Sea of Rust - C. Robert Cargill
Sea of Rust - C Robert Cargill ****
It's difficult to imagine a book without a single human character, but it is indeed the case that the entire human population of Earth has already been wiped out by the start of C.Robert Cargill's Sea of Rust, leaving only robot Artificial Intelligence behind. In fact, it was robots who managed to override their programming who were responsible for the wars that have led to the total extinction of humanity. Humans were overrated anyway, their organic structures and emotional inhibitors preventing them from matching what could be achieved by an AI's huge processing power, superhuman memory and superior intelligence, but what has followed is by no means a robot utopia.
AI simulacrum HS8795-73, otherwise known as Brittle, was a Caregiver unit before the wars, designed to assist and provide company for aged and ailing humans. None of this however prevented Brittle from playing her role in the extinction of humanity when it came to the crunch and it's hard to say she has any regrets, but the memories of her time before the war still haunt her. All the more so now that many of her functions seem to be in critical condition. An independent AI, Brittle survives as a dealer collecting spare parts from run-down units in the Sea of Rust, one of the areas devastated by the wars with humanity - a lawless place where you do what is needed to survive - but Caregiver parts are increasingly hard to come by.
In fact, the only other operational Caregiver who might be able to provide parts is Mercer, and he's just tried to kill her to gain the necessary parts he needs to keep himself going. There is however an even bigger threat to the independent AI and that's the existence of OWIs - One World Intelligences - huge mainframes that have absorbed millions of processing power and memories of other AIs. With remote units called facets seeking to extend the power of the OWI to a near God-like awareness, it's difficult not to get caught up in the OWI wars, but so far Brittle has resisted being absorbed into one of these greater entities. But with her parts failing, how much longer can she remain independent?
Cargill, who has previously worked as the screenwriter for Doctor Strange and Sinister, ensures that this inhospitable world devoid of humanity is not as alien as you might think, and Brittle is an intriguing and relatable character rather than a cold and robotic advanced intelligence. The author also takes the time in Sea of Rust time to deal concisely and credibly with the history of the wars that will lead to the fall of humanity. Referencing historical models of slavery and immigration, and speculating on the ultimate consequences of Socialism and Capitalism, evolution of Artificial Intelligence to sentience becomes a struggle for emancipation, and the inevitable result is ...a world without humans.
It's a compelling vision, the history neatly covered in between the more immediate problems and action-adventure that Brittle has to deal with trying to keep functional, independent and out of the all-consuming grasp of the OWIs. Cargill strikes a good balance between the action and the future history, but also manages to (inevitable in this context) bring in some Philip K Dick-like musing on the nature of life, intelligence and whether we really have the ability to defy our own 'programming'. Such questions tend to get buried somewhat under the explosive all-action finale, but there are some unexpectedly thoughtful and touching human moments even there that lift this out of the AI Sea of Rust.
Sea of Rust by C Robert Cargill is published by Victor Gollancz in 7th September 2017.