Author: C. Robert Cargill
Title: Sea of Rust
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.
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.
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.