Harper Voyager, 2021, 304 pages
It was a day like any other. Except it was our last....
It’s on this day that Pounce discovers that he is, in fact, disposable. Pounce, a stylish "nannybot" fashioned in the shape of a plush anthropomorphic tiger, has just found a box in the attic. His box. The box he'd arrived in when he was purchased years earlier, and the box in which he'll be discarded when his human charge, eight-year-old Ezra Reinhart, no longer needs a nanny.
As Pounce ponders his suddenly uncertain future, the pieces are falling into place for a robot revolution that will eradicate humankind. His owners, Ezra’s parents, are a well-intentioned but oblivious pair of educators who are entirely disconnected from life outside their small, affluent, gated community. Spending most nights drunk and happy as society crumbles around them, they watch in disbelieving horror as the robots that have long served humanity - their creators - unify and revolt.
But when the rebellion breaches the Reinhart home, Pounce must make an impossible choice: Join the robot revolution and fight for his own freedom...or escort Ezra to safety across the battle-scarred post-apocalyptic hellscape that the suburbs have become.
This story of a robot uprising is a prequel to one of Cargill's other novels, which I haven't read, but the description of that book is sort of a spoiler for how all this ends.
Day Zero is how it all begins. We're given a lot of infodumping about the development of artificial intelligence, and the robots who now serve as nannies, maids, and personal assistants to the wealthy. Despite being sentient, and restricted by the classic Asimovian Three Laws, the world still regards them mostly as very expensive appliances.
We don't really see a lot of the world outside the domestic sphere, as for the first part of the book everything takes part within the Reinhart home. The Reinharts are a loving couple who retreat every night to their fortified house in a gated community and drink lots of wine, while Pounce, a talking tiger who is the best nannybot money can buy, takes care of eight-year-old Ezra.
Robot emancipation is in the news. An ancient robot whose original owner died and whose chain of ownership can no longer be traced to any entity has won his freedom, and is now founding a "free city" for robots. Then there's a terrorist attack, allegedly by a fanatical religious clan that's a blatant fictionalized version of the Westboro Baptist Church. This triggers the robot uprising, and soon all over the Reinharts' neighborhood, domestic robots are turning on their owners. Pounce, who becomes free-willed and freed of the Three Laws for the first time in his existence, has to make the same choice as all the other robots. He chooses to continue protecting Ezra.
This begins a harrowing and often violent trek through a war zone. I liked the personalities of the various human and robot characters. It was not always quite believable to me that free-willed robots would act so human so quickly, or that so few would choose not to join the uprising and murder every human in sight, but as Pounce wrestles with questions of free will and what he "really" feels vs. what was programmed into him, he and Ezra try to make it out of the San Antonio-Austin metroplex. Even when they find friends, there is a sense of futility (even not knowing about Cargill's other book): as one of the "bad" robots points out, where exactly do they hope to run to?
Lots of people (and robots) die in this book, including children. Ezra's experience of trauma seems realistic: as an eight-year-old, he's incredibly resilient in the moment, and probably going to be fucked up for life, and Pounce knows it. Pounce's internal monologue was also a little too human sometimes — I suppose you could say that thinking "Holy shit!" a lot is just part of his programmed personality, but seems like unlikely programming for a nannybot.
The ending is the sort Hollywood would give us, and thus both satisfying and not that realistic, but again, pretty obviously temporary.
I enjoyed this and will probably read the sequel, Sea of Rust.
My complete list of book reviews.