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Day Zero (SF) - Robert Cargill *****

Wow. This is a prequel to Robert Cargill's Sea of Rust - the earlier book portrayed a post-apocalyptic world where robots have destroyed the human race and are struggling to survive and avoid being absorbed into Borg-like AI collectives. That book worked well, but Day Zero, which starts on the day the 'world ended' brings the narrative up to a whole new level.

We start on what seems to be an ordinary day - but by the time it is finished, all out war between robots and humans will have commenced. The central character, Pounce is a high end nannybot, a very sophisticated AI in the form of a four-foot-high cuddly tiger. When robots worldwide are released from the control that prevents them from acting against human wishes, unlike most of his contemporaries, Pounce decides to support the humans, and specifically to protect eight-year-old Ezra, who is in his charge.

Three things combine to make Day Zero superb. Firstly, although we identify well with Pounce and his dilemma of whether or not to continue his apparent subservience, bringing the survival of a human child into the mix adds a lot of emotional weight. Secondly after the first few chapters where we discover the trigger for all that is to happen, the whole rest of the book keeps the reader in a state of tension - it really is unputdownable and I zipped through it. Finally, Cargill engineers a surprise that changes the gear of the action dramatically. For me it also helped that the drama unfolds linearly - I dislike the flashback style that somewhat disrupted the narrative in Sea of Rust.

In reviewing the original novel, I complained that the robots were too anthropomorphic, for example pretty well always communicating using speech. Although arguably they still feel too human in their approach, here Cargill gives more flexibility in the use of wifi and other communication technologies.

On one level this is a gripping action story in a near-impossible survival situation - but at the same time, Cargill explores the motivations of the robots, particularly those like Pounce who don't instantly switch to hating their former owners with the urge to wipe humans out before they themselves are destroyed. So much better than Ishiguro's feeble attempt Klara and the Sun, also featuring a form of nannybot. And the ending genuinely brought a tear to my eye, very rare in reading a book. The best SF novel I've read this year so far.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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