“I’m sorry Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.” -HAL 9000, 2001 A Space Odyssey

Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme.  These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.

This column’s theme: Death by robot is a common enough theme, but the books in this month’s Shelf Care take viewpoints on robotic domination that are definitely unique and different than the ones we’ve come to expect from movies like The Terminator or The Matrix.

So if you like:

The movies Mad Max and The Matrix

Wondering what Skynet would have done if it had won

Finding out if the whole is greater than the sum of its parts

You might like

Sea of Rust, by C. Robert Cargill

Where the robot overlords: have long since won.


Brittle, a caregiver robot turned soldier, makes a living scavenging other robots for spare parts in the aptly named Sea of Rust. It’s fifteen years after the last human was killed, and while she thought that would be the end of the fighting, it turns out that winning the war has given rise to even bigger problems.

Sample passage

But I only take scrap from the dead or dying. I don’t wreck perfectly good citizens, not unless I have to, not unless it’s them or me. Whoever was gunning for me had to be a poacher. Or poachers. And poachers see things a little differently. They have no moral compass by which to guide them. Savages, all of them. And at that moment it was them or me.


I’ve never seen an author tackle the idea of a war against the robots where humanity has completely lost, and it provides a unique and interesting setting for the story.  Sea of Rust was well thought out and the plot twists are skillfully set up to make perfect sense without being obvious. The characters are complex enough to be interesting without bogging down the flow of the plot, and the backstory of the robot’s roles in the war informs the decisions they’re making in the present. All in all this was a fantastic read and I highly recommend it.

Or if you like:

Max Brooks’ World War Z, but with zombies swapped for robots

The Animatrix

The movie Ex Machina

Things that keep Elon Musk up at night

You might like

Robopocalypse, by Daniel H. Wilson

Where the robot overlords: are everywhere!


A collected oral history of a robot uprising, recounted by the people that witnessed it firsthand.

Sample passage

This account was reported by fourteen-year-old Mathilda Perez to a fellow survivor in the New York City resistance. It is noteworthy due to the fact that Mathilda is the daughter of Congresswoman Laura Perez (D-Pennsylvania), head of the House Armed Services Committee and author of the robot defense act.


My mom said my toys weren’t alive. “Mathilda,” she said, “just because they walk and talk doesn’t mean your dolls are people.”

Even though Mom said that, I was always careful not to drop my Baby-Comes-Alive. Because if I did drop her, she’d cry and cry. Plus, I always made sure to tiptoe past my little brother’s Dino-bots. If I didn’t stay quiet near them, they’d growl and chomp their plastic teeth. I thought they were mean. Sometimes, when Nolan wasn’t around, I’d kick his Dino-bots. It made them yell and screech, but they’re just toys, right?

They couldn’t hurt me or Nolan. Right?

I didn’t mean to make the toys so mad. Mom said they can’t feel anything. She said the toys only pretend to be happy and sad and mad.

But my mom was wrong.


The after-the-fact collected oral history takes the form of a series of short stories from different people’s perspectives that tell the beginning, middle, and end of a robot uprising, as anything with a chip in it becomes the enemy. There are interesting twists as the tactics evolve on both sides of the fight and ordinary people are left to deal with the consequences, and it’s made more believable by telling the stories of multiple characters – unlike the action movie that this could have easily become, there’s not just a chosen one who’s doing everything. Additional plausibility is added to these scenarios as Wilson is a robotics researcher when he’s not writing books about how his other interests may kill us all.

Or if you like:

Hugh Howey’s Half Way Home

Vernor Vinge

John Christopher’s Tripods trilogy

Wondering how the world got into this state

You might like

The Expert System’s Brother, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Where the robot overlords: are all in your head.


To be severed is a death sentence.  Those subject to it are marked, hunted, and left to survive on whatever mostly poisonous food the wilderness provides. Unfortunately for Handry, the will of the ghosts who pass judgment is never questioned, even when he gets accidentally severed.

Sample passage

Elhern was a greying woman, still strong and stocky. She worked her own farm most of the time, with her two grown sons and a woman she’d taken in, and when you heard her speak, you’d not think she was marked for special wisdom or judgment. Right now, though, it wasn’t Elhern’s judgment we’d come to hear, but the Lawgiver’s.

Her one working eye rolled into her head and the ghostlight flickered in the empty socket of the other and played in a brief halo about her tightly bound hair. She heard the accusations and Sethr’s wheedling denials, but the words went somewhere deeper, to where the ghosts lived. When her lips opened, it wasn’t quite her voice, but something else speaking through her, forcing her throat and tongue to make its words. This was the ghost. This was the Lawgiver.

Community member Sethr verdict guilty. Prognosis: unacceptable burden. Recommended sentence: Severance.”

And Sethr was all howls and pleas then, finally understanding he’d gone too far. He promised he’d mend his ways, but some things just stay broken. The Lawgiver had heard his history and judged that he would never mend enough to pull his weight. He would be cast out for the good of everyone. The Lawgiver had spoken.


This is a pretty fast read, so while I can heartily recommend it, I can’t say too much about the plot without ruining most of it. The feel of it reminded me of Howey’s Half Way Home, although there’s very little overlap in the plots of the two books. Readers will figure out pretty fast that it’s a bioengineered world where some of it’s inhabitants are infected by ‘ghosts’ that remove an eye and grant the victim encyclopedic knowledge on a subject so they can serve their village as doctors, metal workers, carpenters, etc.  This management includes all of the village’s citizens unless one is judged to be more trouble than they’re worth, resulting in their severance from the community.  If you’re looking for a quick read with some interesting ideas and plot twists, you should check this one out.

So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned for my next column, where the theme will be: We’re Getting the Band Back Together.

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