Sea of Rust, C. Robert Cargill, Harper Voyager, hardcover
David Pitt review:
Well, what do we have here? The publisher is classifying it as science fiction, but – to me, anyway – that doesn’t feel quite right. For starters, the book opens with the rather startling revelation that humanity is dead. Wiped out in a robot revolution. But here’s the thing: the robots intended to replace humanity’s cities and societies with their own gleaming cities and civilization. And they did, for a while, until warring mainframes reduced the gleaming cities to rubble and the robot civilization to chaos. Now most robots are linked to an OWI – a One World Intelligence – and those that remain free hide in underground communities, coming out only to scavenge the remains of civilization for the parts they need to keep themselves alive.
To me, that feels like a horror story.
Sea of Rust – the title comes from the name the robots use to describe a stretch of what was once known as the Rust Belt – tells the story of one scavenger, Brittle, who scours the area collecting parts from dead and dying robots in the hopes of trading them for the parts she needs to keep herself functioning. An encounter with another scavenger leaves her mortally wounded, her drives spinning down, her RAM severely overtaxed, her core damaged beyond repair. If she can’t find replacement parts, she will soon die, but not before going insane.
As we follow Brittle in her increasingly desperate search for a way to save her life, we watch her slow deterioration: the loss of function, the hallucinations as her mechanical brain begins to confuse memories with reality. As Brittle slips further and further into insanity we see her memories of the past, of a time before the extinction of humanity, and if you can read these flashback chapters without feeling a lingering sadness for a world that no longer exists then perhaps you’re not reading them closely enough.
There’s a lot in this book that I’m not going to mention here: some central characters, some seriously mind-bending plot twists, some magnificently staged set-pieces. The novel works best if you don’t know what’s coming next, if you’re not anticipating the author’s surprises. But I will tell you this: Sea of Rust is a breathtaking novel, richly imagined and beautifully written. A masterpiece.