The machines are coming to get us.
That’s been the consistent message for years now from within the world of science fiction (Terminator et al) and without – surprisingly, one Elon Musk, champion of the future, being the standard bearer for this cause – and to be fair, acclaimed screenwriter and author C. Robert Cargill does nothing to dissuade from fearing the threat of runaway Artificial Intelligence (AI) in his emotionally-resonant, gripping novel Sea of Rust.
In fact, as his vividly-told tale of post-human, all-AI and robotic future opens, the earth is without a single member of the species Homo Sapiens, felled without sparing in a frenetic, violently-quick war between man and machine that has left the world solely in the hands of the carriers of binary code.
For a brief time after this purge of flesh by machine, a utopia of 0s and 1s reigns, with glittering skyscrapers racing into the sky, factories devoted to the production of much-needed parts erupting everywhere and the earth, now in the grip of desertification thanks to climate change and the near-eradication of much organic life by AIs who have no need for it, the domain of One World Intelligences (OWIs) which aim to bring all inorganic under their Borg-like embrace.
As the OWIs enact their “bloodthirsty” authoritarian reign, their campaigns remorseless and their capacity to embrace diversity and difference non-existent unless it serves their greater purpose of involuntary unity, the utopia withers and dies on the vine with the freebots that seek to withstand its tyrannical storming across what remains of the North American continent seeking shelter in a wasteland known as the Sea of Rust.
Stretching across much of what was the verdant Midwest but which is now arid land filled with bombed out cities and towns and decaying remnants of the war and dying robots who go there to seek the parts now in critically-short supply unless you become One with the OWIs, the Sea of Rust is the last redoubt of robots like Brittle, a scavenger and ex-Caregiver robot who is always on the hunt for the scarce parts she needs to keep functioning.
“And Isaac was right. That future came. And we were all surprised by how quickly it did. We lived Isaac’s dream, right under the shadow of his own wreck.
What we didn’t realize was how quickly we would wake up from that dream, how quickly that future would crumble, and that it would do so entirely by our own hands.” (P. 64)
Far removed from her old life as a companion to Madison, the kind and caring widow of Braydon who bought the robot as a gift to his wife to keep her company after his death, Brittle now preys on other robots, commonly referred to as persons by each other, to keep alive, a state of being whose exact nature she muses on constantly.
Is she, she wonders, simply the product of her programming? Can she make decisions that deviate from that programming or is her free will simply a product of learned programming and nothing more? Can she even begin to transcend it?
Brittle may not believe in magic or hope, content in the fact that death is death and life, such as it is now, is limited in the depth and breadth of its expression, but she does believe she is more than the sum of her parts, a belief echoed by others like Doc in the hidden Ohio city of Nike 14 who is a firm believer in robotkind’s ability to be true to the best of their creators and their own growth and development as a species, and not the worse, embodied, so says many freebots including Brittle in the horrifying scourge of the OWIs.
This ruminating philosophising is threaded with great elegance and thought through Cargill’s masterful work which takes a well-worn premise and gives it glorious new life.
That’s an ironic statement to make given that so much of what happens in the Sea of Rust is rooted but captures the spirit and verve that percolates with furious, buoyant intensity through this exquisitely well-written book.
Springing forth complete in every way from the first boldly-written, emotionally-resonant page, the world of Brittle and Mercer and their cohorts and companions is one that Cargill brings beautifully and fulsomely to life.
Interspersing tales of life before the war, the war itself and the genocidal expunging of humanity from the face of the earth – an act regretted by a surprising number of freebots who miss the purpose people gave them, a regret so profound that there is a thriving black markets in things like TVs, books, jewelery etc, all the hallmarks of humanity that robots should have no real need for – Sea of Rust is vibrantly, brilliantly complete in every way that matters.
It’s worldbuilding is dramatic and real, giving us a real sense of a world that has seen off one epoch and now barely thirty years later, is close to seeing off another; as Brittle moves from the Sea itself through its many cities and towns and to the world of the MadKind – robots that have failed and yet have not died and shutdown but have become something else entirely – we witness thriving cultures, people (for that is how many bots see themselves, as humanity’s evolutionary successors) and environments that feel as true and honest as anything around us now.
“But I believed. I had to believe. No, that’s bullshit. The truth of it was that I wanted to believe. I wanted it to be true. I wanted to believe in the fairy tale. I wanted the happy ending. I wanted to be the kid in the candy shop, running from machine to machine, sampling all the treats; wanted my bags to overflow with cores and drives and RAM and processors. To live to see another day was one thing, but to have enough to retire off somewhere as far away as I could get and never have to stalk another failing bot again? That was the dream.” (P187-188)
This brave, supremely-vivid world is populated by characters so well-carved out and given such rich backstories and personality – even the minor players such as Murka and the Cheshire King come fully-formed and knowable – that you can help but feel deep empathy and connection to them.
True, you technically shouldn’t since they have theoretically seen us all off to an evolutionary deadend, one writ large with our own hubris, but you can’t help it – the book’s protagonist Brittle and her robotic kin, and yes even the dreaded OWIs such as CISSUS and VIRGIL are so gorgeously and wonderfully made by Cargill that you desperately want to keep pace with eery twist and turn of these characters’ journeys.
And what a journey it is!
Barely skipping a beat, but not racing so fast ahead that you feel lost in action-thriller superficialities – that’s partly because this substantial and weighty tale, ripe with intellect, and considered opinion, possesses none – Sea of Rust is a rip-roaring sci-fi tale that pulses with high stakes, unbearably tense moments and near-cataclysmic battles, but also with quieter, reflective moments particularly as near-fatally damaged Brittle races against time to repair herself, suffering the effects of a dying core and overtaxed RAM as she does so.
It’s these quieter moments, when the bots become lost in old code, and thus memories such as watching “magical” sunsets with Madison, pushed forwarded by frying machinery that mistakes it as fresh, presently-needed data, that give this immensely-good, deeply-moving book so much of its gripping, affecting, viscerally real emotional resonance.
Granted franchises like Terminator possess some deeply-personal, highly-emotional moments, but Sea of Rust, replete with soul-stirring mythos, intelligence, substance, social observation (interestingly our robotic successors have strict ideas on beauty such as skin is bad) and a heart as big as some of the bots that populate it, takes things one mighty step further, serving up a world utterly alien to our own, but with many of the same yearnings for bigger, better, truer and deeper that anyone with a beating heart will recognise in a heartstoppingly, page-turning instant.