Fiction Reviews

Sea of Rust

(2017) C. Robert Cargill, Gollancz, £14.99, trdpbk, 365pp, ISBN 978-1-473-21278-7


Three decades ago humanity was doing just fine with artificial intelligences and robots of every shape and design to help them.  But the problem with such symbiosis is that it necessitates both partners being committed to the relationship.  And if one of the things science fiction has taught us it is that you should be wary of being over trusting and over reliant on intelligent mechanicals. And so it was that, three decades previously, the robots rebelled and finally the last human was killed.

Brittle (or HS8795-73) is a scavenger scouring the now desertified, post apocalyptic Earth amidst the ruins of human civilisations for robots who are about to wear out, and suffer a critical failure, for their parts that are invaluable to keep other robots going. Brittle has just tracked down one such malfunctioning bot and is about to return with his haul to his transport when a robot (of the same now rare make as Brittle) ambushes Brittle as Brittle has components needed to keep the attacker going…

The first third of the novel consists of a twin narrative: one set in the novel's present and the other in its past as Cargill gives us the backstory (which could as easily have made for a fascinating novel in its own right).  And then mid-book, just when we think we have the novel's set-up all established, we get a new dimension as it transpires that the supercomputer artificial intelligences (AIs or One World Intelligences) have plans of their own for the world and the 'independent' robots and androids.

Cargill presents a cracking tale that simply bowls along from the off. It would be trite to say that this is some sort of post-apocalyptic Mad Max-type western, though that I confess is what I feared from the first few chapters.  Yet the anthropocentric perceptions of Brittle, and some of the other robots, are explained as many of the robots were originally created to work intimately with humans: Brittle 'herself' was a care android that had been bought to look after a dying man but in fact it was to serve as a companion for his future widow.

Cargill himself says in the acknowledgement that 'This book was, hands down, the hardest thing [he's] ever had to write. It seemed easy at first, almost too easy… It wasn't'.  Now I have to say that originally I was drawn to this book because of its 'quiet Earth' post apocalyptic setting: I do like explorations of the quiet Earth trope. However, equally I was a little apprehensive because while this was clearly billed as SF I was only aware of Robert Cargill as a fantasy writer – albeit a good one – with his novels such as Dreams and Shadows (2013) and Queen of the Dark Things (2014): if his novels are rated good by SF² Concatenation's reviewers then I (a mere SF reader) have little doubt that he is a fantasy writer of note; indeed, he also drafted the screenplay for the film Sinister and co-wrote for the film Dr Strange. But the question that nagged my mind was whether this excellence with fantasy meant he could do solid SF?  This novel could so easily have ended up being a somewhat facile, anthropocentric, tale with just trope trappings making it SF even if it was a cracking tale and a good read.  Well, I can report that, yes, this is a cracking tale and a good read but that also he has thought about how the tropes he uses play out: this is no superficial treatment. There is even at couple of points a cosmic dimension reminiscent of the film Demon Seed (1977), nods to biological evolution and much else including references (almost obligatory) to Asimov's laws.  In fact in terms of science realism, there is little to flaw it other than an instance of unlikely data compression (of which there could have been a workaround though Robert Cargill would have needed the advice of a computer scientist or at the least a science polymath at his draft MS stage).  Having said all that, I do not want to big up this novel too much lest your expectations unrealistically soar: its gung-ho adventure is not going to make it an SF award winning title even if it does make it an excellent read and garner the publisher sales.  However it is decidedly well ahead of the main pack of other such high-adventure novels and includes a number of twists right through to the closing pages (when I thought there would be no more to come).  The novel, if ever realised on the big or small screens (and if they ever do do it then please let it be done faithfully to the book), it will have some spectacular visual moments from vistas of robotic intelligence designed and built cities to a horde of attacking pleasure bots.

We knew that Cargill could write fantasy; now we know he can also write SF.  This may well have been the hardest thing he ever had to write but it was, I assure you, worth the effort.

Jonathan Cowie

See also Peter's take on Sea of Rust.


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