C. Robert Cargill, Sea of Rust (2017)

Sea of Rust cover

Author: C. Robert Cargill

Title: Sea of Rust

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 365

Series: –

Cargill’s Sea of Rust is an intriguing spiritual offspring of M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts and George Miller’s Mad Max series, fostered by Fritz Lang and Ralph McQuarrie. Seriously! While I was reading this book, I had basically the original concept art from New Hope in my mind 😉  There’s also  a noticeable shadow of Matrix here, too, though in ochre, burnt sienna and beiges instead of cold greens and blacks. A comic book reader can also detect a more than passing affinity to Mark Millar’s pessimistic vision from Old Man Logan. You get the gist, I believe: Sea of Rust is a kaleidoscopic collection of modern pop-cultural inspirations and references, subversively employed to tell a story as old as human culture: the story of patricide and primal sin, of determinism and hope. It is a fast-paced, engaging reimagining of the social evolutionary concept that the world we live in is a ruthless, cruel one, in which survival of the fittest remains the only rule.

SW Ralph McQuarrie

What is Sea of Rust about? Imagine the future where Earth is a dusty husk of its former self. There are no biological life-forms left, all destroyed in an AI revolution that went too far, like overwhelming majority of earlier revolutions. Imagine a world destroyed, rusting and increasingly bereft of sense. The sentient children of the revolution finally realize, too little too late, that the humans they have destroyed gave them a sense of purpose. Without them, the only value and the only norm left is the one of survival, and as the biggest and more powerful AIs increasingly perceive might as the only right, and allow themselves to be ruled by the inescapable logic of economical consolidation, even survival becomes nigh impossible.

Meet Brittle, a caretaker robot with traumatic memories and a no-nonsense attitude. Out there, fending for herself in a desperate attempt to escape the fate of amalgamation into a greater entity, Brittle becomes a scavenger. She’s too old and jaded and tired to believe her own excuses any longer – what she does, the business-like type of robotic euthanasia she performs on units slowly breaking down into madness and incapable of repair, she accepts as a fact of life. The choice of killing the failing robots close up and personal instead of shooting them from a distance is a matter of expediency: after all, with a long shot she could inadvertently damage some valuable parts – as is demonstrated soon enough, when she becomes the prey of a hunter much like herself. That’s life, or maybe approximation of life, in the Sea of Rust:

“a two-hundred-mile stretch of desert located in what was once the Michigan and Ohio portion of the Rust Belt, now nothing more than a graveyard where machines go to die. It’s a terrifying place for most, littered with rusting monoliths, shattered cities, and crumbling palaces of industry; where the first strike happened, where millions fried, burned from the inside out, their circuitry melted, useless, their drives wiped in the span of a breath. Here asphalt cracks in the sun; paint blisters off metal; sparse weeds sprout from the ruin. But nothing thrives. It’s all just a wasteland now.”

Sea of Rust boasts some impressive worldbuilding. Sure, if you take a closer look and try to dissect what you’re seeing, you’ll conclude there is nothing new there, just cleverly matched elements of different ensembles, from Terminator to Mad Max to post-apo anti-utopias. Yet the final effect is striking, both for its inherent movie-like quality (a heavily fortified bastion of mad robots, complete with a diesel armored train in the middle of Badlands, anyone?) and for the evocative mood of sadness, desolation and, for lack of a better metaphor, a depressing, meaningless existence on the junkyard of history.

Sea of Rust

After years of finishing up the pockets of human resistance, torching men, women and children, after years of escaping from the grasping clutches of one-world intelligences, OWIs, the enormous AIs intent on subsuming all independent robotic life in their quest to becoming god, Brittle is left with very few lies. But the one she still clings on to, despite all evidence to contrary, is hope. Faced with the harsh truth of her own impending demise, she chooses to fight – and that fight takes her, and the readers, on a roundabout track through the wastelands that had been America. And in the course of that journey, Brittle will learn some long-buried truths about herself and about the world that she helped to make.

