In 2017, C Robert Cargill delivered a Mad Maxian- post Robocalypse novel called Sea of Rust. That book was set fifteen years after the robot takeover of the world and posited a world free of humans but not necessarily free of humanity. It followed the travails of a former Caregiver android who had become a killer and scavenger and delivered a mirror world to our own with robots filling various niches in the social ecosystem. In Day Zero, Cargill returns to that world as a flashback to fifteen years before. As the name suggests, this book is about the genesis of the robot revolution.
Pounce is a nannybot, an artificially intelligent carer shaped liked a tiger whose job is to look after eight year old Ezra. Pounce and Ezra live in a suburb of a conurbation in Texas in which every home has at least one robot assistant. Ezra’s family has a second, valued robot servant who they have called Ariadne. The robots themselves are governed by Asimov’s classic three laws of robotics, which does not allow them to harm humans and if they try they will automatically shut down. But this is a watershed moment in robot history. The Supreme Court has ruled that a robot called Isaac is able to live freely and Isaac has created a refuge city for other free robots. But a tragedy, followed by a government directive to shut down all robots, followed by unheralded upgrade which disables the governor that prevents robots from harming humans kicks off the robot apocalypse. Ariadne turns on her owners and Pounce escapes into the growing chaos with one thought: protect Ezra.
The rest is a combination of fairly violent action scenes, mass destruction and the contemplation of intelligence, free will and love. Freed from the programming which says he must protect Ezra, Pounce chooses to do it anyway:
‘So here’s the big question, Pounce. [Ariadne said] Did you choose to do it? Or do you just do it because you were programmed to?’
I didn’t know. ‘Does it matter?’
Along the way there will also be a philosophical consideration of the conundrum of the Ship of Theseus, a question last seen discussed between two sentient robots in the WandaVision finale.
While the story is engaging and moves at a good clip, the question is whether Sea of Rust needed this prequel. The broad outlines of the robot revolution, who was behind it and what it resulted in were well dealt with in the original book. But more troubling is that the whole narrative of Day Zero centres around Pounce’s efforts to save Ezra, which will be more interesting for those who are unaware of the ultimate fate of humanity laid out in Sea of Rust.
In the end, Day Zero is a pacey, action filled robopocalypse told from the robot point of view. But not the point of view of a rampaging killing machine. Pounce has a mission, a mission that is helped along by what can only be described as a literal deus ex machina which gives Pounce a slight edge over the robot hordes. And while the eventual outcome of this war is not in doubt, Cargill maintains interest in this particular battle. And along the way he has created an interesting milieu to visit for those interested in apocalyptic narratives. And it is just possible that Cargill has a plan to tie this and Sea of Rust together in another visit to this world.
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