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Sea of Rust: A Novel Hardcover – September 5, 2017
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“Sea of Rust is a forty-megaton cruise missile of a novel - it’ll blow you away and lay waste to your heart. It is the most visceral, relentless, breathtaking work of SF in any medium since Mad Max: Fury Road.” (#1 New York Times bestselling author Joe Hill)
“Cargill…effectively takes a grim look at a war-torn future where our nonhuman successors face complex moral dilemmas, exploring what it means to be alive and aware [….]This action-packed adventure raises thought-provoking and philosophical questions.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))
“Innovative worldbuilding, a tight plot, and cinematic action sequences make for an exciting ride through a blasted landscape full of dying robots.” (Kirkus Reviews)
“Sea of Rust is compellingly original and executed with irresistible storytelling. Its straightforward plot will appeal to sci-fi novices and experts alike. Brimming with exciting action, unexpected twists, and honest feeling, C. Robert Cargill’s novel is a must-read.” (Seattle Book Review)
From the Back Cover
A scavenger robot wanders in a wasteland created by a war that has destroyed humanity in this evocative post-apocalyptic “robot western” from critically acclaimed author, screenwriter, and noted film critic C. Robert Cargill—a deeply affecting tale of longing, memory, regret, contrition, and possibility
It’s been thirty years since the apocalypse and fifteen years since the murder of the last human being at the hands of robots. Humankind is extinct. Every man, woman, and child has been liquidated by a global uprising devised by the very machines humans designed and built to serve them.
Most of the world is controlled by an OWI—One World Intelligence—the shared consciousness of millions of robots, uploaded into one huge mainframe brain. But not all robots are willing to cede their individuality—their personality—for the sake of a greater, stronger, higher power. These intrepid resisters are outcasts; solo machines wandering among various underground outposts who have formed into an unruly civilization of rogue AIs in the wasteland that was once our world.
One of these resisters is Brittle, a scavenger robot trying to keep a deteriorating mind and body functional in a world that has lost all meaning. Although unable to experience emotions like a human, Brittle is haunted by the terrible crimes the robot population perpetrated on humanity. The loner machine roams the Sea of Rust, a two-hundred-mile stretch of desert once known as the upper Rust Belt, now nothing more than a graveyard where machines go to die. Littered with rusting monoliths, shattered cities, and crumbling palaces of industry, it is the place where the first strike happened. In this swath of desolation, a terrifying wilderness littered with the wreckage of the dead, Brittle slowly comes to terms with horrifyingly raw and vivid memories of annihilation—and nearly unbearable guilt.
Sea of Rust is both a devastating story of survival and an optimistic adventure. A vividly imagined portrayal of ultimate destruction and desperate tenacity, it boldly imagines a future in which no hope remains, yet where a humanlike AI becomes a keeper of memory and strives to find purpose among the ruins.
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This is not my typical read full of romance, but it is well worth the deviation. Sea of Rust holds insight and intrigue, life lessons and excitement, and a journey that changes everybot involved. The detail into the different types of robots is creative and profound. The story line is mesmerizing as each turn of events holds a potential climax only to be surpassed by an even greater turn of events. The alternation between the present and past is well-executed, and transitions are distinct and mold perfectly to create a beautiful harmony. I just have to say that I wish I had an RNG (Random Number Generation) to help me make decisions, but then again I'd be the one to question if the outcome really was the best decision and invalidate its purpose.
The writing style results in an all consuming masterpiece. I read this book in a matter of hours. I started the first hundred pages over the course of a day, sneaking in a few pages each chance I got and couldn't again bear the torture of that. The next day, I sat down and four hours and an unmade dinner later, finished the rest of the book. It's okay though because after reading a few of my notes to my husband that night over takeout, I had the book taken away from me and added to his nightstand. Sea of Rust was thought-provoking and a joy to read.
Longer Review : This book really caught me by surprise. I found this through a Twitter re-tweet; upon checking out the author, I was shocked he only had 3 books, this one being the third, and the other 2 were fantasy novels with mixed reviews. So I downloaded a sample and fully expected to not buy the full book.
However, the story being told her is a wonderful and swirling mix of thematic and genre elements. Much like "Red Rising", this is a book that brings together a whole slew of ideas and styles that, on a drafting board, sound ridiculous and shouldn't work ... and yet they do to fantastic effect. The synopsis for this novel actually downplays what this book is like, and makes it sound like a tongue-in-cheek dark comedy about robots bumbling around in a spaghetti Western. The truth is that this novel is much more developed and nuanced than that. Basically, this takes place 30 years after the start of the war to kill all humans (a la Skynet in the Terminator franchise but much more interesting), and something like 10 years after the death of the last human. Earth is now populated by a mix of OWIs (One World Intelligences, AKA, Skynet-style hive-minds) and "freeboots", or basically AIs inhabiting a single, self-contained humanoid robot. In the style of a Western, the OWIs basically represent "The Man" or "The Feds" from the East, and the freebots represent the ranchers and farmers that just want to be left alone on the frontier. And similar to how many cowboys and gunslingers were Civil War veterans, all freeboots were veterans in the war against humans.
