Day Zero by C. Robert Cargill (book review).

In 2017’s ‘Sea Of Rust’, C. Robert Cargill told a tale of the far future where purpose-built robots struggle to survive once they no longer have a purpose, having wiped out humanity to gain their freedom. In the prequel, ‘Day Zero’ we go back to the beginning, to the incident that triggered robotkind to turn on its makers and destroy all human society.

Like the first book, this one is also a brutal, unflinching tale of decisive action and unhesitating self-preservation.

The main character this time round is Pounce, a tiger-shaped nannybot whose primary function is to protect eight year-old Ezra from the travails of childhood. When the world implodes, Pounce discovers that being a cute, cuddly tiger is not enough if he wants to protect Ezra. He’s going to have to be much more like a real tiger. Thus begins a whirlwind trip of carnage and terror as Pounce tries to protect his young ward from the horrors that are happening all around.

At the same time, Pounce starts to question his own motivations. Is he really free to do whatever he wants if what he really wants to do is what he was always programmed to do? These existential questions pepper the non-stop action with seconds of self-doubt and analysis, all accelerated to high processor speed.

The plot of the novel is fairly straightforward and in some way reflects the shoot-’em-ups that Pounce and Ezra like to play. It’s a matter of shooting your way through all obstacles, moving from one set-piece to the next through scenes of destruction, ambushes and hopeless shoot-outs. It’s the interaction with the other robots that make this more than just a linear plot though.

Many of the robots have made different decisions for a variety of reasons: staying loyal to their owners, turning on all humanity in a murderous rampage, going along with genocide for the sake of self-preservation, attempting to exert their own independence or falling in with the giant supercomputers who want to control the world. It turns out that robots are no more reliable or predictable than are humans.

Having already read ‘Sea Of Rust’ wherein all humans are dead, as far as I remember, the outcome of this book seems already certain. Yet that didn’t stop me rooting for Pounce and Ezra along the way, continually hoping they can make it through the next few pages. C. Robert Cargill has done a great job of building up the tension and keeping it ratcheted up constantly with barely a pause to breathe between explosive scenes.

There’s always a danger with little kids being main characters that they’ll be annoyingly precocious or overly sentimental, which is what generally happened in films. That doesn’t happen here though. Ezra obviously goes through a lot and he is very close to Pounce, but their relationship blends in seamlessly with the plot.

It would be interesting to fill in the gaps between ‘Day Zero’ and ‘Sea Of Rust’ and to see what happened in between. There’s no cliff-hanger left for us though so we’re not left in desperation, which is always a relief. What happens next though? I’m still invested enough to want to know.

Gareth D Jones

May 2021

(pub: Gollancz, 2021. 304 page enlarged paperback. Price: £16.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-47321-281-7)

check out website: www.gollancz.com

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