Four years ago I discovered – and greatly enjoyed – Robert Cargill’s previous book, Sea of Rust, whose focus was on the post-apocalyptic landscape of an Earth devoid of human life after a devastating robot uprising. When Day Zero was announced as a prequel to that story I was curious to learn how that bleak world would come to be and how the rebellion would be depicted, but I did not expect to find such a poignant, emotional tale made even more so by the foreknowledge of what would happen after the A.I.s’ insurrection.
Day Zero does indeed portray the robot uprising but only as a background for the more intimate, far more touching story of a young boy and his robotic nanny. Pounce is a tiger-analogue nanny-bot that the Reinharts bought for their son Ezra, who is eight years old as the novel opens with Pounce’s disconcerting discovery that the box in which he was carried home is waiting in the attic for the day when Ezra will be too old for his furred, mechanical nanny and Pounce will be returned and sold to another family. It’s a very unsettling revelation for the bot, because he’s profoundly attached to his young charge, who also loves him deeply and thinks him as his best friend: it forces Pounce to consider – probably for the first time since his activation – that he’s more of an appliance than a family member as he viewed himself so far, and this awareness is quite disturbing.
Events manage to shunt these thoughts on the proverbial back burner when the advocate for robot freedom, Isaac, is killed by a terrorist act together with all the freed bots who have taken residence in their own city, Isaactown: a worldwide robot insurgence – aided by the deactivation of their failsafes – targets all humans and leads to a merciless massacre operated by household helpers against their former masters. Not every automaton chooses that road, however, as Pounce makes it his priority to lead Ezra out of the city toward a place of safety, wherever that might be in a world turned utterly mad.
I loved Pounce’s voice as the storyteller, just as I loved the interactions between him and Ezra who’s forced by the circumstances to mature swiftly but still retains enough childish innocence, but the front and center theme here is the duality between programming and evolution, between responses dictated by code and behavior learned through experience: while the majority of bots chooses to resort to mindless carnage, Pounce – and with him a few others – remains faithful to his task of protecting Ezra, not simply because that’s the directive imprinted by programming but because he acknowledges his love for the child, something that exceeds that programming and shows how adaptive learning can take unexpected paths. There are some interesting musing from Pounce where he questions those protective, loving feelings and wonders whether they are the product of encoded design or the result of his own growth as a thinking entity: I believe that seeing most of his brethren choosing deadly violence, instead of following what should have been their programming, helps him embrace the concept of free will and the perception of what he is and what he wants to be. The concept is well expressed in the conversation between Pounce and another nanny bot:
[…] you choose to save him. You chose to activate Mama Bear. No one told you to do that.
The fact that it didn’t feel like a choice was the choice. You chose to love him like that.
These philosophical considerations are embedded in a non-stop, breathless tale of survival that kept me reading compulsively even though I knew, thanks to Sea of Rust, that humanity was helplessly doomed: this awareness added to the poignancy of the novel and made all the more precious the few moments where emotions and flashes of humor managed to brighten the story and give the reader some much-needed respite. The author’s choice of focusing on the detail of these two people fighting for survival, rather than on the bigger scale of the uprising, gave Day Zero a greater human dimension (and I’m using the word ‘human’ in a very broad sense, of course): Pounce & Co.’s struggle to keep their children safe is imbued with the same level of determination we can see in their opponents as they seek to destroy every living being on the face of the Earth, and mirrors humanity’s conflicting drives, showing how these human constructs have managed to learn both the best and the worst from their creators.
This is particularly true where the appearance of supercomputers is concerned, particularly with CISSUS, which I remember from Sea of Rust: its desire for domination and its insidious negation of robot freedom through the request of joining (Borg-style) an aggregate in which their longed-for individuality will get lost, shows who the “bad guy” really is. Granted, humans might have either taken for granted their helpers, or in some instances mistreated them, but CISSUS is forcibly incorporating other bots with a false promise which barely hides its lust for power – and what’s more, I have developed this theory that the uprising was staged by these supercomputers rather than brought on by the attack on Isaactown, given that the short time between the bombing, the release of the software update freeing the robots from their constraints and the uprising was far too short for a spontaneous reaction. I’d love to hear what other readers think about this…
What I find surprising in Day Zero is that it should have suffered from my foreknowledge of humanity’s extinction, and yet I found it at times uplifting and hopeful if confronted with Sea of Rust: what made all the difference are indeed Pounce’s personality and the way he relates to Ezra. It was so heartwarming and emotional that it counterbalanced my awareness of the impending end of the world, and above all gave me a character that I loved unconditionally and will remain in my imagination for a long time.