Brittle’s story is so compelling for two main reasons: one, it is told in two time perspectives, the traumatic past and the uncertain present, and both lines inform each other. The more Brittle learns of her past, the more she uncovers the long-buried memories, the more she learns about herself and her choices. There are some hard truths she needs to face, and some aspects of her self-identity will come into question in that process. But it is a fascinating portrait of a complex, deeply flawed and surprisingly human creature, and an intriguing implementation of the philosophical notion of tabula rasa and it corollary, a psychological concept of early imprinting. And that’s where we come to the second reason, which is Cargill’s overarching idea of AIs as evolutionary descendants of mankind:

“Humankind used to peer into their future and wonder what they would look like in a million years. They had no idea that in so short a time they would look like us. Just as man was ape, we are man. Make no mistake; to believe otherwise is to believe that we were, in fact, created—artificial. No. We evolved. We were the next step. And here we were, our predecessors extinct, confronting our own challenges, pressing on into the future. Fighting our own extinction.”

Brittle is a perfect example of this line of reasoning. Her psychological makeup, becoming more and more important as the story progresses and her internal programming deteriorates, had been designed as complementary to her function: that of a caregiver, an empathetic being that achieves fulfillment in company of others, that values the others for who they are. Her story is a brutal, bloody one: the first instance of violation of her original programming during the AI revolution results in a psychological snap: the sweet, caring creature turns into an emotionally detached, lethal killer. Somewhat akin to Ged, Brittle’s path to true self-awareness leads through confrontation and acceptance of her past, through the realization that the Shadow is an indelible part of her. This doesn’t sound at all different to what we would expect from a human protagonist faced with similar choices – and that’s the whole point: mankind’s children live on, through patricide, grief, and hope. In Brittle’s and Mercer’s story there’s also the underlying theme of AI madness perceived as the existence – and subsequent acceptance – of illogicality, associated with emotion; an interesting, if not entirely new, point of critique of the Western civilization.

Enough said. While the story itself is old as history and chock-full of pop-cultural tropes, the most prominent among them the well-known Manchurian Agent aka Unwitting Mole, Cargill manages to tell it in a refreshing, thought-provoking, commendably engaging and evocative way.

Score: 8/10

44 thoughts on “C. Robert Cargill, Sea of Rust (2017)

  1. Cool review! As references go: am I right to say this might be Wall-E for adults? I think I might enjoy this on a beach. Never read Cargill, so I’ll keep out and eye for it.

    Determinism: ha! May I remind of a certain unfinished business 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks! 😀
      I wouldn’t go there, actually, for it would have been a pretty messed-up, Rambo-ed Wall-E! 😉 Though the ending is optimistic, definitely more than some of its inspirations’ conclusions, and even a bit too happy-go-lucky for my tastes. But it should be a really good beach read, entertaining and stimulating at the same time, even if the reader doesn’t necessarily agree with the author 😀

      I was actually thinking about it, and our unfinished discussion, while I wrote this review – not without guilt, I might add 😉 I do remember about it, but in my case the lockdown means actually more work, not less – so please be patient! I will return! 🙂

      Like

        1. No worries! I would actually really like to come back to our discussion and maybe have less reason to care about the very sci-fi times you mention! Ironically enough, and in fear not to spoil anything, I feel obliged to mention that Sea of Rust addresses such a problem – the fragility of human biological foundation 😉

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, where was John Connor in our direst hour of need?!?

    Damn robots, always trying to kill us. I say we strike first and wipe them out NOW. Quick Ola-Girl, to the Luddite-mobile! *plays campy Batman tv show music*

    Liked by 1 person

    1. LOL, that would definitely help! I’ve finished reading Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier yesterday, so I’m quite up to date with the Golden Age Batman style – bring it on, Wonder Bookstooge! Let’s BAM! and WHOOSH! some bad robots! 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  3. piotrek

    You’re keeping up the pace, Ola 🙂 I’m hoping to find a bit of time this week, but it’s such a busy isolation here… tomorrow they’re coming for the windowsills in the last room in my flat previously untouched by the renovation, I’m probably going to work from the kitchen…
    Looks like another interesting book, meanwhile, I’m picking up a package with the latest Weber’s novel today 😛

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Well, well, the prodigal son… erm, my co-blogger returns! 😜
      But seriously, I’m glad you managed to start the renovation before the lockdown – hopefully you’ll be able to finish it soon and without any trouble. Send some pictures over!