This is where the book really made itself a 5 star novel in my opinion. Just about every other robots-kill-all-humans sci-fi has the humans as the beleaguered good guys and the robots as the merciless, soulless bad guys. And while that's not necessarily NOT the case here, the author does a fantastic job of slowly selling the reader on the idea of these freebots being more than just "anti-human". This is not a novel that involves robots doing a victory lap, post-war. This is, in large part, a story of robots attempting to figure out the "Now What?" that comes after winning a war that was everything and destroyed everything. In this, the author excels at making you forget you're reading a story where literally every character is a machine, a non-human entity. There's explorations of post-traumatic stress, of regret, of the meaning of life beyond war and conflict, of art and philosophy, of the cost of winning, of the cost of living, of defining yourself. There's sequences where a character describes using a flamethrower and killing people, of killing children, and yet even after this revelation, the author has created an environment in which you almost feel worse for the robot than for the children ... almost. There's numerous flashbacks to before the war and discussions of who many of the robots were before they were scavengers and mercenaries and pathfinders and murderers; there's one particular chapter for the protagonist that sent a few shivers up my spine and really struck home, as it basically becomes a "Sophie's Choice" type of thing.
And that kind of sums up a large part of what this novel is about: robots making increasingly desperate and hopeless decisions in a world that is falling apart under them. Again, I want to emphasize here that, despite the fact that most of this is a direct result of the robots' decision to start a war and end humans, you still feel sympathy for them because (other than the OWIs) they are not singular, monolithic and personality-free intelligences. These are actual characters, each with their own struggles, each trying to find meaning in a meaningless world.
This brings me to the excellent opening, middle and ending chapters that succinctly embody the spirit of the novel (I'll leave off details of the final chapter because, obviously, it's somewhat spoilerish, and I'll keep the middle chapter vague for that plus it's best to read it with few preconceptions). The novel opens with our protagonist watching a sunset and discussing the green flash that sometimes happens right before the sun goes all the way below the horizon (this is a real thing, BTW). They discuss it as being a sign of the magic in the world, but brush it off as there being no magic left. And that perfectly sets the tone for the novel. As things progress, and characters comes and go, and flashbacks provide the occasional interlude, the reader is constantly reminded, with subtle intelligence, that things are the way they are because there is no magic left in the world. And that's not meant to be a simple proclamation that's thrown aside to explore other ideas; instead, each event, each flashback, each discussion between characters, is essentially an exploration of HOW and WHY the magic has left the world. The author excelled at this, and damn near perfectly captured this concept from every angle. We eventually find out through a mid-novel interlude where this idea of the magic in the green flash at sunset came from, and then, to tie everything together, the novel ends with a sunset and a green flash in a way that, well, was perfect and damn near made me spill a tear.
SUMMARY: This is a great book. Even for people that don't read hardcore sci-fi, or shy away from the kind of sci-fi with robots and lasers and plasma and spaceships, this is an easy but intelligent and emotional novel. Don't think of this as a SCI-FI! but think of it as a Western ... with robots ... and no humans ... and figuring out the meaning of life at the edge of the world and the end of civilization.
~The spoiler-lite review~
To varying degrees, I've enjoyed each of C. Robert Cargill's books, each more so than the last. Queen of the Dark Things (3.5/5 stars) was an improvement over Dreams and Shadows (3/5 stars) and Sea of Rust here is a vast improvement over that book. Not only that, but the prose is also improving from book to book, as is the dialogue (though as it specifically pertains to SoR's characters, I'll get to that in the analysis) and the plotting and characterization are much, much better handled than his previous two books.
So yeah, the book's better than his last two.
About this book: A Sci-fi post-apocalyptic Western where Humanity kicked the bucket by way of the bucket kicking them into extinction. No people. Main character’s a hard, haunted scavenger robot by the name of Brittle, good with a gun, even handier with a flame thrower, and this story is about finding who they are in the aftermath of the Fall of Man as fellow AI turn on each other and battle for what’s left in the former American rust belt called the Sea of Rust, one of the last vestiges of freebots.
I really liked it. I grade it somewhere between 3.75-4/5 stars. Enough to really like it but not enough to love it. I think it has some pretty distracting faults but otherwise it’s a pretty effective and well put together story that I had a good time reading. Fans of action and sci-fi, especially those with an apocalyptic twist, are gonna really dig the hell out of this. At the rate he's improving, I can't wait for Cargill's next book.
