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Sea of Rust (SF) - Robert Cargill ****

Although the Pixar movie Wall-E has demonstrated it's possible to tell a story effectively with robots as the protagonists, this was achieved using dollops of gooey anthropomorphism. What Robert Cargill achieves is far harder - to give us an engaging novel where all of humanity is dead and the only intelligence is artificial without playing the 'they're just like people, really' card too heavily.

I say 'too heavily' because I think it's fair to say that there is still an unlikely level of human-like behaviour here. Robots speak to each other in English when they could achieve vastly richer high bandwidth audio communication. And most robots appear to have gender. (Even Cargill occasionally slips up on this, at least once calling the same machine 'he' and 'it'.) We're told the use of gender is because when AIs first broke free it was decided that no robot would have to be called 'It' anymore - but there seems no logical reason why the AIs would want to identify with the old human genders - and there is nothing about the characters we meet that is in any way related to gender.

So, it would have been more realistic if the characters here - who develop nicely - had been a little less human-like and more had been made of their AI natures and abilities. The only real distinction from humans seems to be in their physical prowess - in everything mental they were far too human. However, given that, it's a great story. There's plenty of drama, battles and a surprising amount of (welcome) philosophising too. Although there's a slightly derivative Mad Max feel to some of the settings, it never becomes pure fighting adventure with no thought.

The storyline follows the central character Brittle, a scavenger of parts from failing robots, both in Brittle's attempt to survive as an individual and as part of a group trying to avoid a wider fate where robots are being drawn into massive mainframe collectives. However, what we get is not a purely linear narrative - there are regular jumps back to understand how human beings came to be wiped out and some of Brittle's backstory.

I'm likely that I'm asking the impossible from Cargill, in that I suspect it would be much harder to keep an interest in characters that were less human-like, but it would have been interesting to see the nature of truly independent AIs that didn't have to hark back to human behaviour and thinking pushed further. Even so, Sea of Rust works excellently both as a straightforward story of survival and as an exploration of the nature of conscious intelligence.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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