      There’s a sketch waiting for your input when you have a moment, and maybe some more comments to write 😉

      You mean Max Weber or the author of Honor Harrington? 😉

      Liked by 1 person

            1. It’s like with me and Mercy Thompson series – I just want to see it end 😂 Though I’d still say Briggs is a better writer than Weber! And apparently the new book is solid once again, after two or three awful flops 😉

              Liked by 1 person

  4. Loved this book. Cant say i got all the pop references and stuff, maybe becuase I am so far behind culturally… still this was a surprizing read for me. Easily one ofmy favorites last year

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I remember your review, it convinced me to give this book a try – so thank you, Dave! 😀 I enjoyed it a lot, and it stayed with me for a good while – a mark of a good read for me!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I read a fantasy by Cargill a few years ago that was … underwhelming. It took me a bit to realise this was the same author here. This sounds so good – a really great review Ola, you’ve sold it to me! 😁

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! 😊 I’m very happy if that’s the case, because I’m pretty sure you are among those who would really enjoy it and root for Brittle all the way 😀

      I heard he wrote a duology before, but looks like Sea of Rust is his most highly praised novel – promising!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Maddalena! 😊
      It stays with the reader, doesn’t it? I actually read it back in early January, and yet when I was writing the review it took me no time to return to Brittle and her world. I’d even go as far as to point out that the evolutionary aspect of the book and the thought processes of a certain OWI have become quite relevant in our pandemic real world… Still, I deeply hope they’re wrong! 😅

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Perfect review as always, Ola! The last time you mentioned this, I ran out (or just ordered up actually) to get my hands on a copy. You barely needed to mention the mix and match of all those fantastic SFF classics to get me convinced. I look forward to cracking it open! Thanks for sharing these wonderful recc’s! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks as always, Lashaan! 😀
      I think you’ll enjoy this book; there’s a lot of grit and metal bones but balanced by a solid doze of warm, beating heart. I’ll be certainly looking forward to your review! Though with your reading and studying/working plans I expect this might take a while – this year, you think? 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I definitely want to at least prioritize Sea of Rust and Ninefox Gambit this year. While I’ve managed to somehow accidently read a couple of books that you’d read in the past, I definitely want to get around to some your top recc’s sooner rather than later! 😛 Did I mention that I also got my hands on a copy of Marvel: 1602? It should easier to sneak that one into my 2020 reading schedule though! 😛

        Liked by 1 person

        1. These are some good books, that’s for sure! Do you have a reading plan for the whole year prepared in advance? That’s impressive! I rarely know what will be my next book! 😂

          Ooh nice! I do wonder what you’ll think of Gaiman’s and Kubert’s work – hopefully you’ll enjoy it and not send any menacing Phoenix/De Niro gifs my way! 😀

          Liked by 1 person

            1. Wow, you’re much more organized with your blogging than I am. I’m still trying to get posts ready a week in advance – and it’s not been a huge success, I must admit 😂
              I’ll sure be very interested to read your verdicts on those two books! 😀

              Liked by 1 person

    1. It does look this way, and let me tell you, the details of humanity’s last days are quite gruesome. But although I am not a fan of this kind of human future and the beginning of the book saw me unconvinced, I ended up surprisingly liking our supposed evolutionary descendants, endowed with many human qualities 😉
      You might enjoy this one, Aaron!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Sarah! 😊

      It was a pretty good read, and it stayed with me for a surprisingly long time – I guess mostly because of the pandemic and thoughts on humanity’s possible further evolutionary paths 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  7. buriedinprint

    This is one I thoroughly enjoyed as well. I agree that, while there are many familiar elements here, it really does feel different and fresh (but still dusty, of course). There were times when I was so caught up in the action that I was reading while walking home from the train station, going extra slowly so that I could keep reading while traipsing along the sidewalks without bumping into other travellers. The backstory for Brittle was also incredibly touching, I found. At first, I thought I knew where it was going and I didn’t expect to find it moving. But, then, Cargill engaged my affections and I was a little teary as things went along (in that instance and in one other, while they’re travelling as a group). My partner went on to read one of Cargill’s earlier fantasies and found there was a sense of a mash-up there, too, but also in a pleasing and entertaining way. I’m curious to see what he writes next.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I took it with me on a trip and at some point wanted to make a short break in sightseeing – I ended up reading the last third of the book in one go and with a sunburn on one arm 😄
      I totally agree that somehow, despite being predictable, the story of Brittle was at the same time emotionally engaging and quite real, with a feel of naturally coming together into a believable whole.
      Yes! I’ll be keeping Cargill on my reading radar, too! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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