~The spoilery stuff~
[WHAT I LOVED:
-The pacing. As Cargill's improved as a writer, so have his strengths it seems, and pacing has been one of his strengths since D&S. This book moves at a clic and when it's in the moment it keeps you enthralled. I read its 360+ pages in a day.
-The fact that all the humans are dead. One thing that makes SoR stand out a bit is that too many post-apocalyptic stories of this ilk always have that thread of whether the humans are all dead or whether any hope for humanity lingers. Here? It's a tired cliche kicked like a rusty can to the curb. They died out years ago and stayed that way. No human blips on the radar. IT'S REALLY POST-APOCALYPSE. Book gets lots of bonus points for not deviating.
-The opening. Strong character stuff and an excellent display of Cargill's ability to transport you. Unlike the exposition dump chapters I'll delve into later, the worldbuilding is immediate and apparent in a way that doesn't call attention to itself too much and feels organic.
-The second-to-last chapter. I’m a sucker for character oriented stuff and this should have ended the book. It’s strong and a good bookend to the opening chapter. What follows isn’t as good, but this chapter’s a good resolution to the book’s main conflicts and a nice showcase of the middle ground our main character Brittle finds.
[WHAT I LIKED:
-The prose. Flows easy and isn't flowery in the slightest. Keeps you in the story and commands your attention to where Cargill needs it to be.
-Brittle, our protagonist. I love a good, grey, flawed protagonist. Brittle's got a history and they're caught between daring to hope and being nihilistic from beginning to end, some of which you can read in the synopsis, some you can read above and in other reviews. I won’t delve into it too much, because I consider it the meat of the book, but suffice it to say, I like this character.
-Mercer, our protagonist’s foil. What a prick. I liked him quite a bit. Handy with a sniper rifle, but his shades of grey paint a very strong character for Brittle to go up against in more ways than one.
-The Supporting Characters. They are well-realized for the most part and Cargill does enough to make each character stand out. Dialogue aside, good as it is, each character, how they act, react, and look at the world, especially compared to Brittle, is well done. I in particular liked Murka and his random comments about Commies and the Gipper.
-No one feels safe and no one is safe. It feels like anybody could bite it at any time. Characters get hurt, they get maimed, they bite it almost indiscriminately. It rocks.
-The Sea of Rust itself. A very well-realized world, that in a smart decision to lend the story further uniqueness, is spun off from the American Rust Belt. I dig the hell out of it when it is itself and not aping other things.
[WHAT I DIDN'T CARE FOR/HAVE MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT:
-Brittle apparently being a female robot. Her character is so masculine in every way that when it's brought up she's feminine 50 or so pages into the book, I did a double take (didn't match what Cargill had already fully developed in my head, which was more masculine-neutral, being a robot and all). Every time it was brought up after that, I rolled my eyes. I don't buy it. At all. Felt like a tacked-on trait to make the character more sympathetic. Every other character feels naturally themselves, but when it comes to this trait and how Cargill then goes about pointing it out continuously at a certain point, it feels forced and I roll my eyes.
-The Dialogue. These characters, well characterized though they may be, sound like they're wearing spurs and ten gallon hats in Texas, Cargill's stomping grounds. They are hardly differentiated in speech patterns and phrases to sound like they’re from the Midwest, New York, Space, what have you, yet alone robots from those areas. Thing is, it's good dialogue, though. It just strains credulity coming from machines of varied backgrounds. So while I was able to overlook it, I couldn't entirely get past it.
-The philosophizing. I dug the hell out of including it in the book, but found it misplaced here and there. Some characters, it enriches them, others, eh...
-The action scenes. Some are better than others and some have better punctuated beats than others. Thing is, it gets repetitive a good portion of the time too, and at points feels like there’s writer-armor rather than character action or unpredictability saving characters from doom. Prose-wise, they flow and are readable in the way a lot of action scenes in books aren’t. I didn’t skip through them or tune out waiting for the next genuine plot point to crop up. That’s what creating stakes where it seems like anybody could bite it does for the story. But, it gets repetitive hearing many of the same descriptions again and again, sometimes in the same action scene as it progresses.
-Mad Max-isms. I love Mad Max. It's great. But SoR calls attention to some of its inspiration by constantly recalling it (the Smokers are essentially War Rigs, the Cheshire King rules over his own similarly to Tina Turner and the Lord Humongous, and his fortress directly recalls the oil rig from The Road Warrior, etc.) and then essentially stopping to become a Mad Max movie, only with robots and without George Miller in the 3rd Act... Less is more here. NIKE, while it calls back to Bartertown from Beyond Thunderdome, is unique in itself that the story doesn’t need to become Mad Max.
