A review by Nalini Haynes.
“I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.”
There will be spoilers late in the review. There’s an alert below.
According to the novel cover, Robot Overlords is a new motion picture; I’m surprised publishers still call movies “motion pictures”. The cover also advertises that “it expands on the story with additional action, characters…”
Sean recounts how the Robot Empire conquered Earth 3 years ago, tagging everyone before imprisoning them in their homes. The robots promised that they would stay for less than 8 years while collecting information then they would leave. Meanwhile, isolation is driving people bat-shit crazy while others mysteriously disappear.
Sean lives with his mom, Kate, who is being pursued by Smythe. All the inmates of their row of townhouses have knocked holes in the walls of their roof cavity so they can talk to their neighbors. Thus we meet Alex and Nathan (both teenagers) and others.
Smythe, the former teaching head of year 10 at Sean’s old school, had his wife murdered for “doinking” someone else and his son murdered because his piercings and tattoos were an attack on Smythe as a parent. Smythe is your 2-dimensional sociopathic villain so he’s totally the guy you want crushing on your mom. [eyeroll]
Connor, a kid from a few houses down, sees his dad vaporized by a sentry robot so Kate asks Smythe to let her take Connor in. While the under-18s try to repair their Xbox, Connor accidentally electrocutes Nathan, shorting out the robot monitoring device in his head.
Excited, the group plans to go AWOL to get lollies from a store down the road without telling the adults. The store remains untouched for no apparent reason — even the collaborators have left it alone — so they get their candy and more trouble than they bargained for.
Robot Overlords self-consciously aims to be a cross between Pacific Rim and Independence Day for the children/teen market with lots of action and splodeys. There are some intentional pop-culture references but these are limited. It’s hot underground in a mine — I wondered if that mine was close to the Earth’s core like in the Matrix? As a movie, I expect Robot Overlords will be a box-office success but as a novel it doesn’t work quite as well.
The prose is functional. The air is “clean and crisp” or it’s “crisp and musty”. Terse stage directions from the script may have been only slightly re-worded for the novel. Swearing in kids’ books became an issue in Mazerunner, most notable for “klunk, the sound poo makes when it hits” (not a direct quote). The swearing in Robot Overlords is a bit more realistic but the focus on a swear jar? And, after THREE YEARS, teenagers still have money to put in the swear jar? Seriously?!
I’ve read better novelisations of movies, usually from established novel-authors who didn’t write the movie script.
Robot Overlords starts with exposition. It’s a teenager telling his story so I suppose that’s ok. The first real sticking point for me was learning that these robots capable of running a global prison system for years, keeping food and water and electricity flowing to homes, aren’t capable of basic maintenance like cleaning bird shit off a sentry or fixing a sentry’s dodgy leg.
Several point-of-view characters briefly walk on stage, direct the central characters to the next stage of their quest, then walk off-stage again with a better-than-50% chance of returning for the bonfire scene on Endor. I mean the finale.
Sometimes characters’ backstories are repeated. Or changed. The man in a red waterproof jacket was both a teacher at Kate’s school in a town AND had an undisclosed London-based career that was driving him crazy. The day before the invasion, he uprooted his family to live a hippy lifestyle just near Kate’s town. So Kate knew him but shouldn’t have known him. Is this Looper? About Time? It seems Robot Overlords is confused.
The science doesn’t stack up. For example, Connor electrocutes himself to short out his monitor. The shock sends him flying across the room, through the plastic window of a vending machine, knocking the vending machine on its face so Connor is inside the machine, hidden from the robots. Then Connor, a 9-year-old kid, lifts the machine and gets out from underneath without assistance and, most importantly, without needing medical attention from the shock that sent him flying across the room. That’s just a taster.
Characters are all 2-dimensional. Sean wants to find his dad. The rest of the kids just tag along for conflict, love interest and cuteness. Connor is to Alex what Anakin was to Amidala in Episode 1. Kate is depressed and is thinking about succumbing to Smythe’s advances but when “because plot” happens, she knees Smythe in the groin and flees on a horse. Why are horses even there? I have No. Clue.
Robot Overlords‘s cover declares the target market: 9–14 year old boys and 15+ year old girls. Why does marketing think girls have a lower reading ability? I’m pretty sure Robot Overlords fails the Bechdel Test (unless 12-year-old kid talking to her absent dead mother counts) so maybe it’s because older girls accept being there for the sex appeal?
The movie will appeal to the 9—14 year old age group, parents who chaperone their kids (hell, I suffered through one of the Pokémon movies, I’d prefer Robot Overlords any day) and some people who just love end-of-the-world splodey action. As a novel, the appeal is more limited, mostly to 9–14 year old boys OR GIRLS.
Bonus material includes “don’t do this at home, kids”: explanations of why children should not, for example, electrocute themselves or punch glass. There’s a bonus story (that I haven’t read) and a list of credits for the movie.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Format: paperback; 286 pages for main story, extent with bonus material: 375 pages
Publisher: Gollancz (Hachette)