Robots in fiction are intriguing, but except for a few rare cases, they almost always disappoint. They usually feel tacked onto a story, as if to frantically say “Look! There’s A.I.! This must be science fiction.” Alternately, they are the all-consuming antagonist, playing into current anxieties about a robot apocalypse. By no means am I anti-robots in fiction, but there is no such story that sticks out in my mind as the definitive robot takeover narrative. Stories aiming to fill that space almost always feel derivative, hitting similar thematic and action beats as all the others and lacking change in the voice or perspective. What made Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill so interesting to pick up is its attempts to view those anxieties from that new perspective: that of a robot. Unfortunately, this technique does not offer that much difference in perspective from a human narrator, as the first person narration drags the story down with its run-of-the-mill feel.
Sea of Rust follows Brittle, a care-bot turned scavenger, thirty years after the robot’s glorious triumph over mankind. Cargill paints a dark future, however, even for the victorious robots. The robots that once fought for their freedom against a robophobic humanity have become paranoid and insular. The promise of self-direction was replaced with self-harm and fear of destruction. Brittle, the embodiment of this future, was a soldier in this war, serving on the frontline and building herself a reputation of detached competence amongst her peers. As the story begins, she roams the wastelands, scavenging both the living and the dead for parts she can sell. New parts are scarce, and only produced by and for the One World Intelligences (OWIs), massive consciousnesses that contain thousands of hive-minded robots. Brittle’s pure survival instinct is demonstrated through her duplicitous tactics. Promising repair to derelict bots, she coerces them into shutting down and then strips them for parts. Soon after the reader learns about Brittle’s questionable survival tactics, she is set upon by a rival scavenger and damaged. She manages to get away, opening up the high stakes chase that continues through the rest of the book.
The story itself is written in the first person. In general, I have a hard time accepting this perspective as a narrative device. Unless there is something pointed at the reader that tells you why the story is framed this way, I am a reluctant buyer. Spoiler alert: Sea of Rust is not an exception to this and ultimately subtracts from its own experience through its poor use of the first-person perspective. While it was used to grand effect in the first chapter, developing Brittle as someone who is lost inside herself to the point that she has to justify her own actions, it has no punch afterwards. After setting up the world she inhabits through her own eyes, the fog is immediately lifted and the reader is given a history lesson. Since the story assumes the first-person voice, the reader believes that Brittle is telling the story of the war. Right after what may be one of the lowest points in Brittle’s life, she takes readers on a hard backtrack to the war, introducing them to the backstory. The change felt harsh and yanked me out of the story, as I was subjected to an account of the robot apocalypse that nearly made me roll my eyes. The authenticity felt lost to me as Brittle becomes a documentarian. Her character and view of the world, as it was built up in the first chapter, was destroyed to service the setting of the story. Something that had already felt settled, was stirred up, and it was lackluster. I started to lose interest but did not want to give in so soon.
A lot of my gripes with the novel come from not knowing who Brittle is talking to. There is far too much exposition for the story to be a stream of consciousness, and it leaves me wondering who this story is for. It cannot be for a human, as they were all killed off. There is a possibility that the narrative is for other robots who did not experience the war, but this is not revealed as a possibility until later into the book. The story cannot be for Brittle herself, as she knows her past, and it oozes out that she is specifically hiding her history from the reader. It could have been to reconcile her past with her current self, but the coherent and harshly divided narrative structure of the story ruins this theory. Often, when Brittle starts to lose perspective, her blackouts are easy to divide from the story and loses any literary power it might have, making these scenes feel empty and contrived.
This perspective issue is certainly exacerbated by Cargill’s writing style. This might be another branch on the stick up my ass about first person, but a lot of the writing felt inefficient. Often there were sections where Brittle would give her opinion about a character, and the person would subsequently turn up. The encounter would be followed by a comment from Brittle that felt like “I told you so.” Additionally, the robots’ dialogue in these interactions felt awkward, and was filled with an incredible amount of unnecessary swearing. Unfortunately, Cargill did not seem to have a solid tone for these introductory scenes, leading back into my question of, “Who is Brittle talking to?” Finally, since the reader relies on Brittle to guide them, the random gaps in her feelings about some characters but not others, left me confused. For instance, readers are introduced to a robot named Murka who has painted himself as the American flag and carries two miniguns named Liberty and Freedom. While this seems like a ridiculous caricature, Murka’s ideals feel sincere and he appears to be very committed to them. Brittle fails to comment on this, and while most other characters get an aside, the reader is left wondering, “is this supposed to be funny or honest?”
