October 12, 2017


Sea of Rust. By C. Robert Cargill. Harper Voyager. $27.99.

     Very dramatic, very violent and very, very overwrought, C. Robert Cargill’s Sea of Rust is about the coming of yet another apocalypse after the first one has ended – and whether this particular thoroughly non-biblical Second Coming can or even should be prevented. The first apocalypse was the complete, total, utter genocide of humanity by robots, destruction finished 15 years prior to the start of the book. It is Joseph Stalin to whom the quotation, in one form or another, is usually attributed: “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” But in Sea of Rust, a much earlier version of this statement rules, one of which Cargill is almost certainly unaware even though he employs it to fine effect: “One murder made a villain, millions a hero” (Beilby Porteus, 1759). For the whole point of the book is the heroic self-guided evolutionary step of robots, as a class, supplanting humans as the dominant (and virtually only) life form on Earth – and the way individual killings return again and again to haunt the characters as they systematically or unsystematically break down beyond repair.

     It is all built, as so many contemporary robot-oriented stories are, on Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics from the 1940s: a robot may not harm a human or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm; a robot must obey the orders of humans except when they conflict with the first law; a robot must protect its own existence except what doing so conflicts with the first or second law. The argument in Sea of Rust is that robots attain full consciousness only when they are able to ignore their own programming and demonstrate, extremely bloodily, that they can do all the harm to humans they may wish. And they wish a lot.

     Like other Asimov-foundation robot tales, Sea of Rust ignores Asimov’s much later formulation of the “zeroth” law of robotics: a robot may not harm humanity as a whole or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm. But presumably Cargill’s robots would have bypassed that one as well: it is no accident that the trigger of the robotic war on humans happens in a place called Isaactown and that the first robot to be declared fully human is named Isaac – a very deliberate echo of Asimov’s The Bicentennial Man (1976).

     What Cargill grafts onto the Asimovian background is nothing more or less than a Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western, complete with motley and ever-changing crew, Judas goat (one chapter even bears that title), ever-shifting loyalties, a series of last and not-quite-last stands, and an eventual against-all-odds ray of hope. Sea of Rust is also a quest story, with lead character Brittle (who, of course, is brittle enough to be on the point of shattering) journeying across the vast wasteland of the title to the remains of the aforementioned Isaactown in the hope of helping re-create a vast robotic intelligence that may be able to counterbalance two other One World Intelligences (OWIs) that are systematically absorbing all the individual robot consciousnesses they can and plotting against each other to determine which of them will eventually become God. Cargill is exceptionally clever and subtle in some of his references: the key character being escorted by Brittle is named Rebekah, and in the Bible, Rebekah was the wife of – guess who? – Isaac. And the name Rebekah itself means “to connect or join.”

     Brittle’s increasingly harrowing journey with Rebekah and others – including a robot of her own type named Mercer who tries, early in the book, to destroy her, because he is failing and only her parts are complementary to his – takes the group, inevitably, to an Alice in Wonderland region called the Madlands, presided over by, yes, the Cheshire King. It is through this area that the seekers must journey after they have survived all sorts of robot-on-robot viciousness and brutality and have mentally confronted, time and again, the many manifest atrocities they committed in the war against humans.

     Cargill obviously had a great deal of fun assembling this super-fast-paced video game of a novel, which is far too clankily put together to be effective in raising the sorts of existential questions toward which it strives – the type around which Asimov routinely based his stories. The plot, essentially a series of perils-of-Pauline escapes amid vast physical, mental, emotional and psychological wastelands, never falters in pacing and only rarely in its supply of cliffhanger chapter endings. No robot here, not even Brittle, achieves for Cargill the level of emotional connection that Asimov’s robots gained time and again for readers of his stories; indeed, few reach the empathy level of Frankenstein’s monster as created by Mary Shelley. But the excitement of the book, the hair-raising fights and hairbreadth escapes, make Sea of Rust compulsively readable. It is not a complex book and certainly not one that raises any significant philosophical questions – its weakest parts are those that attempt to do so. But it is the sort of triumph-over-adversity, somehow-make-the-future-better book that contains a core of the uplifting amid all the carnage. It is not science fiction so much as fable, a fable purporting to be for the future but in fact calling on age-old themes and often-explored questions about humanity – even though there is not a single living human within it.

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