Recent Reading: Sea of Rust by C Robert Cargill

Okay, Sea of Rust has been on my (paper) TBR shelves for a while … let me see … a relatively short three years, looks like, assuming I picked it up the year it came out, which I think I did. I believe it was among the free books I picked up at a World Fantasy Convention or WorldCon.

So, here’s part of the description:

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. … 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 for the sake of a greater, stronger, higher, power. … 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.

Grim! No wonder it took me several years to get to it, especially since lots and lots of books sit on the shelves a lot longer than that. It’s getting close to the end of the year and I’ve hardly read anything from the physical TBR shelves this year, so I picked this one up almost at random. And I have to say …

… It’s really good! SEA OF RUST is a fast-paced, compelling, high-stakes, page-turner of a postapocalyptic novel. I’m going to pass it over to my dad at once, as he will probably love it.

Humanity really is gone. Along with practically the entire biosphere. Turns out robots don’t necessarily feel very bothered by causing a REAL mass extinction, one that probably rivals the K-T extinction. Cargill presents a scenario for the robot apocalypse that seems terrifyingly plausible while you’re reading the story. Actually, that scenario has several layers, as Brittle, and thus the reader, finds out what really happened thirty years ago and what is really happening now. All the layers feel terrifyingly plausible.

I thought I would have way too much trouble with a story where humans have been wiped out and all the characters are robots – I thought that would bother me – but actually, no. This is because almost at once I said to myself, in exactly so many words, “These are robots like ART in Murderbot; they’re really and truly people.” That flipped a circuit somewhere in my reader-brain and let me tolerate the backstory and enjoy the protagonist and secondary characters. Also, in a kind of cosmic justice, the robots who inherited the world are in deep, deep trouble. That also makes it easier to tolerate the backstory.

More remarkably, I continued to enjoy the protagonist even after I realized Brittle is a terrible person. Her personal backstory is terrible and her current occupation is terrible and really, no, she is awful. I liked her anyway, partly because wow, is her situation ever terrible, so I had to sympathize with someone trying that hard to survive; and partly because the author keeps ratcheting up the action and it was impossible to stop and dwell on the inherent unlikability of the protagonist; but partly I kept stubbornly liking Brittle because I felt there were just enough hints that maybe Brittle’s character arc was going to (somehow) slant upward.

Spoiler: I hope you won’t mind if I just say right out that yes, actually, it did. At the end, Brittle makes a different kind of choice, and also the world wind up in a better place, with a lot more hope for the future than the grim (really grim) past implies.

Brittle is a great protagonist in a bunch of ways. Let’s say this novel is a good choice if you like unreliable narrators. Plus Cargill does a good job with the secondary characters, especially Mercer. This is the most important secondary character. Mercer starts off looking like a simple bad guy – we meet him when he ambushes Brittle and tries to kill her so he can scavenge her parts – and then Cargill pulls of this trick whereby the reader gradually realizes that by most measures Mercer is actually a better person than Brittle. This is handled with amazing deftness. Then the two of them continue to play off each other in ways that I really can’t explain because that would be a spoiler, but anyway, the story winds up being quite satisfying.

So, who should read this book? Well, if you like Murderbot, you might try this one, with the understanding that Murderbot itself is a MUCH nicer person than Brittle, and that the world of Murderbot, while awful in many ways, is not NEARLY as grim as the world of SEA OF RUST.

If you’re looking for something low-stakes and warm and fuzzy, ha ha ha, no.

If you think you might like a tense page-turner where the author really demonstrates how to keep a nonstop pace going straight through an entire novel, then yes, absolutely.

Also, after SEA OF RUST, nothing about 2020 can possibly seem all that dire. Look around – biosphere still intact? People not extinct, along with a huge proportion of all other organisms? Well, then, things could certainly be worse. SEA OF RUST will paint a very, very clear picture of exactly how much worse it could be and how it could have gotten that way. I may not want to read another book with this kind of grim setting this year, but seriously, I enjoyed this book a whole lot and I highly recommend it.

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