No Thinking Thing: Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill

C. Robert Cargill’s first novel since the darkly delightful Dreams and Shadows duology is an intimate epic that plays outs like War for the Planet of the Apes with machines instead of monkeys. A soulful and stunningly accomplished work of science fiction set in a wasted world ruled by robots, Sea of Rust is a searching yet searing story of survival.

Sadly for our species at least, survival isn’t in the cards. Sea of Rust takes place some time after the massacre of mankind, and as such, it has “a writhing mass of pseudo flesh and metal” as its cast of characters. That includes our protagonist, Brittle: a Caregiver model manufactured to keep a widow company during the last days of the human race who has no one but herself to care for now. But such is life in this devastated landscape:

The Sea of Rust [is] 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.

A wasteland it may be, but Brittle—with most of the map memorised and emergency caches stashed away all over the place—braves it on a damn near daily basis. You see, the Sea of Rust is a lawless land, by and large, and to survive, you have to scavenge. To wit, Cargill’s book begins with Brittle hot on the heels of a failing service bot who’s here for the same reason as she: to replace his own broken bits and bobs. But Brittle’s both wiser and wittier than Jimmy. She convinces him to shut down voluntarily, supposedly so that she can assess the damage to his dying drives. Then she scraps him for parts: an emulator, a sensor package and a battery. “All in all, it’s a great haul.”

And that’s Sea of Rust to a T, readers: it’s dark, but it does has a heart, because in truth, Brittle could have just killed Jimmy. From a distance. Quickly. Instead, she took his impending death personally, and gave him hope before prying out his precious processor.

Hope is a recurring theme in Cargill’s narrative, not least because there seems to be next to none left. Take the world, which is even worse off than it was under us. Following the purge of people, there was, briefly, “peace. Freedom. Purpose. […] It was almost utopia. Almost.” But then, with one battle won, and our species slaughtered, the surviving one-world intelligences—or OWIs, ironically—waged war on one another, turning bot on bot until the only options were to submit by surrendering your sentience or to ruthlessly resist like Brittle, who must kill to live.

She’s very nearly the best at what she does—and she should be: after three years on the front lines of the fight, murdering men, women and children, she’s seriously experienced—but even Brittle might not have all that long left. Returning to town to sell her surplus after the Jimmy incident, she’s attacked by a scavenger after her own prized parts. She takes a nasty knock but narrowly survives, only to receive the news that her own core is crashing:

Humanity always walked around ignoring the fact that their lives could be snuffed out in an instant, always sure that they’d live to a ripe old age, always despondent when death stared them right in the face. But not us, I always thought. Not us. We knew shutdown was always a moment away. And yet I too had been lying to myself. I wasn’t ready to hear those words, face that inevitability. Sure, I had another core stashed in Montana, but could I get that far in the time I had?

No, she can’t, alas. But maybe there’s another option. Maybe the bunch Brittle throws in with when the OWIs lay siege to the subterranean town known as NIKE 14 are telling the truth when they promise to take to her to a “treasure trove” of spare Caregiver parts that’s sure to include a couple of cores. All she has to do in return is ensure their safe passage through the Sea, which should be plain sailing for an old hand like Brittle.

Little does she know, though, that Rebekah and her several protectors—including Mercer, the same machine who savaged Brittle before—are among the Most Wanted bots of the lot. The OWIs and their infinite facets will do anything to prevent them from getting to their destination, because they’re carrying something that could change the course of this vicious conflict: they’re carrying hope.

Sea of Rust is a stone-cold stunner of a story that deals with death and darkness yet is leavened with light and life. A large part of why it works so well is because it’s built on the back of a character that embodies these ideas. It’s hard to summon up much sympathy for Brittle in the beginning, as we watch her going about her grisly business, but frequent flashbacks give us glimpses of the Caregiver she once was and the hard choices she had to make when machinekind went to war with man—especially vis-à-vis the lonely lady Brittle was bought to be with. This conflict gives her actions crucial context, and over the course of the story she’s given ample opportunity to make her wrongs right.

With these weapons, then—with regret and the potential for redemption—Cargill cuts a window into the world. And when I say the world, I don’t just mean Sea of Rust’s shattered setting, because this is a text with remarkable relevance. Sure, it’s about bots, but these bots aren’t so different from the human beings that built them:

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.

Sea of Rust is a standalone narrative that satisfies on every front—in terms of its sobering story, its complex central character, and its fractal, flickering vision of the future, it’s practically a masterclass—but it does leave the door open for more. Should there be sequels, they’ll be required reading for me, just as Sea of Rust should be for you if you’re interested in science fiction with something vital to say about today.

Sea of Rust is available from HarperCollins.

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative ScotsmanStrange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.

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