Sentient bots are one of the most common science fiction plot devices, and in some cases, motifs. Readers can go to stories written in the 19th century and find steam-powered men, just as almost anything written by Charles Stross in the 21st is guaranteed to blur the line between biological and digital existence into unrecognizability. What then, is there to add to the field? Robert Cargill’s answer in 2017’s Sea of Rust is a tried and true storyline with a bit of digging into the “human” side of machine intelligence.
A former caregiver, Brittle now wanders post-human (literally) wastelands collecting leftover pieces of bots and androids to sell for scrap. Keeping a vigilant eye on the store of parts she keeps for her own bot body as it breaks down, hers is a lonely, anxious life. Things take a turn, however, when a fellow scavenger with the same body type outright attacks Brittle. Where the two once had an unspoken agreement not to scavenge from each other, any mutual autonomy is thrown out the window, putting Brittle on the run. Escaping to a nearby city, things go from bad to worse when one of the ruling AIs sends a troop of drone bots to “recruit” her into the horde. Once again, Brittle must head out into the wastelands to survive, this time with seemingly the whole world on her heels.
A classic, science fiction story in many respects, Sea of Rust delivers the enjoyment and entertainment most sf readers are looking for. From the plasma firefights to the details of bot maneuvering, androidization to the setting, the novel oozes the type of core science fiction most such such readers slurp up with a straw with a familiar, almost Western storyline executed in solid fashion.
Though it does lean far more toward genre than literary, Sea of Rust nevertheless seizes moments and opportunities to draw interesting parallels between meat and metal life. Brittle’s parts degrade and need replacing, just our own heart and muscles deteriorate over time. Not pure zeroes and ones, the machines have such things as viruses, core meltdown, bad coding, and other factors threatening the integrity of their systems, just as bacteria, disease, and mental illness threaten to drag our own life systems down. Holding the proverbial mirror up to humanity, Sea of Rust has moments wherein the most fundamental aspects of our life are reflected in Cargill’s bot future in interesting fashion. Most such content located in the beginning, the fireworks of the conclusion are reserved for plot resolution rather than any grander statement on the human condition—not a criticism, just an observation.
The narrative of Sea of Rust is divided roughly in half, and told in alternating chapters. After an expository prologue that quickly brings the reader up to speed on the setting, Cargill sets the story oscillating between Brittle’s story in the present and a more detailed breakdown of the history that brought the world into the post-human state it is. Handled nicely, Cargill uses natural pauses to jump back and forth, generating a larger momentum in the process.
In the end, Sea of Rust is undoubtedly a genre product. The story mode, the clear descendancy from Asimov, the robocalypse. But it is more than just a rehash of I, Robot, or King’s Maximum Overdrive, or Simak’s “Skirmish”. Cargill skillfully adds a layer or two of ruminative material that invokes interesting questions, and helps to increase the book’s focus on the meaning of life, sentience, and existence/human existence. It is not the next Ted Chiang The Lifecycle of Software Objects, Aldris Budrys Who?, or PKD Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but for those looking for an exciting ride with a hair of substance will have something to play with.