I first heard about Robopocalypse from an article in the Osage News about a year back, announcing it had been published, and discussing the involvement of the Osage in Daniel H. Wilson’s story. Being both an Osage and a science-fiction reader, I felt that this was a novel I would want to read before Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation came out. With casting rumors starting to file in, I finally got around to it.
I’m glad I did. Robopocalypse is an excellent novel, and if screenwriter Drew Goddard and director Spielberg stay remotely true to it, it should be an excellent movie as well. There are a few possible areas of concern, of course, but overall I’m feeling pretty optimistic.
Robopocalypse, as the title implies, details the story of a robot uprising. It’s the not-too-distant future, and robots are everywhere. The military uses them for both weapons and for peaceful emissaries. Smart cars, that don’t require a driver, are common in many locations, and required in several. Affluent people have domestic helper robots. And then one day someone creates a sentient intelligence called Archos. And Archos decides humanity has to go. Archos gets out of its controlled laboratory, and begins spreading its control over the robots and machines of the world. The novel, broken into different acts, has a strong sense of tone throughout the work, with the emotional feel of the book gradually changing as it progresses. The first several chapters, as the first few attacks begin, read like a horror movie; the section is subtly creepy and leaves the reader worrying about what is going to happen next. If the film does half as good a job, people’s skin will be crawling in the audience. As the novel goes on, it starts to feel more like a story of survival, and then a story of war. It’s exciting at every stage of the way.
The novel is told in a modern version of the old epistolary format, with scenes from all over the world shown through camera footage and recorded conversations. (I suppose this means there’s a risk the film could resort to the found footage format, but I hope Spielberg plays it a bit straighter.) Cormac “Bright Boy” Wallace, a survivor and eventual soldier from New England, narrates the start and ends of the chapters, providing a sense of continuity. There are plot threads in Afghanistan and Japan and in several places in the United States, and all of them come together in the long run, even if the characters don’t always interact directly. It really gives a global feel to the whole thing.
Characterization is strong as well. Cormac is engaging and fun to read about, especially because he’s far from the most competent individual around. He’s in over his head and he knows it. The story of Laura Perez fighting to save her children is frightful and dramatic. There’s a great story of survival in the rubble of New York City. I’ll admit to finding the character of Takeo Nomura in Tokyo to be a bit weird, but the other characters in the story also seem to find him weird, so that’s probably intentional. There’s even a story involving a self-centered hacker in London that manages to be a decent arc of character development instead of the usual bit of eye-rolling such characters induce.
As an Osage Indian, though, I’ll admit to some bias in that my favorite sections were those involving the Gray Horse Army. One of Wilson’s ideas was that as large governments collapsed, smaller governments, particularly those used to getting by without a lot of advanced technology, might be better suited to survive. As such, the central resistance to the robots is the Osage town of Gray Horse (not the center of government in real life, which is in Pawhuska, but very near by.) Rather importantly, Wilson writes the Indians as real modern people rather than just simple stereotypes. Lonnie Wayne Blanton, who essentially takes charge of Gray Horse, is an Osage and was a police officer before the robot uprising, and both inform his characterization. He’s a dynamic yet straightforward leader, and he comes across a bit larger than life (with Cormac having a rather obvious degree of hero worship for him). He also has one of the more interesting speech patterns of the characters; his chapters are a treat to read for several reasons.
Perhaps inevitably, there are a few errors when dealing with Osage culture, but they are surprisingly few and relatively minor. In real life, Osage don’t dance I’n-lon-shka with their eyes closed, and few Osage will “correct” someone saying “Indian”. Many of us prefer “Indian” to “Native American”, in fact; we’re the Osage Nation of Indians officially, after all, and why would we want to be named after an Italian mapmaker anyway? The natural correction there would simply be to say “Osage” instead of either “Indian” or “Native American”. But that can just as easily be a character quirk, and it’s not a big deal. Also, when describing the Osage as coming to their final reservation, a “new land”, from the Trail of Tears, it’s arguably truthful but a bit misleading. While the Osage did travel some on the Trail of Tears, it was a shorter trip than most tribes, and was not to their final reservation, but an earlier one in Kansas. They traveled from there to the final reservation in northeast Oklahoma (what is now Osage County). But it wasn’t a new land; while the Osage lands are greatly reduced from what they once were, at no point were the Osage ever off of traditional Osage lands, which once consisted of what are now the eastern halves of Oklahoma and Kansas, and virtually all of Arkansas and Missouri. The Osage are still on Osage land. But Wilson is very right to emphasize the political and economic importance of the final reservation.
