from our own messy, unpredictable, harmful humanity: "All your ancestors' lives," Archos warns us, "the rise and fall of your nations, every pink and squirming baby - they have all led you here, to this moment, where you have fulfilled the destiny of humankind and created your successor. You have expired."

There's an unfortunate sameness to the characters, whether rough-and-ready brothers in their 30s (there's an inside joke here to Wilson's 2010 battling-brothers book Bro-Jitsu) or an 11-year-old girl with an unlikely role to play in the proceedings or a battle android unaffiliated with either side (another inside joke, to a toy the author bought on the night of his first date with his now wife) who surely will star in the book's sequel. Maybe there's a message in this sameness, that humanity is itself a character to be celebrated, just as perhaps all technology, every buttoned and Bluetoothed object that makes our life easier, is to be scrutinized and respected.

Underlying Robopocalypse's battle scenes, among those questions and motivations, Wilson seems captivated by evolution. For Archos, that involves increasingly complex behaviour, ever nastier foot soldiers, and a reverence for Life. For humans, sadly, evolution runs the typical gamut: Sometimes we co-operate, sometimes we squabble, mostly we adopt Archos's own ruthlessly binary approach to decision-making, losing our humanity to save Humanity.

Again, must it be so? In the just-completed WWW Trilogy, by sci-fi author Rob Sawyer, a blind 16-year-old stumbles upon an emergent A.I. obsessed with the sanctity of Life. The U.S. government freaks out; various nations try to exterminate the entity before it can destroy us. But the teen heroine champions it: "I'll tell you this: it's far more likely to develop to be peaceful and kind with us as its … its mentors than it is with the military or a bunch of spies trying to control it."

Unlike Robopocalypse and Falling Skies (but similar to E.T. and Close Encounters), that trilogy is aimed at a youth market - open, optimistic youth for whom the unknown represents not threat but possibility. That's a vision of the future I prefer.

John Burns is executive editor of Vancouver magazine and a university writing instructor.

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