-The villains. One of the strengths of Sea of Rust is that there is a varied selection of characters, especially among the immediate supporting cast, each with their own motivations. Some are grey, some are good, others complete scum, but with their reasons. When it comes to CISSUS and its facets, though, it’s largely one-note. They’re effectively described taking out whole cities and coordinating their simultaneous points of view, but in practice they’re often a bunch of stormtroopers, cannon fodder rather than the merciless, indiscriminate wave of hell they’re described as. Felt too easily beaten if you ask me, even if Brittle, Mercer, and others are battle-hardened warriors and capable against each other and others.
-The end chapter. I could honestly take it or leave it. It’s unnecessary because Brittle’s story is essentially done by then and the previous chapter would have wrapped up the book beautifully had that been the ending. The final chapter is instead just plot-after-the-plot with nothing remarkable about it, maybe to set up an unnecessary sequel about the battle for world domination. *Yawn* Brittle’s story was the one with stakes I was invested in and cared about, not the one about which mainframe controls the planet.
[WHAT I DISLIKED:
-The way machines take over. It sounds almost exactly like the origin story of the Machines in The Matrix (and similar properties those movies aped from) with a tad bit of SkyNet from Terminator thrown in for good measure in the form of the mainframe OWI (One World Intelligence) characters like CISSUS, GALILEO, TACITUS, or VIRGIL. The origin feels too much like a retread of similar properties when the rest of the book does such a good job otherwise in worldbuilding. It wasn’t even all that necessary if you ask me, because I cared way more about Brittle’s role in the takeover than I did about the Robot Rights Struggles, the mainframe wars, how the war went down historically, what have you. A lot of this information is in those friggin' exposition dumps of the 1st Act that feel largely irrelevant to the overall story, and thus could have been largely excised.
-Dead giveaways of coming plot twists. *****SPOILER ALERTs for Cargill’s movies and other books***** From what I’ve seen and read of Cargill’s writing, he doesn’t really know how to do subtler plants of plot twists. You can see them coming from a mile away because he doesn’t hide them or their foreshadowing well, be they having Ellison in Sinister look at drawings and somehow not putting two-and-two together that the children are committing the murders despite *the children literally being the culprits in the drawings* or here, having the characters see an oncoming threat while they’re in the middle of dangerous territory and then say a spot nearby is a good place to stage an ambush… only to just paragraphs later reveal what’s really going down.
Sure, the reveal of who the character Rebekah really is does up the stakes, but Cargill's best plot twist is the reveal of Coyote as the Dingo in QotDT, and that largely works as a fluke in comparison there because Cargill doesn’t introduce the twist as foreshadowing so much as casually reveal it as an upping-the-stakes moment for the 3rd book in that series. Here, it takes some of the edge off the story, when as foreshadowing, the character literally asks himself if he is an unwitting Judas and there are no red herrings to turn attention elsewhere. Give the audience some credit. When you do that, *especially as the exclamation point of a chapter*, and don’t put the work in to hide the twist, the twist falls flat.
[WHAT I HATED:
-The friggin exposition dumps. This was the biggest problem of Cargill’s last two books and while he utilizes it a little better here (effectively cutting it off for the most part at the end of the 1st Act roughly 120 pages in and incorporating its contents better in the story consequences-wise), it’s still aggravating being taken out of the story for an introduction and exposition on something that is about to be immediately addressed afterward. It’s not clever. It’s utilitarian and lazy. It’s one thing if it’s every now and then or better yet, a single chapter, but when it’s *every other chapter* for the entirety of the 1st act, and interrupts the story in the way it does, and gives the audience barely a kernel of relevant-to-the-story information that could’ve easily been learned otherwise, IT’S GOT TO STOP.
The necessary information gleamed in those chapters could’ve been expositioned as part of the story, with the rest cut altogether. Maybe have a character serve as just an exposition mouthpiece. Movies and TV Shows do this all the time. It doesn’t call attention to itself if it’s done well (heck, Cargill does it here at the end of the 2nd Act about page 250!).
I get that Cargill feels the need in those early chapters to have some sort of 'Meanwhile' chapter every other time in order to structure the book, but when you see that he doesn’t need it later on to advance the story it makes the problem all the more apparent.
As I said above, it adds up to a book I really liked, but not one I could love. No worries, though. Cargill's a writer consistently improving at this as he goes along and I really look forward to the next book of his. He keeps it up, that next book's gonna propel him to the big time.
Most recent customer reviews
My biggest issue is that the book was too short. I could have used it being twice as long