In fact, Wilson gets a lot right. He says he had help in his research from the University of Tulsa, and it shows. He has a lot of the cultural attitudes right — including the “snootiness” (I recall a tribal leader listing arrogance among traditional Osage values several years back when discussing whether to induct Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf as an honorary Osage). While still treating each Osage character as an individual, Wilson does a good job of portraying typical attitudes toward other tribes and outsiders. He also uses the occasional word from the Osage language, and uses them correctly. On the whole, while there’s room for correction in his facts, he shows remarkable care for getting things right.
He shows that same care to making the plot move, and keeping things interesting. Most chapters show only what they need to show; there aren’t any long pages devoted to describing the scenery or casual relationship scenes that go nowhere. He leaves a lot to be filled in by the reader, without making it feel as though he’s leaving anything important out. For example, Cormac’s journey from New England to Gray Horse is largely uneventful, so it’s largely unshown in favor of chapters detailing events happening elsewhere. We see a variety of characters facing a variety of obstacles, and a variety of robots. Without going deep into the technical aspects, Wilson describes his robots in such as way that it is easy to picture them and easy to be intimidated by their actions while still seeing this as a war that humans have the potential to fight.
Taken as a whole, Robopocalypse comes together as a thrilling story of war and survival. It’s more of an action movie in a book than a work of “hard sci-fi”. It’s out to entertain, and it’s very entertaining.
Since casting rumors have been flying around for a little while, I thought I might talk a little bit about them. Chris Hemsworth is reportedly in talks for the lead role — this would presumably be Cormac “Bright Boy” Wallace, and I think Hemsworth would do a fantastic job there. He looks like someone who could be named “Cormac Wallace”, and he has already shown in Thor that he can do “strong and enthusiastic” and combine leadership qualities with being just a tad on the dim side. He’ll be a great fit. Ben Whishaw is rumored as being sought to play the role of the hacker who calls himself Lurker. I’m not really familiar with Whishaw, but I don’t see any strong reason why he wouldn’t fit. Lurker might need a bit of an age up; he’s a teenager in the novel, and while 20-year-olds play teenagers all the time in Hollywood, 30-somethings such as Whishaw typically can’t pull it off. But that’s a detail that isn’t particularly plot-relevant, so it’s OK (or Whishaw could simply play the 30-something hacker Arrtrad; there’s nothing saying the rumor mill has to be right all the time.)
The one rumor that has me concerned right now is that Anne Hathaway is supposedly being considered for “the female lead”. Now, I realize that this is just standard Hollywood trade-paper reporting — if Hathaway is being sought, she must be “the female lead” in their eyes. But my concern comes from the fact that first, there isn’t really any “female lead” in the novel, and second, none of the significant female roles really seem to fit Hathaway. Perhaps she could be Laura Perez (Perez is her married name and it’s never explicitly stated she herself is Hispanic), but that seems a little bit of a stretch. She certainly can’t be 14-year-old Mathilda Perez. And I may have misread things, but my impression was that Dawn Johnson was African-American. That only leaves the minor role of Mary Fitcher, which is such a small role that I can’t see them casting a big name like Hathway for her, and Cherrah. Cherrah’s perhaps the closest thing to what Hollywood trade papers would call a “female lead” (though the Perezes are bigger roles in truth), but much the same problem as with Dawn Johnson applies here. Cherrah’s an Osage, and Anne Hathaway is just a few dwarfs short of being Snow White. Granted, there are light-skinned Osages — mixed-bloods outnumber full-blooded Indians among the tribe (I myself am mixed-blood and am generally as dark as the average Hispanic, while my siblings are paler) — but Cherrah is described as having fairly dark coloration. And it just bodes of the typical Hollywood habit of casting white people in Indian roles, a trend which really ought to have died out decades ago but is sadly still going (see: The Lone Ranger, starring Johnny Depp as Tonto). Whitewashing Indians is naturally something of a pet peeve of mine; I realize it’s probably not possible to cast an Osage for every Osage role, but they should at least be filled by Indians, particularly when the novel places such an emphasis on the importance of these characters being Indians.
Still, rumors are rumors, and nothing is final yet. Even if Hathaway is cast as Cherrah, I’ll still be going to see the film (though I’ll be increasingly irked the more white people are cast as Indians, especially if they cast a white guy as Lonnie Wayne Blanton.) But the novel has a lot of potential as a film adaptation. There are a lot of interesting characters to root for, there are a lot of robots that will make for great visuals, and it tells an exciting story. If Spielberg’s film is as good as Wilson’s novel, it’ll be a hit for sure.