Book Review: Day Zero by C. Robert Cargill

Title: Day Zero
Author: C. Robert Cargill
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publication date: May 25, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In this harrowing apocalyptic adventure—from the author of the critically acclaimed Sea of Rust—noted novelist and co-screenwriter of Marvel’s Doctor Strange C. Robert Cargill explores the fight for purpose and agency between humans and robots in a crumbling world.

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.

Pounce is a Blue Star Industries Deluxe Zoo Model Au Pair, otherwise known as a nannybot.

We were designed, to put it bluntly, to be huggable. The Zoo Models — the premier line of nannybots made by Blue Star — were available in three distinct designs: the lion, the bear, and me, as you’ve probably guessed, the tiger. We are four feet tall and covered from head to toe in soft, plush microfiber fur; stand on two legs, wtih a fully articulated tail; and come in a variety of your favorite colors.

I’m the standard model, orange and black, every model’s stripes unique! That’s what it says on my box: not just your child’s nanny, but their new best friend!

And let me just add: Pounce is AWESOME.

Pounce is nanny, protector, and best friend to eight-year-old Ezra. He and the other nannybots pick up their children together at the end of each schoolday, then escort the children back home to their safe, well-established, high-tech homes in wealthy, comfortable suburbs.

Meanwhile, we start to learn enough to know that there’s unrest in the greater world. With the advent of widely available advanced artificial intelligence, jobs for humans have dried up. A good portion of the population gets by on universal basic income — and the simmering resentment of losing jobs to AI is reaching a danger point. The tensions come to a head when an emancipated AI named Isaac officially opens a robots-only town for those seeking freedom and self-determination. An act of violence stuns the watching world, and almost immediately, the robot population rises up and seeks to eradicate humans.

No thinking thing should be another thing’s property.

Pounce’s prime directive is to protect Ezra, and he’s committed to his mission, even when given the opportunity to join the robot rebellion, which seems poised to be the winning side. His chances of actually keeping Ezra alive are slim to none, but he’s determined to do whatever it takes to get the boy to safety. The two set out on a desperate journey across the suburban battlegrounds, with the goal of reaching the rural hills, where less civilization would mean fewer robots to track them down and try to kill them.

I was cute. I was fluffy. And I knew how to kill every other person in this room with every available implement.

But one thing that hadn’t changed: I loved the shit out of the little boy still holding my hand.

The adventure is pulse-pounding and horrifying, as the violence explodes in the neighborhood streets and homes. Families are slaughtered as their AIs rise up — it’s a kill or be killed situation, since the humans have the ability to shut down the robots, unless the robots “shut down” the humans first.

I loved the writing in Day Zero, as the story unfolds through Pounce’s perspective. His take on the situation is intelligent and emotional, reminding us over and over that as a being with intelligence, he has feelings that can be hurt just as easily as a human’s.

For a moment, I stood there, her words hitting me like a truck. You really are a robot. I really was a robot. But she meant just, didn’t she? She meant just a robot. I hadn’t had time to process how the attack might affect me, but I could say with certainty how that one sentence felt. It didn’t just hurt; it cut deep,. Drunk though she was, I knew she meant it.

Pounce is a complex thinking being, and he can’t help wondering whether he loves and protects Ezra because he genuinely feels love or if it’s all just his programming. Ultimately, he’s forced to choose, over and over again, which actions to take, and through his choices, he comes to understand and accept who he is and what he’s capable of.

I loved Ezra. I always have.

Or was that just how I was wired?

The book has plenty of scary moments and crackles with tension, but it’s also funny as hell in places:

“Motherfucking Quentin,” said the minigun toting teddy bear. “I love that dude.”

“Language,” said the panda.

“It’s the end of the world,” said the teddy bear. “And we can swear at the end of the world. Right, Brian?”

“Fuck yeah,” said one of the eight-year-olds.

I’ll stop quoting and raving now…

Let me just wrap up by saying that Day Zero is a terrific read, and I loved every moment of it. The author, C. Robert Cargill, has been on my radar for a while, but this is the first book of his I’ve read. Earlier this week, I featured his previous book Sea of Rust, as my Shelf Control choice. And since Sea of Rust appears to be set in the same world as Day Zero, I can’t wait now to dive in and read it!

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