Gollancz | 2017 (7 September) 365p | Review copy | Buy the book
At one time mankind was served well by its machines, with robots even acting as companions and carers for the lonely and the elderly, and for some – both human and machine – this relationship became the most important friendship of their existence. But a sequence of events over such a short time destroyed it all. The robot’s global uprising wiped out every last human being. Humanity is gone. And now the world is controlled by a few OWIs (One World Intelligences), vast mainframes that have consumed the minds of countless robots. The robots that want to stay independent have no option but to scavenge for survival in the ruins of a lost world. And hide.
Brittle is one such robot. And it’s a reflection of how far robots have evolved over the years that she now views herself as female. She was a caregiver (when there were humans to care for) and few of her kind are left. Brittle lives her life scavenging for the spare parts she can find, selling what she can in one of the last holdouts of independent robots. But after being critically damaged, Brittle is almost out of options. The spare part she needs is very rare. Being chased by the deadly force of OWI bombs doesn’t help. Nor do the resurfacing memories, symptoms of her imminent shutdown. Long-buried, these memories hint at something that perhaps should not be remembered.
Sea of Rust presents a grim but compelling portrait of humanity’s demise, moving backwards and forwards in time as alternating chapters describe the progress of robots from servants to masters. It’s gripping stuff. But what makes the novel really stand out is its depiction of what makes these robots tick. With no humans left, the robots fill the gap and become effectively the new people, making the same mistakes that humans made while also beginning to empathise with the way that humans felt. Some of these robots actually miss the past and more and more they display the characteristics of the species they’ve replaced.
I loved this mix of tenderness and warmth with the practical reality of being a machine in a world that no longer produces machines. Where shutting down is every bit a death and thoughts of an afterlife or a god continue to matter just as much, and where memories of the human past can cripple a robot and can turn it mad. The scariest robots of all are those who have gone mad. But the robot we get to know the most is the wonderful and complex Brittle.
The worldbuilding is moody and bleak. It’s not just humans who have vanished – many animals have as well. Set in what was the US, vast swathes of the country are dust bowls. Human cities are becoming ruinous. The past has become something very tantalising.
Sea of Rust is both atmospheric and exciting but above all else it’s such a fun read. I love robots – who doesn’t?! – and there are all kinds to enjoy here. Some are kind, some are nasty and some are downright bonkers. All of them, though, are entertaining to read about. I couldn’t help wondering when I finished it if there will be more. I rather hope so.