Fiction Reviews

Sea of Rust

(2017) Robert Cargill, Gollancz, £8.99, pbk, 365pp, ISBN 978-1-473-21279-4


This is an adventure story, a tale of survival and robots. It is not the humans that are trying to survive the robots - they all died years ago - but robots trying to survive other robots. I found the pages turned well and it could be difficult to put down.

It is presented in two parts: the rise of the robots and subsequent death of humanity followed by the tale of what comes after. The whole is told through the eyes of Brittle (factory designation HS8795-73), a Simulacrum Model Caregiver, and it is nicely woven together in alternating chapters as she tells her tale and also the history that lead up to her current predicament.

For some time humankind had tried to create a true Artificial Intelligence, an artificial sentient mind. Slowly they got closer until they achieved their target, creating NEWTON, TACITUS, CISSUS, VIRGIL, TITAN, ZEUS, and EINSTEIN, to name but a few. These were all huge mainframes, occupying vast buildings, and had one thing in common - they could not move. They did, though, lead to the development of smaller machines with working AIs, machines that could move and perform physical tasks. And so sentient robots were created to perform all sorts of tasks but, inevitably, frictions arose: the robots were taking jobs from people, if robots were sentient then they had rights, and so on. Eventually a group of humans attacked a group of robots and the war started; it took a few years but ultimately all the humans died. The robots were free of HumPop, as they called the human race, and the planet was theirs.

Over the years leading up to this there had been climate changes, sea levels had risen, and some areas were already suffering desertification. The war had accelerated the process; most animals had been wiped out (they were food for humans) and crops had given way to grasses and then to desert. The large AIs became OWIs, One World Intelligences, and did not stop fighting after the war; each wanted to be the defining AI and so they battled each other until only CISSUS and VIRGIL were left. Although they could not themselves move, they controlled the factories and created armies of facets, mindless robots that simply obeyed orders. They also set about subsuming all the smaller AIs, or freebots - the robots that had been so useful to HumPop.

The freebots hid out in underground cities they built, formed their own societies with their own rules and moralities, but all suffered the same problem - they wore out. The OWIs controlled the factories so spare parts were not being produced; the only way freebots could keep going was to scavenge parts from others that had died. As a robot started to decline and could no longer be repaired, usually because its mind suffered as core memory, RAM, etc., failed, it would be cast out before ‘madness’ took it and it might inadvertently harm others. Dying robots usually ended up finishing their days out in the desert, often caught up in endlessly replaying fractured memories until all their processing systems gave up and failed.

Brittle is a scavenger, one of the best, and mostly lived in an area that had once been the Michigan and Ohio part of the Rust Belt. It is now known as the Sea of Rust and is full of the rusting remains of dead robots, stripped of all their useful components. We join her in the ruins of the human town of Marion, some thirty years after the war, as she closes in on Jimmy, an old bartender robot, as he slowly slips away. Having removed all the most useful parts from his frame, she is heading back to her buggy when shots ring out - somebody is trying to kill her. Scavenging is accepted by all but poaching, the deliberate killing of healthy robots for their parts, is unacceptable. None the less, she finds herself fighting for her life in the ruins of a shopping mall and barely escapes.

She makes it to the freebot town of NIKE 14 where Doc (an old machinist model) repairs her injuries but breaks the news that one shot has damaged her core and he cannot repair it - she is dying and only has a few weeks left. Although all robots are similarly built, parts cannot be simply switched over between them all as things like core memory, motherboards, etc., are specific to type. The Simulacrum Model Caregiver is a rare type these days; Doc just cannot get the parts. By now Brittle knows that her attacker was Mercer, the only other SMC in the area, and he too is dying; he had turned from scavenger to poacher out of sheer determination to live - he needed her parts.

Before the two can face off for their inevitable battle, NIKE 14 is attacked by CISSUS and it is every robot for him/herself. Some respond by fighting the invading facets, some submit and allow themselves to be downloaded into The One, and some run, hoping to escape. Heading down tunnels to a hidden exit, Brittle finds herself in the company of 19 (a Simulacrum Model Companion she has scavenged with in the past), three Translators (Rebekah, One, and Two), Herbert (a tough military model), Murka (a Laborbot), Doc, and, of all people, Mercer. Her first instinct is to split from the group but she is persuaded that this time working with others might just be the best option. As they continue their escape, Brittle finds that there is more to Rebekah than first appears and learns that not all of history is quite what everyone thought. She finds herself on a mission, a mission that must not fail if the freebots are to survive. To complicate matters, her mind is failing, becoming clogged up with fragments of old memories she had deliberately deleted long ago. Mercer might be the best shot and very important to their escape, but his mind is also failing. But above all, the mission must succeed - and that, of course, is the rest of the story.

I really enjoyed this book. Brittle’s exploits are almost non-stop action but the pace is pleasantly moderated by the historical chapters. The story of the rise of the robots and the subsequent extinction of the human population is well thought through and nicely told, and the robots come across as being far more than mere devices; the angst of Brittle as she remembers past, dreadful deeds is particularly strong. Given that ultimately they have many of the same drives as humanity, survival for instance, they end up thinking and acting in much the same way. They were, of course, designed by humans so maybe that ought not to be so much of a surprise - they were made to look like us and, at least to some extent, to think like us. Brittle and her fellow citizens are remarkably human in many ways.

All-in-all, I found it a good romp with plenty of action yet a well told, thought-through story that was well worth the read.

Peter Tyers

See also Jonathan's take on Sea of Rust.


[Up: Fiction Reviews Index | SF Author: Website Links | Home Page: Concatenation]

See also Jonathan's take on Sea of Rust.


[One Page Futures Short Stories | Recent Site Additions | Most Recent Seasonal Science Fiction News]

[Updated: 19.1.15 | Contact | Copyright | Privacy]