Sea of Rust by Robert Cargill is set in a post-apocalyptic future where robots have completely exterminated humans. It’s a fascinating premise because it literally flips the script of the generic post-apocalyptic novel. The story is not about whether or how the few remaining humans will survive the dystopian future, because there are no humans left! Instead, all the central characters in Sea of Rust are “silicon-based life forms.” But that doesn’t mean that this sameness results in peace and a lack of tension among the various, computers, thinking machines and artificial intelligences. Even among computers, there is difference: in processing power, uniqueness, robustness/interoperability, former utility to humans and other factors. And where there is difference there is the potential for conflict.
Sea of Rust follows the path of a particular robot named Brittle who is something of a bounty hunter of and among other robots. Unsurprisingly, when there are no humans left, one of the most important things in the world is spare parts (and electricity/power). Brittle is a robot who hunts/tracks/finds other robots in order to salvage their parts. Brittle makes it clear that she (Brittle has picked her gender identity to be female) waits for the machines she is potentially getting parts from to have stopped operating before she disassembles them, but some of her fellow/rival salvagers are not so scrupulous. (It’s not completely clear whether Brittle is always so scrupulous herself, actually.)
When we meet Brittle, she is being hunted down by Mercer, who is the same Caregiver model of robot as Brittle is and thus needs the exact same parts. It’s pretty clear Mercer is perfectly happy to accelerate the process by which Brittle will become unoperational in order to reduce the time he will have to wait to gain access to the important parts (that are currently inside Brittle!) that he needs to remain functional. Basically, both Brittle and Mercer are facing the inexorable march of time and their inevitable obsolescence. This is an example of interesting philosophical question the author raises in the book: is cannibalism morally okay when practiced among robots?
However the existential battle between Brittle and Mercer is put on hold when a larger more dangerous threat arrives suddenly. One of the primary threats to the continued existence of individual robots like Brittle and Mercer are artificial intelligences that are attempting to dominate the planet and become a OWI (one world intelligence). Typically OWI (or their subsumed representatives, called "subs") approach other machine intelligences and offer them a “choice” to either join the OWI by subsuming their individuality to become a sub of the OWI or to be destroyed. (Not much of a choice, actually!)
The existence of potential OWIs as the villain(s) of Sea of Rust make it easier to see Brittle and Mercer as the heroes of the story. Because then the story becomes one of scrappy, independent David(s) fighting against a Goliath hive mind with orders of magnitude more resources, processing power and strength. However, at its core Sea of Rust is still a story about which of two silicon-based life forms will survive after human life has been removed from the equation. As a human reader it becomes difficult to be (and remain) very emotionally invested in the ultimate result, regardless of how unusual and compelling the setting is. As I mentioned earlier, another interesting aspect of the book is its incorporation of philosophical ideas and questions about the nature of intelligence and life itself in the context of an Earth where human life has been extinguished but artificial intelligence still flourishes.
Title: Sea of Rust.
Author: C. Robert Cargill.
Length: 384 pages.
Publisher: Harper Voyager.
Date Published: September 5, 2017.
Date Read: April 15, 2022.
GOODREADS RATING: ★★★½☆ (3.5/5.0).
OVERALL GRADE: B+ (3.33/4.0).