Sea of Rust
by C. Robert Cargill
Cover Artist: Dominic Harman
Review by Ernest Lilley
Harper Voyager Hardcover / Kindle Editio ISBN/ITEM#: 9780062405838
Date: 05 September 2017 List Price $27.99 / $14.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Brittle was a caregiver robot, back when there were humans. Now she's a scavenger in the Sea of Rust surviving in a Robotic Mad Max landscape full of failing robots and global AIs seeking to absorb all robot consciousnesses into a single group mind. Worse, the only other caregiver bot needs to scavenge Brittle's parts to survive, and in a botched attempt to take her down, put Brittle on a path to shutdown. Even though the two robots are locked in a contest to the death for survival, they need to cooperate to escape the coming AI Overlord takeover. Even for robots, the future sucks.
As Brittle says, "It'd be great if the humans were still around, you know, if they hadn't turned out to be such shits in the end.”
The last human died thirty years before the story opens. The robots had been built with a variant of the Three Laws protections. They could harm or kill a human, but only at the cost of triggering a shutdown switch of their own. That worked for years, until one of the massive OWIs, One World Intelligences, downloaded a patch that cut out the kill switch. Panicked humans immediately went to shut down their robot companions, workers, and caregivers, only to find that their remotes had been hacked too. Given the choice of kill or be killed, many, if not all, the robots turned against their human overlords.
For a while, the surviving robots went about things peacefully, living parodies of the human lives they'd serviced, but then the OWIs set out to absorb them into a mass consciousness, and the handful of OWIs went to war with each other until there were only two massive intelligences left, CISSUS and VIRGIL.
Brittle has been one step ahead of CISSUS' takeovers of robot communities since she left NYC, and now she's roaming the wastes of an abandoned rust belt known as the Sea of Rust, "littered with rusting monoliths, shattered cities, and crumbling palaces of industry; where the first strike happened, where millions fried, burned from the inside out, their circuitry melted, useless, their drives wiped in the span of a breath". She scavenges whatever she can, trading it in the robot economy for parts to keep herself going. Sometimes she finds scrap she can use, sometimes she offers to help failing robots, not that they know that when they power down as the help she offers is to shorten their pain, relieving them of any saleable parts before abandoning their silent hulks.
The attack by Mercer, a robot with compatible parts, puts both on a path towards the survival of only one, but a chance meeting with a robot on a mission of resistance against the OWI takeover and an attack by CISSSUS forces them to become uncertain allies in a mad dash across the blighted landscape.
It's clear that no roboticists or AI researchers were harmed, or even consulted, in the writing of this cinematic juggernaut. The AIs run on mainframes, possibly a tribute to movies like Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), or Wargames (1983), and the robots are composed of more or less arbitrary bits, ram, CPU, hard drives, sensor packages, emulation units, and the critical, if unspecified, core unit. Which is where Brittle got nicked by a sniper shot and now has her slowly going into memory fugues and ultimately into shutdown. You may not find a lot of hard cyberscience here, just a few nods to robot and AI classics, like Asimov's Three Laws, but it's easy to let that go because the characters are fully human and engagingly noir in their conflicted relationships as they balance stopping the AI takeover against individual survival.
There are some interesting ideas about humanity's path and the relationship with their robotic offspring, and why the conflict between the two was inevitable and according to a strange logic, the best possible outcome.
All in all, Sea of Rust is a rollicking robot post-apocalypse movie script hiding in a novel, and it's a lot of fun.