Jun 26, 2011

Monkey Droppings -Robopocalypse vs. Major Karnage! Winner take all!

Today, the monkey pits two two sci-fi actioneers against each other.

One is a heavily-hyped apocalyptic epic with a huge promotional push and expectations up the ying-yang.

The other is an unassuming, almost unheard-of sleeper from an unknown Canadian author.

Guess which one works, and which one doesn't?

Robopocalypse (Doubleday, 2011)
by Daniel H. Wilson
"You humans are biological machines designed to create ever more intelligent tools. You have reached the pinnacle of your species. All your ancestors' lives, the rise and fall of your nations, every pink and squirming baby—they have all led you here, to this moment, where you have fulfilled the destiny of humankind and created your successor. You have expired. You have accomplished what you were designed to do."
This is the big one, the tentpole action epic of the summer reading season! A high concept thrill ride, already speculated to soon be adapted to film by Steven Spielberg! With blurbs by heavy-hitters such as Clive Cussler! Lincoln Child! Robert Crais! The author Daniel Wilson has a Ph.D. in robotics! He's a genius! How could this be anything less than a genre masterpiece?

Quite easily, as it turns out.

It's all in the execution. Depending on whose hands wield the power, a tale of robots battling mankind can be either spectacular, exciting, and thought-provoking (think The Terminator), or dreary, repetitive, and uninspiring (Transformers). Robopocalypse lands far on the lesser end of the spectrum; it has some good ideas, but it has a paucity of style, little originality, and not much in the way of imagination.

Granted, it starts out nicely, as an oral history of humanity's battle with the robots (tremendously reminiscent of the format of Max Brooks' World War Z, a novel about the zombie uprising that is nowhere near perfect, but aces out Robopocalypse on every level). Humanity is just starting to recover from its years-long struggle, a struggle which began at the advent of artificial intelligence. The intelligence Archos viewed mankind as a danger, both to itself and to all other forms of life on Earth, and began the conquest of the planet through control of all mechanized resources it could summon.

There is a hint of real originality at one point, when true artificial intelligence is created in other robots, who then in turn decide to rebel against their robot overlord, but such flourishes are lost in pages of deadening prose and disposable, interchangeable characters. Three days after completion, I am hard-pressed to remember anything of the plot save a few scenes of robotic warfare that would, in a movie version, likely raise the coolness factor, but in the book merely get an eyebrow raise. I got far more entertainment in twenty-two minutes from the robot rebellion in the episode "Mother's Day" from Futurama, where I was treated to humour, style, and the image of Hermes Conrad screaming "Help! My stapler is collating me alive!" while being chased by an electric stapler. Not to mention the immortal phrase, "Conquer Earth, you bastards!"

So Robopocalypse isn't great, or even good, but what's even more damaging is that it is a dull, dull book. Direct comparisons are made in the publicity to Michael Crichton and Robert A. Heinlein, but Wilson has none of the satiric or stylistic flair of the latter, and very little of the former's ability to synthesize believable scientific research into a propulsive plot. Crichton was no maestro, but at his best (The Andromeda Strain, Sphere) he was able to throw out vast quantities of scientific exposition that never bogged down the storyline but instead actually enhanced it. Crichton didn't write great art, but he wrote great pulp (until he became bogged down in his own portentousness). Wilson's research isn't half as well presented, and never remotely believable, which lends the book an air of fantasy rather than the true-to-life science it appears to aim for.

Robopocalypse is a real let-down, not even a mildly diverting beach read. I was promised Crichton and Heinlein, Spielberg and James Cameron; I was given Michael Bay instead. Not a fair exchange.

Not even close.


Major Karnage (Chizine, 2010)
by Gord Zajac
"Welcome to the Dabney Correctional Executive Class Hospitality Centre. We hope your stay with us is a pleasant one. Please enjoy these pastoral images and soothing mood music while you await trial and sentencing. And remember—at Dabney Correctional, we believe everyone is innocent until proven guilty. And it shows."
Now, see, if you're going to be derivative, this is how you do it.

Major John Karneski ('Major Karnage' to his friends/enemies) is unhappily enjoying forced retirement. After many glorious campaigns, he and his soldiers have been forcibly confined to a Veteran's Home for observation and re-education. In a world without war, a world completely run by the Dabney Corporation and its mascot cat, warriors are unnecessary, but people as violent as Karnage cannot be expected to meld back into society willingly. So for the better part of two decades Karnage has been held against his will, his violent tendencies held in check by a Sanity Patch on the back of his head which will explode if stress levels reach critical mass. At the start of Major Karnage, the patch is set at Lemon Breeze, with colour-coded levels that run the gamut from Snow White to Tricycle Red, with stops at Daffodil, Citrus Blast, Peachy Keen, Tangy Orange, Sharp Cheddar, Coral Essence, and many others. At Tricycle Red: boom!

But Karnage knows that the world is not safe. His man Cookie has been receiving alien transmissions in his skull, and it looks as if Unidentified Flying Objects of Death! are already on their way to lay waste to humankind. Only Karnage can hope to halt the invasion, but he'll have to fight his way past the guards, and then have to cope with a world that has moved on without him. To save the world, Karnage will have to deal with Dabneycops armed with Goober Guns, bizarre religious cults, alien sandworms, squidbugs, and a diligent cop named Sydney who can incapacitate a man with one flick of her baby toe:
"[Karnage had] never seen anyone move like this before. It was like a martial arts version of shiatsu. Sydney knew all the right pressure points to cause extreme pain in the body. It was brilliant. It was like ballet, except it didn't suck."
Quite obviously, Gord Zajac is first and foremost concerned with having a good time. This is not hard science fiction, and unlike Robopocalypse it doesn't have any pretensions to be. No, this is glorious b-movie-worth sci-fi ridiculousness, a non-stop chase through a landscape limited only by Zajac's imagination. Heavily indebted to pretty much every movie and novel you can think of, Zajac begs, borrows, and steals to great effect, steamrolling over plotholes and inconsistencies with glee.

Let's face it, you are either in the mood for such entertainment, or you're not. Me? Sign me up for more. Zajac is not a great stylist, but he moves his plot along with a sense of fun that is impossible to fake. There's more than a bit of the joy of Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat series and the early satire of Heinlein to be found here, by way of Douglas Adams. It's an anything goes, balls to the wall approach that can be wearying, but manages to hit all the right notes. It's nonsense, but it's good nonsense. ChiZine has always put out a quality product, but this may be their first release that is just out and out genre merriment.

If Zajac sees fit to continue the adventures of Karnage, I, for one, will be eagerly awaiting the next installment. Robopocalypse may get the endorsements and the mega-budget film, but Major Karnage is the winner.



John said...

Thanks for saving me the bother with Robopocalypse.

Brett Alexander Savory said...

Woo! KARNAGE KICKS BUTT! Glad it beat out the ROBOPOCALYPSE. The latter sounds like a real yawn of a book, I must say.

Cheers for the kind words, Corey!

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