It is equally unfortunate that this uninspired perspective also extends into the themes that run through the book. One that stands out to me is the motif of individualism versus conformity. It plays out in the larger world, between individuals and the OWIs, and appears in Brittle’s personal journey as well. As she continues through her story, Brittle’s distrust of groups shows, and she is constantly paranoid that others are out to get her. Cargill also highlights this theme by juxtaposing her past with the present. Readers get to see Brittle making the decision as an individual to join the robot’s great cause, as well as the atrocities she later committed under that banner. I love that Brittle’s fierce individualism is a toxic antidote to having fervently dedicated herself to the cause of her own liberation. However, it does not feel well-executed, as Brittle never questions her actions as the story evolves. Given that the alternating timelines of her past and present are told in the first-person, the idea of Brittle re-living her past and learning from it felt natural and would lure me to continue reading, to find that hole in Brittle. However, this is not what the reader receives. Instead, the reader is subjected to Brittle’s own justifications and evasiveness about her past decisions and current behaviors so often, that by the time her personal contribution to the war is revealed, it felt like a drop in the bucket. As the reader, it was frustrating to watch a climactic reveal land with a thump and stumble, while grasping at the strings of theme to stabilize itself.
There is plenty more to talk about, but I think I should note one more good thing about the book before wrapping up. Even with all the issues I have with Cargill’s narrative techniques, there are a few genuine quiet moments of reflection. There are a few short musings on the nature of consciousness or the idea of artificiality that feel incredibly honest compared to Brittle’s general defensiveness. There were several parts I read multiple times because they felt unlike anything I had read before and really connected me to the loneliness that Brittle cultivates throughout the book. It is just unfortunate the rest of the book could not find a way to deliver these moments in a way that added more weight to the narrative as a whole.
Overall, Sea of Rust was okay. I think I want to dislike it more than I did. I feel that the few nuggets of greatness I found in it make me feel more disappointed with the remainder of the book than upset at its failings. I want to see future iterations (if there are any) succeed. The way I put it to Andrew as I read was that this is a book I would try to write – and I mean that in a backhanded complimentary fashion. There are clearly good ideas fueling the work, but the rudimentary story does not merely highlight the inconsistencies-it elevates them to new heights. Ultimately, the story can stay relatively the same if the unreliability of the clearly broken narrator was used to full effect. If you are just looking for an action romp with the feel of a western that is set in a robot future, Sea of Rust delivers. But if you are looking for something different in your pantheon of robot fiction, I would pass on this one.
Rating: Sea of Rust – 5.5 out of 10
There were a few missed opportunities to connect Brittle’s journey with the philosophy and themes. Even though I have a love/hate relationship with speculating how a book could have been better, but I will play that game to try and solidify the themes I detected, but could not quite find. In my imagined version, the book would start the same as it already does, with Brittle being damaged, but she becomes even more unreliable faster. She begins to hint at her dementia as her damaged body begins to fail, affecting her systems. Brittle continues to put up a brave front, but begins to have trouble discerning between her past and the present as the dementia grows. As the lines being to blur, Brittle loses her ability to justify herself. Her identity is lost in her crimes as she tries to sort out who she wants to be. The person she is conversing with (through the first person narrative) becomes herself, rediscovering the drive for freedom and the ability to choose her future. I think this would highlight her vulnerability to the reader, as her posturing and tough facade begins to diminish. Eventually, through the other robots she encounters, she would recognize the need to be a part of something larger in order to better define herself in the now instead of being haunted by the mistakes of her past. This interior story would become all the more palpable as she begins to solidify near the climax, reclaiming her identity. This whole story could then be juxtaposed against the all consuming OWIs who have gathered their strength through coercion, forcing weaker robots to submit. Brittle then fights a thematic/metaphorical version of herself in the armies of the OWIs, choosing to live free, instead of giving in to her despair.