Fiction Reviews

Day Zero

(2021) C. Robert Cargill, Gollancz, £16.99, trdpbk, 287pp, ISBN 978-1 473-21281-7


One thing you need to know, I avoid self-service shopping and go for a human staffed checkout. Indeed, I am amazed when some shop staff member encourages me to use the self-service checkouts as they are in effect talking themselves out of a job: the machines are taking over and there really is no need to encourage them!

And so on to Robert Cargill's latest novel, Day Zero.

This is a stonkingly solid SF action, surviving-the-robotic-uprising apocalypse novel that I devoured in just two sittings. It really has everything an SF reader could want: great characterisation, detailed world-building, logical and sure-footed plot development, and bags of sense-of-wonder all wrapped up in a no-holds barred, action adventure.  What's not to like?

This is the second novel set in Cargill's world of robot rebellion and is a prequel to Sea of Rust (2017). However both novels are decidedly stand-alone: you do not need to read the other (though if you like one you will the other).

The novel's 287 pages almost turn themselves as they cover 1,1110 chapters. 1,1110 chapters?! Fortunately, it's binary: the story is told from a robot's perspective.

It is the not-too-distant future and while there has been sea-level rise and population growth, there has also been a huge development of artificial intelligence and robotics from small personal and household AI and animatronics through to building-sized mega-super-computers. So much development that unemployment is a problem necessitating a universal basic income for all and a large left-behind class. In the US this has lead to social fracturing and some nut-ball fringe groups. (Not at all unbelievable given the present-day US's high Gini coefficient and that Britain's own is growing is very worrying (but you are now distracting me from the review).

The development of sophisticated AI also raises ethical questions and one old robot who outlived its owners was even granted freedom and in effect citizenship with the right to earn a living. Soon there were others, and that robot – Isaac – founded a settlement for robots.

Alas, one nut-ball group detonated an small nuclear bomb with its concomitant electromagnetic pulse in the robot settlement so killing all the electronics.

A small group of rogue robots that 'somehow' (never properly explained but let's hope it is in forthcoming Cargill novel) circumvented their safety inhibitor protocols and brutally exact revenge on the nut-ball humans responsible for the nuke. This causes the President to announce that all AI robots be switched off but seconds later a mega-supercomputer transmits a safety inhibitor by-pass patch and the robots rebel.

Having said the robots rebel, not all do especially those designed to look after humans in a more intimate way providing care. Pounce is one such robot.

Pounce is a robotic tiger type (never said but possibly Pooh inspired), albeit with paws that are more like hands, who was bought to look after eight-year-old Ezra, play with him and help with his education and development out of school.

As it happened, the day the world was to end Pounce found his box in the attic and begins to realise that his life with Ezra will one day come to an end; questions bubble in his mind. Yet, when the uprising occurs and the other household-help robot kills Ezra's parents, Pounce acts to protect Ezra.

With the world quickly descending into chaos outside of the house, Pounce must take Ezra to a place of safety, wherever that might be…

Day Zero is as every bit as good as Sea of Rust, which ended up being short-listed for a Clarke (book) Award despite my giving it a rave review.  I have no problem in similarly recommending Day Zero to you.

As I noted with Sea of Rust, Day Zero would make a good film. Here Cargill has form in that he did the screenplay for Sinister and co-wrote the one for Doctor Strange.

Were it to be a film then obvious comparisons would be made with Terminator. That film had a single military AI, Skynet, take over the world. While Terminator is core SF, the central concept – the machines take over – is not really explored. Other than a few forward short flashes, and only in Terminator Salvation do we get to see the machines in the near future in the process of actually taking over and here they are large military machines.  Conversely, Cargill scores in that AI, together with robotics has become so embedded in society that their rebellion is very different even if the outcome is the same as in the Terminator franchise. We have many different types of autonomous robots involved as well as a mega-super-computer.

I know Cargill has other things to do in life and it has been four years since Sea of Rust but I'd really like more from this universe. There are many questions that could be addressed including: a super-computer war; the story of the (supposedly) last US citizen; do the humans win back; what happened elsewhere; what did the mega-supercomputers discover in the stars and did this impact on the conflict; and much, much more.

In short, this end-of-the-world story delivers. Indeed, you may well want to read it before the machines rise, as they really are slowly, but very surely, taking over the world…

Jonathan Cowie


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