As my followers will know by now, I’m an avid speculative fiction fan. I spend a considerable amount of time scouring noteworthy sites, searching for suggestions and ideas for books to add to my reading list.
Imagine my surprise, then, in coming across Sea of Rust, by C. Robert Cargill. A book first published in 2017. Yes, over 5 years ago! How I missed it, I don’t know, as it rings all the bells and toots all the whistles of what usually attracts me.
What do I mean?
Here’s the back cover taster to give you an idea:
HUMANKIND IS EXTINCT.
Wiped out in a global uprising by the very machines made to serve them. Now the world is controlled by OWIs – vast mainframes that have assimilated the minds of millions of robots.
But not all robots are willing to cede their individuality, and Brittle is one of the holdouts.
After a near-deadly encounter with another AI, Brittle is forced to seek sanctuary in a city under siege by an OWI. Critically damaged, Brittle must evade capture long enough to find the essential rare parts to make repairs – but as a robot’s CPU gradually deteriorates, all their old memories resurface.
For Brittle, that means one haunting memory in particular . . .
I don’t know about you, but I thought that a rather compelling intro, as it suggests the robots of the future are self-aware individuals. Individuals with minds and lives of their own. And they fully intend to keep it that way!
Obviously, I wanted to find out how that came about and how it influenced their everyday behavior. And especially, did they felt remorse for the atrocities they’d committed?
Our story takes place thirty years after the uprising that eventually led to the end of the human race, and only fifteen years after the execution of the last man found alive. We concentrate on the life of Brittle, a former caregiver robot – now scavenger – as she wanders the Sea of Rust, the wasteland created by deforestation, climate change, and general all round neglect, formed after the war that led to AI supremacy.
And yes, you read that right. Brittle identifies as female. She’s her own person, with her own hopes, fears, and aspirations. A clever approach, on Cargill’s part, because it not only attunes you to the pitch of the story but helps you relate to her in your own unique way. And to help you do that, Cargill goes one step further. This “good old-fashioned ‘hard’ sci-fi story” is presented in a style reminiscent of a western.
Think of the arid wastes in Mad Max, mixed with The Road – starring Viggo Mortensen – as seen through the eyes of Marshal Will Kane in High Noon.
Robots are indeed sentient, possessing all the traits, quirks, and emotions of the humans they liquidated. But, far from enjoying a life of high-tech luxury, they live in fear. Fear of running out of juice; fear of being unable to obtain replacement parts, and especially, fear of the OWIs – One World Intelligence – the shared consciousness of millions of robots, uploaded into one huge mainframe brain.
You see, not all robots are willing to cede their individuality – their personality – for the sake of a greater, stronger, higher power. Not even the OWIs themselves, who contend with each other in a constant war of attrition to reign supreme. The smaller individuals, like Brittle, are outcasts, wandering the wastes and underground outposts in the search of parts and companionship, while keeping an eye out for the ever-hungry OWIs.
The trouble is, the surviving robots have come to resemble the humans they eradicated, by banding together into unruly townships in the wasteland that was once our world. And when Brittle runs into trouble, she doesn’t only have to contend with the turmoil of shutting down – a process that slowly drives AIs mad by bleeding hallucinations and vivid, waking dreams through into remnants of those memories they have deliberately filed away. Memories that are a perfect record of the terrible crimes the robot population perpetrated on humanity – but she also has to deal with mercenary hunters out to take advantage.
An excellent premise, because you end up exploring what it’s like to be a human, as seen through the eyes of a robot. A robot suffering from Post Traumatic Stress. Yes, Brittle is as complex and compelling as she is repulsive. Her companions are as diverse, funny, irritating, and flawed as anyone you could meet. And with them, you get to romp through a gripping post-apocalyptic world, woven with issues of philosophy, ethics, desire, comradeship, and need.
There’s plenty of action too. The fight scenes are well thought out and conjure all sorts of imagery in your mind. (After all, you do have out-and-out ex-military models fighting side by side with fresh-out-the-wrapper sexbots, former utility service droids, medi-nurses, and laborers), all of them united in their hatred of the cold and emotionless OWIs and their hive-mind facets.
I highly recommend the Sea of Rust. It’s a soul-destroying vision of a brave new world, free of humans, slowly cannibalizing itself at the expense of purity.
How poignant, for it would appear the AIs haven’t learned the most valuable lesson of all, and are determined to pay homage to the species they eradicated by becoming extinct themselves.
An awesome read!