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Daniel H. Wilson on the art of making scary robots

Daniel H. Wilson's first novel, "Robopocalypse," was released in June of 2011.


To count the number of robots who rebel against humanity in the annals of science fiction is to count the stars. But the inventive killing machines who inhabit the new, bestselling novel Robopocalypse enjoy a unique distinction, having been created by an actual roboticist: A veteran of the Carnegie Mellon University robotics lab, author Daniel H. Wilson earned a doctorate in that discipline as well as a master's degree in machine learning.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Wilson's are some of the ugliest customers ever to aim a death ray into a mob of squealing humans. Not that they favour such jejune capers: Beginning with rogue elevators that shake their passengers into jelly (a product of Wilson's graduate research on so-called smart homes for senior citizens), the author progresses steadily up the horror scale until a final battle in which his human heroes are forced to gun down attacking corpses of fellow soldiers reanimated by scorpion-like robots embedded in their backs.

"There are an endless number of things to discover about robotics," the author, 33, says cheerily, speaking on his cellphone from home in Portland, Ore. So many, in fact, that when it came to writing an accessible novel, Wilson deliberately limited the amazing reality in the name of credibility.

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"A lot of it is just too fantastic for people to believe," Wilson says, describing whole frontiers of technology he deliberately omitted from his book's blood-spattered battles: real-life robots that climb walls with technology borrowed from gecko lizards, others that emulate water-strider bugs, one that crawls over the surface of a beating heart.

Among the new-age robots Wilson did include in Robopocalypse are flesh-actuated land mines that swarm like fire ants in search of biological prey, self-driving cars (which run amok to great effect) and diesel-powered "exoskeletons" that massively increase the strength and mobility of their wearers.

The criterion for inclusion was simple: "I tried to stick with things that are in solid prototype form now and will appear in the near future," the author says.

No kidding: Top producer-director Steven Spielberg has already snapped up film rights to Robopocalypse and promised a 2013 debut for his version of the mayhem. As it stands now, the novel is such a perfect fit it could never have been conceived by a writer unfamiliar with Spielberg's films.

Along with the explosions and gore, Robopocalypse delivers a superabundance of everyday heroism - all humans who survived the New War are heroes, states the veteran who provides retrospective narration - and a focus on character as much as machine.

"I didn't want the focus to be on the robots that much," the roboticist says. "My goal really was to create an incredibly tough survival situation for the human beings and to see how they'd behave. …

"Part of that," he adds, "is describing human beings from the machines' perspective, so that we get a feel for how complicated and unpredictable we really are."

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So are the robots, as it happens, some of whom turn against the giant artificial brain that directed them to murder human beings in the millions. "The further you get into the book you start to realize that the machines have complicated goals - and wiping out humanity is not one of those goals," Wilson says.

By the same token, warning humanity against the potentially nasty behaviour of smart machines was not one of Wilson's goals in writing Robopocalypse.

"I really do love robots and I love technology. I think it's all great," he says. As for the premise of his book, he laughs at the suggestion that he, a certified expert in the field, might actually buy it.

"The short answer," he says, with a certain condescension, "is no. I absolutely don't think a sentient artificial intelligence is going to wage war against the human species."

In the end, the machines Wilson deploys in Robopocalypse are the oldest literary contraptions of all. "I think the robots are a metaphor for our technology in general," the author says. "We humans have a love-hate relationship with our technology. We love each new advance and we hate how fast our world is changing. … The robots really embody that love-hate relationship we have with technology."

Although he has made his living as a writer now for six years, beginning with a lighthearted "non-fiction" book called How to Survive a Robot Uprising, Wilson is still surprised to find himself jockeying nothing more sophisticated than a word processor for a living.

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"This has been a journey," he says. "As a kid I wanted to write science fiction, and I was never without a book. Later I really got into being a scientist and never thought I'd be writing novels."

But the first book did well enough to seal the deal forever. "I hope this novel is the start of many novels, and I will continue writing till they stop me," he says.

Given the instant success of his debut, cars will fly before that time comes.

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